Saturday, September 24, 2016

Strap 'em up

With Auburn and LSU slated to do battle tonight, it feels right to re-publish my post from 2013:

Saturday night will bring this year's installment of one of the most underrated rivalries in college football.

It's understandable that no one thinks of Auburn-LSU as being in the same league as the big rivalry games that close out each season -- games like Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State, and Florida-Florida State. But when it comes to mid-season barnburners, it is not understandable why so many people fail to put Auburn-LSU in the same category as classics like Florida-Georgia, Michigan-Notre Dame, and Washington-Oregon.

The two schools are high profile members of America's strongest conference; play in the same division within that conference; frequently contend for its championship; and in many seasons contend for the national championship.

Auburn and LSU have staged some of the most heated games in the entire sport over the last generation, many of which have been marked by the kind of weird happenstances that make sports appealing. Some of the happenstances are so unique that the games are known more for them than for who won.

Below are my favorite battles between the Auburn Tigers and LSU Tigers that I have witnessed with my own eyes, whether from the stands or from my couch. Rather than artificially limit the list to a "top three" or "top five," I am simply giving my favorites. Rather than undertake the impossible task of ranking them first, second, etc., I am listing them chronologically. And just to show off my fair-mindedness, I am even including ones that Auburn didn't win! Here goes:

1988:  LSU 7, Auburn 6
aka "The Earthquake Game" - 25 years ago, defenses were allowed to ply their trade with ferocity and low-scoring games were some of the most exciting around. On an intense night in Baton Rouge, two punishing defenses put the clamps on the opposing offenses for most of the night and Auburn was ahead 6-0 in the final two minutes.

Then LSU made it halfway into the red zone... Then, in classic style, Auburn bowed up, became seemingly impenetrable, and forced LSU into a 4th-and-10 at the 11-yard-line -- only to end up on the wrong side of destiny when Tommy Hodson completed a touchdown pass to Eddie Fuller in the back of the end zone... When Fuller caught the ball, the roar from the crowd was so loud that its vibrations set off a seismograph in the school's Geology Department. Hence the nickname.

1989:  Auburn 10, LSU 6
aka "We Owe You, LSU" - One year later, that is what was emblazoned on the gameday shirts sold at Tiger Rags, which were everywhere on Auburn's campus as the afternoon kickoff approached. When it arrived, the teams embarked on a near mirror image of the Earthquake Game. The defenses again controlled the action but this time it was LSU holding a slim, 6-3 lead in the fourth quarter. Despite gaining more yardage, Auburn had been unable to get an upper hand in field position thanks to the booming punts of LSU's Rene Bourgeois.

Midway through the fourth, Shayne Wasden turned the tables by fielding a Bourgeois punt and dodging an early wave of tacklers, then turning upfield and racing 33 yards before being brought down. With good field position finally in hand, Auburn marched to the end zone in five plays, the most notable of which was a 31-yard strike from Reggie Slack to tight end Victor Hall. Stacy Danley powered over the goal line from a yard out with 6:07 remaining and the defense made the lead hold up.

It might not have been the most entertaining contest in the series, but it was a nail-biter that featured an extremely high level of play -- and as an out of state freshman, it was the first game I ever attended at hallowed Jordan-Hare Stadium.

1994:  Auburn 30, LSU 26
aka "The Interception Game" - With a score like that, this had to be a showdown filled with prolific offense, right? Wrong. What makes it a classic is that all 30 of Auburn's points were scored by their defense: a safety, a fumble recovery in the end zone for one touchdown, and interception returns for the other three touchdowns. The three pick-sixes alone make it a classic oddity, for with twelve minutes remaining LSU had the ball, was ahead 23-9, and Auburn hadn't put together a drive all afternoon. Then, inexplicability ensued.

Jamie Howard threw over the middle and was picked off by Ken Alvis, who returned it 41 yards to the house to give the other Tigers a shot of hope... One minute later Howard was picked off again, this time by Fred Smith, who ran it back 32 yards and suddenly the game was tied at 23... LSU then went on a long, clock-consuming drive that ended with a field goal to put them back up 26-23, after which Auburn went three and out and LSU took over with 3:42 remaining... Apparently having learned nothing from the three preceding series, they went right back to the passing game. This time Howard threw into triple coverage, the ball was tipped, and Brian Robinson plucked it from the air and raced to the end zone for the winning score.

The oddness wasn't over yet, however. LSU drove to the Auburn 25, from which Howard again threw into triple coverage and was intercepted by Robinson... During his return, Robinson was stripped of the ball and LSU recovered at midfield to give themselves one more chance... But of course, Howard through yet another interception, this time in the end zone to Chris Shelling.

1996:  LSU 19, Auburn 15
aka "The Barn Fire Game" - If LSU could gift a game to Auburn with mindless interceptions in 1994, the refs could gift one to LSU two years later. An Auburn receiver (I think it was Karsten Bailey) was clearly inbounds when he hauled in a would-be touchdown in the east end zone, but the zebras said he was not. ESPN sideline reporter Kellen Winslow stood over the spot with cameras rolling and pointed at the divot left in the turf by the receiver's foot, referring to it as "real evidence" because there was considerable pristine space between it and the sideline.

