From fifth-string to `fantasyland,' freshman Vincent sparks LSU's run

Injuries to top tailbacks open starting job as Tigers ride rookie to title win

College Football

January 06, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Justin Vincent came into his freshman year at Louisiana State listed as the fifth-string tailback. Vincent figured he would get most of his playing time on special teams and might wind up sitting out as a redshirt.

Vincent finished his first season of college football as LSU's leading rusher and one of its biggest stars.

With a 117-yard performance that was punctuated by a 64-yard run on his team's opening play, Vincent helped the Tigers to a 21-14 victory Sunday night over Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and to a share of this season's national championship.

Immediately after the game, LSU (13-1) was awarded the No. 1 ranking by the ESPN/USA Today poll of coaches, who gave the Tigers 60 of the 63 first-place votes. Southern California (12-1) was voted No. 1 by the Associated Press poll of writers and broadcasters. The Trojans received 48 of the 65 first-place votes.

Being named the game's Most Valuable Player didn't seem to faze Vincent.

"The rise of the team is more important to me," Vincent said yesterday at a news conference. "Like I said a couple of times before, it's like fantasyland for me. It really hasn't set in, because everything happened so fast. I guess in the last six or seven weeks, I grew up a lot."

Vincent got his chance when LSU's top two tailbacks, junior Shyrone Carey and sophomore Joseph Addai, both sustained injuries earlier in the season. Vincent started the last eight games, and his performance at the Louisiana Superdome pushed him 1 yard over the 1,000-yard mark for the season.

"Justin did everything he could do in terms of the way he worked, the way he prepared, the way he tried to improve as a player," said LSU coach Nick Saban. "His opportunity came because of some misfortune for other players. But he prepared himself as well as any player on our team to take advantage of his opportunity."

Vincent, the first true freshman to be named MVP in a national championship game since Herschel Walker led Georgia over Notre Dame in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, credited some of the team's older players for his success.

"For me being a freshman, I did hang out with the seniors a lot," said Vincent. "I hung out with [offensive guard] Steve Peterman a lot, and he's like a great mentor to me. I couldn't ask for more in a teammate and a person. He showed me the ropes, took me aside and told me not to get a big head and not take everything so fast."

Though the Tigers didn't take advantage of Vincent's opening burst - quarterback Matt Mauck fumbled at the Oklahoma 1-yard line - they turned the first of two interceptions against Heisman Trophy winner Jason White into the game's first touchdown and didn't fold when the Sooners blocked a punt and quickly tied the game.

Vincent was at the back end of a nine-play, 80-yard drive, finishing it with runs of 12 yards and 18 yards. Saban called that drive the key part of the game, and characteristic of his team's play this season. Like their freshman tailback, the Tigers were an opportunistic bunch who seemed to turn every bit of adversity into a rallying cause.

"I don't think it's destiny involved, but rather the character and attitude that it takes to have that kind of resiliency that allows you to be successful," said Saban.

Now comes the hard part: what the Tigers are going to do for an encore. LSU might lose defensive stars Marcus Spears and Corey Webster to the NFL, and Mauck, 24, is considering whether to skip his senior year to start dental school.

Potentially, the biggest loss could be Saban himself. A former NFL assistant who finished his fourth season at LSU, Saban has been mentioned prominently as a candidate to fill coaching vacancies for both the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. He did not give any promises yesterday that he would be back in Baton Rouge next season.

Saban said that he has seen a new proposal for his contract, which currently has a clause stating that he would become the highest-paid coach in the country (surpassing the $2.3 million annual package for Oklahoma's Bob Stoops) if the Tigers were to win a national championship.

"I'm happy to be at LSU," said Saban. `This is a tremendous accomplishment for our football program. As I've said before, I hope it's the beginning and now the end of being a dominant football program. I'm very happy and proud to be at LSU."

Having a group of young players led by Vincent and freshman safety LaRon Landry (LSU's leading tackler this season) could be incentive enough for Saban to return. Saban, 52, has said that money isn't the main issue.

Nor does he seem too distressed about sharing the national championship with Southern California, or with the three coaches who decided to go against the agreement between the American Football Coaches Association and the BCS, which states that all coaches voting in the ESPN/USA Today poll must select the Sugar Bowl winner as national champion.

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