For LSU, it's sweet relief

21-14 Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma makes Tigers' case for title

Sooners' comeback falls short

Late drives end with drop of tipped pass in end zone, sack on fourth down

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 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 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 second-ranked Tigers nearly turned what looked like a blowout into a blew it, barely holding on for a 21-14 victory and likely gaining at least a share of the national championship.

It would be LSU's first national title in 45 years.

"It's probably been the most resilient team with the best team chemistry and character that I've been around as a coach," Tigers coach Nick Saban said. "They believe in themselves, they believe in each other. This game is no different than a lot of games this year."

Today, it will be college football's turn to scratch its collective head when there is likely to be a split national champion for the first time since 1997. Southern California, ranked first in both human polls but third by the BCS, is all but assured of receiving its share with the Associated Press media voters.

But should LSU get the other half?

The uneven performance by the Tigers threw more fuel on this heated debate, and it will be up to the 37 coaches who vote in the ESPN/USA Today poll to decide whether to fulfill their mandated contract by choosing the winner of the Sugar Bowl game.

The Sooners, ranked first in the final BCS poll, certainly made things interesting after sleepwalking through the first three quarters. They wound up waking up too late and making one costly mistake at the end.

After driving from its 39 to the LSU 12 behind the powerful running of tailback Kejuan Jones, Oklahoma stalled. A fourth-down pass from Heisman Trophy winner Jason White was dropped by All-America wide-out Mark Clayton in the end zone.

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

After taking a 14-7 lead at halftime, LSU seemed to break the game open on the first possession of the second half.

On first down from his team's 20, White was sacked for a 3-yard loss by junior defensive end Marcus Spears. On the next play, Spears intercepted a short pass over the middle by White and rumbled untouched into the end zone. The Sooners looked as if they were repeating their Kansas State nightmare.

It appeared that Mauck was going to lead the Tigers on a scoring drive, but after getting down to Oklahoma 5, a double penalty against LSU negated a 35-yard field goal by Ryan Gaudet. The Tigers faked a 52-yard attempt and nearly scored, with sophomore tight end David Jones (Silver Spring) stepping out at the 6.

The Sooners got a reprieve, and mounted their comeback. After Mauck was intercepted by Brodney Pool, the Oklahoma safety returned it 49 yards to the LSU 31. After the LSU secondary made two acrobatic plays to swat away passes, White connected with Mark Clayton for a 19-yard gain on fourth-and-11.

Four plays later, Kejuan Jones scored from a yard out for the Sooners to help cut the deficit to 21-14 with a little over 11 minutes left in the game.

For a game that lacked some sizzle going into the night, LSU's Justin Vincent, who had 16 carries for 117 yards and earned the game's Most Valuable Player honors, provided an immediate spark. Vincent took a handoff on the first play from scrimmage and cut twice before racing into the clear. Only a last-gasp ankle tackle by Oklahoma's Derrick Strait saved the Sooners from giving up the early touchdown.

"I never expected to win the MVP," said Vincent, who started the year as a fifth-string tailback. "The coaches told me what to do when I did it basically. I couldn't have done it without my teammates and coaches."

Unfortunately for LSU, the match that Vincent provided didn't light immediately.

The Tigers couldn't capitalize on Vincent's 64-yard romp to the Oklahoma 16. In what set the tone for a mistake-filled first half, Mauck fumbled a snap after the Tigers reached the 2-yard line. The Sooners gave it right back, with White getting intercepted by LSU's Corey Webster after throwing into double coverage.

This time, the Tigers took advantage of Oklahoma's turnover and favorable field position set up by Webster's 18-yard return to the Sooners' 32. After another potential LSU turnover - a fumble by Vincent - was negated by an offside call against the Sooners, wide receiver Skyler Green took an end-around 24 yards for a touchdown.

Oklahoma's defense and special teams helped the Sooners get back into the game.

After the defense stopped the Tigers on downs deep in LSU territory, twice sacking Mauck, Oklahoma finally made a big play when Brandon Shelby blocked a punt by Donnie Jones and Russell Dennison recovered at the LSU 2. Three plays later, tailback Kejuan Jones scored from the 1 to help tie the game at 7.

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