For LSU, Mauck's experience is calming

QB, 24, has young Tigers on verge of national title heading into Sugar Bowl

College Football

January 02, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

The last time a college football national championship game was played at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the winning quarterback was both overage and overlooked compared with his counterpart on the opposing team.

Four seasons ago, it was Chris Weinke, then 27, doing more than enough to lead Florida State past Virginia Tech and Michael Vick to win the Sugar Bowl. Will history repeat itself for Louisiana State's Matt Mauck this year?

At 24, Mauck is only one year older than Oklahoma's Jason White. While White won the Heisman Trophy, Mauck won only the respect of his teammates, coaches and opponents in leading the second-ranked Tigers to the same 12-1 record as the No. 3 Sooners.

"We're 12-1 with him as our quarterback, and his career as a starter is like 18-and-something [actually 17-2], so he wins games, and that is the best thing you can say about a quarterback," said offensive tackle Rodney Reed. "He's led us to the national championship [game], and he'll put us in position to win."

Mauck, who like Weinke gave up on a minor league baseball career to play football, put his experience to use this season to keep a young LSU team from getting too carried away.

Except for throwing two interceptions in a 19-7 loss to Florida, Mauck has been consistent and, at times, spectacular. While finishing first in the Southeastern Conference in pass efficiency, Mauck completed 216 of 336 passes for 2,701 yards. He threw 28 touchdowns and was intercepted 12 times.

"His maturity allows him to adjust and adapt and be more effective in most situations than a younger player might be," LSU coach Nick Saban said before this year's Southeastern Conference championship game win over Georgia. "It also enhances his ability as a quarterback."

Like his counterpart in Sunday's game, Mauck used an injury to broaden his repertoire. Once a noted scrambler like White, Mauck tore ligaments in his right foot last season and missed the last seven games. The Tigers were 4-1 and had won four straight at the time of his injury.

"I knew I was going to work as hard as I could to get back, but I did not really know if I would," said Mauck. "It was a pretty serious injury. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to come back and compete. I became more comfortable doing more things as a quarterback than I had before."

LSU fans who had booed Mauck at times during his career welcomed him back after the Tigers won only three of the seven games they played without him. Perhaps because of his age and his background playing catcher in the minor leagues, Mauck has been able to handle the pressures that comes with the job.

"He is a calming force," said Saban. "He makes sure that we are in the right play, and he contributes to the chemistry of the offense. He helps us be a balanced offense and a good third-down team. He understands that our skilled players must impact the game, and he helps that happen."

Mauck certainly appreciates where his career has gone. After playing three seasons in the farm system of the Chicago Cubs and never advancing past Single-A, Mauck called a number of coaches who had recruited him out of Jasper, Ind.

He settled on LSU because of Saban, who had moved from Michigan State to LSU while Mauck was chasing curveballs. Though the transition to Baton Rouge was not always easy for someone who had spent his first 20 years in the Midwest, Mauck said he was happy to give up the long bus rides and cheap hotels.

"I think more so than just football, being in school helped, too," said Mauck. "When you're playing minor league baseball and not having a lot of success, you feel like you're kind of drifting through life a little bit. I think having it in the back of your mind that you can get an education as well as play football, that is really comforting."

Having played sparingly as a freshman, Mauck found himself in the spotlight of the SEC championship game when an injury sidelined LSU starter Rohan Davey.

"I think it gave me a lot of confidence to know that I could be a quarterback in the SEC," recalled Mauck, who ran for two touchdowns in a 31-20 upset of Tennessee.

Playing in the shadows of quarterbacks such as Florida's Rex Grossman and Mississippi's Eli Manning the past two years, Mauck has quietly put together a solid career. Now comes the hard part: whether or not to play out his senior season in 2004 or move on to his next career - dentistry.

Having recently received his undergraduate degree, Mauck and his fiancee, Jill Klem, are planning to be married next month. Though another season might help Mauck get drafted into the NFL, Mauck could be putting his time to better use in dental school.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. I'm going to wait until after the season," said Mauck. I really don't know [whether the outcome of the Sugar Bowl will affect his decision], because I haven't had the opportunity to go through it before."

But the player some of his teammates call "Gramps" is honest with himself about the future. He would like to get a shot at the NFL, but he knows from first-hand experience that being a professional athlete doesn't automatically mean million-dollar contracts. That's why dental school seems like a viable option.

Four years ago, while Weinke was disproving critics and leading Florida State to victory at the Sugar Bowl, Mauck was watching. Little did he know that the road through Baton Rouge would lead right down the interstate to New Orleans for the biggest game of his life.

"I kind of looked at that as you can come back and kind of have success," said Mauck.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Sugar Bowl

Matchup: No. 2 LSU (12-1) vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (12-1)

Site: Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans

When: Sunday, 8 p.m.

TV: Chs. 2, 7

Line: Oklahoma by 6 1/2

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