NEW ORLEANS - All year long the LSU Tigers have done it with defense.
Sunday night in the Louisiana Superdome, the Tigers showcased its fearsome defense on the nation's grandest stage – the BCS National Championship game in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
Throughout 13 games, LSU dismantled opponent after opponent with a suffocating defensive attack.
With 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter, junior linebacker Lionel Turner put an exclamation point on the nation's top-rated defense. Sacking Heisman Trophy winner Jason White on a fourth and nine play, Turner thwarted Oklahoma's final offensive surge as LSU went on to celebrate its first national title in 45 years defeating the Sooners 21-14.
More than 50,000 ardent LSU admirers roared in approval as the Tigers were presented the ADT National Championship and Sugar Bowl trophies in a postgame celebration.
"I could never imagine the enthusiasm and the support and the passion that the people of this state has given our football team ever since I've been here," Saban said. "And I think that's something that really you appreciate. That so many people have so much passion for what you do."
National analysts from ESPN and ABC stated LSU could have beaten any team in the country on Sunday, in a very partial Superdome. Playing in front of the largest crowd ever to see a sporting event in the Superdome (79,342), only The Rolling Stones crowd of 87,500 was bigger in 1981.
"It's a great job, it's a great thrill, and I just can't tell you how pleased I am that our football team could do something that the people of the State of Louisiana can really, really, really be proud of," Saban said. "And I know they are proud of it. I have never seen such spirit for an event that I witnessed here in the last couple days. And what a great atmosphere to play a football game in with our fans out there today. And it's been that way all year long."
The discussion now grows more heated over the USC Trojans and LSU and a split national championship. Finding mixed results in both final polls, the Tigers claimed 60 of 63 first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll while USC, as expected, was voted No. 1 in the Associated Press Poll.
LSU defensive end Marquise Hill sacks OU
quarterback Jason White. (Photo by Dennis Hodges)
"After we won the game, about 20 seniors who put in a lot of hard work got to go up on that stage and hold up that crystal ball," said senior offensive tackle Rodney Reed. "Whoever holds up the crystal ball is usually the national champions. If it's co-national champions or whether it's single, it doesn't matter. We're still national champions and I think we're the best team in the country."
While many feel the Trojans have a rightful claim to No. 1, LSU stated its case dominating the Bowl Championship Series' top-ranked team. The Tigers held Oklahoma, the nation's top-rated offense, to a season-low for yards limiting the Sooners to a mere 154 total offensive yards on 70 snaps, an average of 2.2 yards per play.
"All I know is the powers that be selected us to be here," said LSU quarterback Matt Mauck. "We just received a trophy. We won the SEC Championship. I don't know how you could not consider us the national champions."
Just moments after being dubbed national champions, LSU players were not about to allow talk of USC and a split national title spoil the mood.
"This game has been set up like this for a long time," said LSU defensive end Marcus Spears. "We have been using this system and this is the system we deal with and we are national champions in our minds because we feel like we deserved it and we earned everything we got."
White made Heisman voters blush in shame completing just 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards with a pair of interceptions. Both interceptions led to Tiger touchdowns, the second proving most costly when Spears returned White's first offering of the second half 20 yards for a 21-7 LSU lead.
Nokia Sugar Bowl Most Valuable Player
Justin Vincent. (Photo by Dennis Hodges)
"Yeah, as I dropped back, I didn't even see him drop out the defensive end drop out in coverage," White said. "I didn't even see him drop out and I thought I had a wide receiver wide open, so I threw it."
White was out of sync most of the night being left scramble away from a blitzkrieg type pass rush as LSU's corners blanketed Oklahoma's talented receiving corps.
"They are a great defense," White said. "They didn't blitz as much as we planned on. So they have got great athletes all over the field and they executed well tonight. They out executed us and we didn't execute through most of the night. You've got to give them their credit."
As Oklahoma's offense was stymied most of the evening, LSU's offense had its moments. The Tigers outgained their counterparts from the Big 12 conference 312-154, but at times LSU struggled moving the ball on an equally stout Sooner defense.
However, the Tigers made plays when they needed to and received yet another clutch performance from freshman Justin Vincent, who rushed for 117 yards on 16 trips en route to being named the game's Most Outstanding Player. Vincent can place his Sugar Bowl MVP trophy next to the SEC's Most Valuable Player Award the Lake Charles freshman earned a month ago.
"For me it's kind of unreal," Vincent said. "I never expected to win MVP. I just went in. Coaches told me what to do and I did what I was told basically. But I guess it hasn't even basically set in for me like Matt said, it's only 15 minutes old. Winning the MVP in the National Championship Game, that says a lot but I couldn't have done it without the team and my coaches behind me."
Mauck, the SEC's most efficient passer, has had better days as a pair of interceptions dotted his resume. In the end, Mauck completed 13 of 24 passes for 124 yards and no touchdowns. His second interception came on the opening play of the fourth quarter allowing Oklahoma, who appeared down for the count, to regain momentum. The Sooners took advantage of a 49-yard, Brodney Poole return finding the end zone nine plays closing the gap to 21-14.