LSU fans will say that call did not necessarily determine the outcome because it happened in the middle of the game, and will instead claim that a frenetic turn in the final 38 seconds was the decisive moment. That was when Auburn, trailing 17-9, pulled within 17-15 on a TD run by Rusty Williams. They went for two to tie it up, but Raion Hill intercepted Jon Cooley's pass and returned it all the way, which gave the two points to the Bayou Bengals instead of the hometown Tigers.

In any event, few people mention either of those things when they talk about this one. What they remember is that a plume of black smoke billowed over the west end zone in the first half and caused some to wonder if the stadium was on fire. It was another structure across the street that was going up in flames: the antiquated Auburn Sports Arena, affectionately dubbed "The Barn" because of its woodenness and shape. It housed basketball games in days of yore and in more recent decades had been home to the women's gymnastics team. I used to walk past it on my way to class, turn my head to see through its open doors, and steal glimpses of the gymnasts practicing in their leotards. Sadly, the old barn passed into the pages of history before this game reached halftime, and the cause of the blaze remains unsolved.

1997:  Auburn 31, LSU 28
aka "The No Name Game" - A moniker has not been given to this one because it contained no weirdness or singular play on which to hang your naming hat. Nevertheless, it belongs on any list of outstanding games because it was chock full of wild momentum swings and it ranks as one of the most crisply played SEC battles I have ever watched.

Defensive tackle Anthony "Booger" McFarland bulldozed his way into the Auburn backfield all night long, but couldn't stop quarterback Dameyune Craig from finding receivers downfield at key moments. Craig finished 23 of 45 for 342 yards and two touchdowns. Rusty Williams's one-yard TD run with 30 seconds left secured the win and exorcised the ghosts of his non-tying touchdown in The Barn Fire Game.

2004:  Auburn 10, LSU 9
aka "The Game of Kicks" - LSU was the defending national champion, and though nobody knew it at the time, Auburn was embarking on a 13-0 season that was one of the greatest in recent college football history. The Bayou Bengals led 9-3 for much of the day and would have been up 10-3 if their kicker hadn't missed an extra point. Late in the game, QB Jason Campbell led Auburn on a 60-yard, 12-play, 5-minute drive that culminated with him finding Courtney Taylor along the baseline of the end zone for a perfect 16-yard scoring strike with 1:14 left.

Because John Vaughn was the torch-bearer in an Auburn streak of 190 consecutive extra points without a miss, it seemed like a sure bet that AU was about to go up 10-9, but his kick sailed wide left and the crowd at Jordan-Hare was stunned silent. The silence was temporary, however, for LSU's Ronnie Purdue had come across the line early and committed a personal foul, so Vaughn's miss didn't count. Given a second chance, he put it through the uprights and the blue-and-orange-clad Tigers prevailed by one.

2005:  LSU 20, Auburn 17 (Double OT)
aka "The John Vaughn Game" - Vaughn narrowly missed being a goat on his home turf in 2004, but could not escape being one on the road in 2005. All you need to know is this: Auburn lost by one field goal, and he missed five... Had he made just one of the four he missed in regulation, this game never would have gone to overtime; and to make matters worse, he missed what would have been a game-winning field goal in the first OT... Auburn fans everywhere (including yours truly) called for his head and eight years later remember him only as a choker, which might not be fair when you consider that he graduated as the program's all-time leading scorer. Perhaps his gravestone should read: "If Only I Didn't Have To Play LSU."

2007:  LSU 30, Auburn 24
aka "The Fourth Down Game" - 
LSU was widely considered the best team in the nation and was on its way to winning its second national title in five seasons. Auburn was a good team slugging through a mid-season slump, and was determined to reverse its course in the hostile environment of Baton Rouge. Against the expectations of all outsiders, Auburn hung tough and went ahead 24-23 in the fourth quarter, only to see LSU reach the Auburn 22 -- well within field goal range -- with eight seconds left and a timeout to burn.

Everyone who despises Les Miles's tendency to do foolish things and get away with it gnashed their teeth at what happened next. Rather than use the timeout to bring out the kicking team for a practically guaranteed win, he chose to call another offensive play and run the risk of the clock expiring if it didn't work -- except it did work, as Matt Flynn connected with Demetrius Boyd on a perfectly executed fade pass in the corner of the end zone.

2010:  Auburn 24, LSU 17
aka "The Heisman Game" - I have not heard anyone besides me refer to this as "the Heisman Game," but everyone knows it is what established Cam Newton as the can't-be-stopped front-runner for the trophy when he pulled off this run. Keep in mind that that is future NFL All-Pro Patrick Peterson he drags into the end zone at the end.

More importantly, this game solidified Auburn's standing as a national title contender, and as everyone knows they went on to win the national championship with a 14-0 record. As dazzling as Newton's touchdown was, Onterio McCalebb's winning score on a 70-yard explosion with five minutes remaining is remembered just as fondly. You can watch it here by fast-forwarding to the 2:05 mark.

On the face of things, LSU appears to be quite the better team this year. But the same was true last year and Auburn came within a whisker of winning despite fielding their worst team in six decades. Considering that, and considering this rivalry's history over the past generation, I would not be surprised to see a knockdown-dragout to the end. I think everyone should watch.

Note:  My closing paragraph in that post was hopeful yet muted. In the end, hope won out. Auburn lost the game after falling way behind in the first half, but their impressive second half rally proved to be the season's turning point and the game turned out to be the only one they lost. Auburn went on to win the SEC and play in the national championship game, which they lost by a fingertip when Florida State scored a last minute TD on a pass against a DB who was much shorter than the receiver.

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