For LSU, it's sweet relief

21-14 Sugar Bowl victory gives Tigers BCS crown, top rank in coaches' poll

USC is voted No. 1 by media

Late Oklahoma drives end with drop of tipped pass in end zone, 4th-down sack

January 05, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Confusion reigned at the Louisiana Superdome last night. It seemed appropriate, given the state of college football this season regarding the way it determines the national champion with that quirky quagmire called the Bowl Championship Series.

First, it was third-ranked Oklahoma, self-destructing its way into a 14-point deficit against the No. 2 Louisiana State Tigers and their hordes of rowdy fans who clogged the streets of the Big Easy before the Sugar Bowl before filling most of the 79,342 seats inside the building.

Then, it was LSU's turn. The Tigers nearly turned what looked like a blowout into a blew it, barely holding on for a 21-14 victory and gaining a share of the national championship. As a result, LSU (13-1) won its first national title since 1958.

Now, it is college football's turn to scratch its collective head because there is a split national champion for the first time since 1997. Southern California, 12-1 and ranked first in both human polls but third by the BCS, finished first in the Associated Press media poll. The uneven performance by the Tigers threw more fuel on this heated debate. When the ESPN/USA Today poll was announced early this morning, LSU was voted No. 1 over the Trojans but three of the 63 coaches chose to ignore their mandate of voting for the winner of the Sugar Bowl by picking USC No. 1.

"It's probably the most resilient team with the best team chemistry and competitive spirit and character I've ever been around as a coach," LSU coach Nick Saban said. "They believed in themselves, they believed in each other. This team has been able to do what it needed to do all year."

For the second straight game, the Sooners (12-2) did not. While Oklahoma showed some of the fight it lacked in losing badly to Kansas State in last month's Big 12 championship game, the Sooners and Heisman Trophy winner Jason White also demonstrated their flaw.

The nation's most prolific offense was kept in check for most of the night. While tailback Kejuan Jones broke out at times in the second half, he was held to 59 yards on 20 attempts. White finished 13 of 37 for 102 yards, getting sacked five times and throwing two interceptions.

"He's Mr. Heisman and we wanted to go at him all night," said LSU defensive end Marquise Hill. "That's a big award, and if you win it, you're going to pay for it. I said to him, `Excuse me, Mr. Heisman, I'm going to be coming at you all night. I think our conference [the SEC] is the hardest, and Jason White wasn't anything we hadn't seen before."

Said Oklahoma tailback Kejuan Jones: "They didn't do anything different from what Kansas State did. They stepped up with everything that they did, and we didn't. They just kept fighting and got tougher as the game went on. They never gave up. I'm happy for those guys winning."

Oklahoma, first in the final BCS standings, certainly made things interesting after sleepwalking through the first three quarters. The Sooners wound up waking up too late and making two costly mistake on their next to last drive.

After Oklahoma drove from its 39 to the LSU 12 behind the running of Jones, Sooners coach Bob Stoops inexplicably went to the air. White missed on his last eight passes, overthrowing Jones in the end zone and then watching All-America Mark Clayton drop an apparent touchdown pass with just under three minutes left.

"We figured they were playing a little soft," Clayton said later. "We were trying to hit Travis [Wilson] on a quick skinny post. They tipped it a little, and it just dropped too fast and I couldn't grab it."

Asked about his team's late-game offense, Stoops said: "I'm not going to sit here and second-guess my coaches for making play calls. I'm not going to sit here and act like that just because our guys didn't make plays - we probably should have made some better decisions as coaches, too. Maybe they [the Tigers] were a little tired on that drive and we should have stuck with it [the running game]."

The Sooners got one more chance after stopping the Tigers on downs and taking possession at their own 49 with 2:09 left in the game. Four plays later - three incompletions by White and a sack by linebacker Lionel Turner - the Tigers had yet another opportunity to wrap up their victory.

This time, they did, running out the clock with quarterback Matt Mauck taking a knee three straight times and then calling a timeout with nine seconds left. The Tigers punted as the clock ran out and the pro-LSU crowd roared its approval.

The purple-clad fans who made the Sugar Bowl seem like a Prince concert kept roaring as the celebration and post-game ceremony continued, with Saban receiving the crystal trophy and freshman tailback Justin Vincent accepting the award as the game's Most Valuable player.

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