It looked as if the Tigers had lost momentum when the Oklahoma defense rose to the challenge down the stretch awarding the OU offense a three and out. White and Co. had a prime opportunity deep in LSU's territory to tie the game. But the Tiger defense stood strong repelling the Sooners not once, but twice to capture to rousing championship victory.
"I would like to congratulate our football team and our football players for probably being the most resilient team, with the best team chemistry and the best competitive spirit and character that I've ever been around as a coach," Saban said. "We started out this year saying that we might not have the leadership that we need and we challenged everybody to be responsible for their own self-determination. And I have never seen a group of players that were able to do that and become so close and unified in the way they did it. They believed in themselves, they believed in each other and this game was no different than a lot of other games we played this year."
While a somewhat confident Bob Stoops discredited the play of LSU's defense in the first half with some disparaging comments to ABC's Lynn Swann at halftime, the Oklahoma head coach re-aligned his comments complimenting the Tigers' efforts.
"I want to compliment Coach Saban and their team, their staff, congratulate them on a great and well-played game and their Championship," Stoops said. "We were not quite good enough to get it done and LSU made the plays in the end that made the difference to win."
Stoops, admitting a better squad had beaten his team, appreciated the play of his star-studded team and its efforts in trying to rally from a sizeable second half deficit.
"I also could not be more proud of the way our players competed to the end of the game, kept giving ourselves chances and opportunities to win," Stoops said. "I could not be more proud of the guys I'm in the locker room with, of the guys I've fought on the field with all day. And you know sometimes it just, you know, it doesn't work out and another team plays better, another coach coaches better than me and all of us and that's what happens. Again, it's not easy to get here and I appreciate the fight in my team and that's what matters to me most."
One of the keys to the game for LSU was striking Oklahoma early and often further damaging the Sooners' fragile psyche, a result of the hangover remaining from the loss to Kansas State. The Tigers were able to deal a hefty blow to Oklahoma immediately, but failed to finish the job.
On the first play from scrimmage, Vincent went off right tackle 64 yards for a big gainer. The speedy Vincent, who ran away from the Georgia defense in the SEC Championship, could not find enough speed to go the distance as the Sooners' all-everything Derrick Strait caught the freshman from behind.
LSU All-American defensive tackle Chad
Lavalais celebrates one of his four tackles. (photo by Dennis Hodges)
Four plays later, after Mauck hit Clayton on an eight-yard slant pass for a first and goal at the two, Mauck and center Ben Wilkerson mishandled the snap and Oklahoma dodged a bullet recovering the loose ball.
"I think any time you make big plays in a game they have a lot to do with momentum," Saban said. "That certainly did. Unfortunately for us that we did not convert on that score, but it certainly changed the field position."
Field position was key, especially when the Tiger defense came up big on the Sooners' first possession. KeJuan Jones rushed over the left end for three yards on first down. White hoping to garner Oklahoma of big play of its own, heaved up a home run in the direction of Mark Clayton. Instead, cornerback Corey Webster came up with the errant pass giving the Tigers possession at the OU 32.
"I think I tipped it out of Corey's hands, but then he picked off the tip," said senior free safety Jack Hunt. "That was one of the routes we knew what was coming from his motion."
The Tigers wasted little time finding the end zone. On third and two from the 26, Mauck handed off to a streaking Skyler Green on an end-around. The gifted Green rounded the corner racing past the Sooner secondary for a 24-yard touchdown run.
"It was the most incredible game I've ever played in," Green said. "Hats off to the OU defense. They played great, and our guys played great, too."
Saban complimented his team for overcoming constantly adversity.
"We fumbled a snap on second and two on the two," Saban said. "And intercepted a pass and get it back two plays later. And that's happened time and time again because these guys never, ever, when something goes bad in a game, it means nothing. They have tremendous identity, character and confidence and know how to compete. And that's how you got to compete. You got to overcome adversity."
With LSU leading 7-0, the teams went toe-to-toe trading punches as each defense dominated the contest. It wasn't until a special teams breakdown allowed Oklahoma to dent the scoreboard.
The Tigers offense grew stagnant in the late stages of the first quarter spilling over into the second. After going three and out, LSU punter Donnie Jones was forced to punt from the vicinity of the Tigers' 10. An all-out Sooner blitz, Oklahoma blocked Jones' offering. Russell Dennison pounced on the bouncing pigskin at the LSU two.
The Sooners eventually scored, but not without work. Facing third and goal at the LSU two, the Tigers stuffed Jones on a dive play, forcing a fourth down. But an offside penalty negated the defensive stand and Jones plunged into the on the very next snap knotting the score at 7-7.
With the Sooners looking to swing momentum in its favor, LSU answered the call with an inspiring 80-yard drive culminating in an 18-yard scoring scamper by Vincent putting the Tigers back on top 14-7.
"I think the most important drive of the game was is when Oklahoma blocked a punt, we took the ball 80 yards and scored and answered the bell," Vincent. "And that changed the momentum of the game. I think that was critical."
