As the morning at LSU's Recruiting Bash in downtown Baton Rouge wore on, letter after letter came through; name after name was tacked on to the big board on stage at the Argosy Atrium. The Tiger faithful who played hooky that Wednesday were being rewarded with another top-five signing class.
A slew of talented receivers were heading to Baton Rouge: Dwayne Bowe and Amp Hill out of Florida, along with New Orleans product Craig Davis. But, would the Tigers have anyone to throw them the ball?
Minor league catcher-turned quarterback Matt Mauck was showing signs of promise when his 2002 season was cut short after he tore a ligament in his foot late in a 36-7 victory over Florida in The Swamp. Baton Rouge native Marcus Randall was inconsistent at best, and wasn't garnering much love from the LSU fan base. One of the names already on the big board was Matt Flynn of Tyler, Texas. LSU head coach Nick Saban was thrilled to land Flynn, a guy on every recruiting guru's list of Top-10 quarterback prospects, but the fans were waiting on a bigger name.
The day of promise turned out to be a day of promises kept for all of Saban's commitments – except one. Robert Lane of Neville High in Monroe was considered by many recruiting know-it-all's to be the top QB talent in the nation that season, and he had committed to be an LSU Tiger. Why wouldn't he? His father, Robert Sr. was a quarterback for the Tigers in the late 70s. His uncle, Clif Lane, served as a tight end in Baton Rouge from '76-'78. Why wouldn't the younger Robert cash in on his birthright and take snaps for the Tigers as well?
Because of promises Lane and Saban couldn't make each other.
There was a possibility that Lane, who was also a top-notch baseballer, would be drafted high enough by a Major League team to be lured away from Tigerland by dollar signs. Saban wanted his prized recruit to promise he would be in purple and gold no matter where he was drafted. Lane wanted Saban to promise he wouldn't recruit another quarterback with he and Flynn already committed. Saban had his eye on a kid from Mobile who could throw it a ton.
Lane broke his promise (I mean commitment) and signed with SEC rival Ole Miss. The move made sense. The quarterback slot would be up for grabs in a year when All-American Eli Manning put a wrap on a career the likes of which were unseen in Oxford since his dad Archie took the snaps for the Rebels. If Lane came to LSU he might end up like former Tiger running back Kendall Cleveland; a talented guy who never got his chance because he was listed under All-American Kevin Faulk on the depth chart.
The mood at the Atrium was one of optimistic apprehension. Lane was gone, but a better prospect loomed. JaMarcus Russell, the High School All-Everything signal-caller from Mobile, had narrowed his decision to Florida State and LSU.
Russell chose LSU. When the 6-foot-6 phenom picked up the LSU hat on Fox Sports Television, the Atrium erupted as though he had already thrown his first game-winning TD in Tiger Stadium. Russell was deemed the savior of LSU's offense, while Lane would take up residence in the Grove.
Fast forward to Nov. 22, 2003.
The "Biggest Game Ever…in a while" between LSU and Ole Miss featured a defensive struggle which found LSU winning 17-14 en route to the SEC and BCS National Championship. Lane and Russell were red shirted, but Russell already had a ring. Lane was 0-1 against the school he snubbed. Advantage: Russell.
The red shirts came off in 2004 and both Lane and Russell were going to compete for a starting job. Mauck had gone pro after leading the Tigers to the Promised Land of college football leaving only Randall, Russell and fellow-signee Flynn to compete for the job.
The fans wanted Russell. The coaches went with the experienced Randall – mostly. When Russell did see the field, he showed flashes of the brilliance fans hoped for the day No. 4 signed. Remember when he found Dwayne Bowe for the score with time running out in the season opener against Oregon State? Remember when Russell ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game at 15 and avoid the major upset? The Tigers won 22-21 in OT. Russell had attained hero status in one game.
Russell had his ups and downs after that. Mostly rookie mistakes like two first quarter interceptions at Florida in his first career start that resulted in an early 14-0 deficit. Senior Marcus Randall bailed him out, rallying the Tigers for a 24-21 victory.
Russell vs. Lane II proved to be much more exciting. Ole Miss had won three of the last four in Tiger Stadium going into the game. The matchup between the two QBs was overshadowed by Alley Broussard setting the school's single game rushing record in a 27-24 LSU win. Lane did outshine his counterpart that night in Baton Rouge. His numbers weren't staggering--4-of-13 for 23 yards passing with 43 yards on the ground—but he made plays. Big plays. The kind of "thorn-in-your-side" plays that cause opposing team's fans to despise individuals during their career. Lane rushed for a touchdown and a two-point conversion that gave the Rebels a 7-point third quarter lead. The score was set up when Trumaine McBride intercepted LSU's savior and took it to the house. Broussard's monster day gave the Tigers the win, but Lane showed promise – on that night.
What a difference a year makes. Lane competed for the starting job during the spring, but a shoulder injury slowed him down. Coming into the LSU game, Lane has spent most of the season as a fullback and wide receiver under first year head coach Ed Orgeron. The kid who seemed to be heir apparent to Eli Manning's throne has only completed nine passes this season for 79 yards without a touchdown.
Russell has improved weekly, and is coming off the biggest win of his career, a 16-13 overtime thriller at previously unbeaten Alabama. He came into the Ole Miss game just shy of 2,000 yards passing on the season with 12 scores.
Which brings us to the present. Ole Miss isn't even a shell of what they were the last time these teams tangled in Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium. Getting waxed at home by Wyoming should be proof enough. As the two programs have gone in opposite directions, so have the quarterbacks. Lane didn't take a single snap under center, but did haul in six passes for 30 yards. Russell threw for 142 yards and a score, leading his team to a 40-7 victory. Russell 3, Lane 0.
I doubt that Tiger fans are even keeping score anymore.
One thing is for sure: if LSU takes care of business against Arkansas the day after Thanksgiving, they will be 10-1 and headed back to Atlanta for a date with Georgia in a rematch of the 2003 SEC championship game.
Another thing is certain, too. Robert Lane and the Rebels will be spending the holidays at home.
Russell, Lane Heading in Opposite Direction
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