Vincent ripped off runs of 12 and 18 yards on the drive, both of which were hip swiveling, slashing type rushes through the Oklahoma defense.
"As far as the touchdown run goes, it was basically a zone play, the defensive line went fast forward, cut back with the option if it's there," Vincent said. "I jumped back and there was nothing but wide open grass and the rest was history."
With the raucous crowd growing ever-rowdier, the Tiger defense stuffed the Sooners on three consecutive plays, on which all three tackles were made by Marquise Hill, the last being a bone-crushing sack on White.
"He's Mr. Heisman and we wanted to go at him all night," Hill said. "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.' He just nodded his head at me. I think our conference is the hardest and Jason White wasn't anything we hadn't seen before."
Shaken, White's confidence continued to shatter opening the second half. After Spears threw the Heisman winner for a three-yard sack on the initial play of the third quarter, White's first pass of the second half on the next play hit Spears in the hands and the 297-pound junior danced 20 yards for a 21-7 lead.
"I'm not going to sit here and second guess my coaches for making play calls," Stoops said. "You know, sure -- you know what, that's right. I'm not going to sit here and act like just because our guys didn't make plays -- we probably should have made some better decisions as coaches, too."
LSU's next possession, the longest in the game for both teams, covered 77 yards in 15 plays, but resulted in points for the Tigers. After LSU ended the Sooners second drive of the third quarter with a 17-yard sack of White, the Tigers took up shop at the LSU 17.
LSU linebacker Lionel Turner sacks OU quarterback Jason
White to clinch the win for LSU. (Photo by Dennis Hodges)
The Tigers drove to the Oklahoma five, but could get no closer. After a Vincent run gained no yardage and Mauck was sacked twice, LSU settled for a 27-yard Ryan Gaudet field goal, which the freshman knocked home.
But….. LSU was tagged with a pair of penalties, totaling 25 yards, pushing Gaudet's next attempt to 52 yards. The Tigers elected to fake the field goal, where holder Blaine Bech rolled right and hit a wide-open David Jones. Jones motored 29 yards but was tackled at the six and LSU turned the ball over on downs.
"I think one critical penalty in the game and I still don't understand how we got a 30 yard penalty kicking a field goal," Saban said. "That may be the first time in the history of ball, any ball that I've seen, that that's happened. We got a dead ball personal foul and we got hands to the face. Which, when you block on field goals and everybody's going up in there and jumping over the pile, I mean I don't complain about officiating, but that was a pretty significant change of events. Because it put us up three scores at 24-7. And I'm going to be very interested to watch the film to see if these those were really penalties that should have been called that should have had something to do with changing the outcome of what could have been a National Championship game."
LSU entered the fourth quarter with excellent field position after Green returned a 58-yard Blake Ferguson punt 28 yards to the OU 35. However, the game-clinching drive resulted in disaster as a Mauck pass was picked off on the first play of the fourth quarter. Brodney Poole returned the errant pass 49 yards to the LSU 31.
Nine plays and 31 yards later, Jones bulled his way into the end zone making it a 21-14 game.
Oklahoma had new life.
"I think for a long time we tried to start out telling players you got to play for 60 minutes in the game and you never look at the score board," Saban said. "And I think that's hard sometimes for fans to understand because that's exactly how they look at the game. And when you're in the process of being a competitor, you got to play, play to play to play. And everybody's got to win their individual battle on every play. And you can't let the last play good or bad affect the next play. And I think that's something that our players have bought into."
The Sooners' final true push to tie the score tested the Tiger defense to the fullest. From its own 39-yard line, Oklahoma marched into LSU territory. The Tigers weary defense seemed to be bend on the verge of breaking as the Crimson and Cream appeared on its way to the end zone.
"I had two IV's at halftime," Marquise Hill said. "I was cramping up and was having a hard time, but I knew I had to come out and give it everything I had. I wanted to leave everything out on the field. In the third quarter, I was vomiting. I had a stomach virus, but I kept coming back out on the field because this means everything. This only happens once in a lifetime."
Jones picked up five yards on first down at the LSU 24. White tossed a pair of incompletions on second and third down, but was bailed out when Webster was flagged for pass interference, giving OU first and 10 at the LSU 12. Little did White know he would not complete another pass again in the game. His final four offerings of that drive fell incomplete, including a fourth down toss to Clayton which bounced off the end zone turf, nullifying the game-tying score.
"We played a great team tonight in LSU," White said. "They made the plays as coach said and we didn't. We came in prepared and we didn't execute tonight. We got beat."
"I was comfortable with our defense out there," Michael Clayton said. "They played great all season. It was nothing new. They played exceptional tonight. That was the main reason (we won)."
LSU was unable to gain a first down on its next possession, but Oklahoma followed suit with three White incompletions and Turner's bone-jarring sack on fourth and 10 at the OU 49.
"It finally happened," Michael Clayton said. "It was a long journey here. It wasn't something that happened in one season. It was things that happened over the course of the three seasons I've been here. We took every issue that we went through as a stepping stone."