How LSU and Illinois Met in the 2002 Sugar Bowl Classic
America’s “Second Day of Infamy,” 9-11-2001, colored everything that happened afterward – including the sports world.
The terrorists who crashed hijacked passenger planes into New York’s World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon complex in Washington, D.C., and into a Pennsylvania field, instantly changed one aspect of the U.S. lifestyle: travel.
In no time, though briefly, air-travel was reduced to less than half of what it was on that fateful morning. The perceived threat of more air-piracy understandably caused more Americans to stick closer to home – particularly for such comparatively unimportant happenings as long-distance sports events.
With that mind-set as a backdrop, one of the season’s most interesting stories began unfolding in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away from the Superdome. After a bumbling start in which underachieving LSU started 4-3, Coach Nick Saban righted the Tigers in eye-catching fashion.
With such weapons as receiver Josh Reed, college football’s most productive pass-catcher, Rohan Davey, one of the SEC’s premier quarterbacks and LSU’s all-time leading passer, and tailback LeBrandon Toefield, who tallied an SEC-record-tying 19 touchdowns, the Tigers were dangerous offensively. LSU’s Achilles’ heel was its secondary, which gave up so many big pass plays that in pass defense the Tigers were ranked 108th of the NCAA’s 117 football-playing schools. That stat, perplexing for a conference championship team, however, was more of a reflection of the first half of LSU’s season than the second half.
After a 35-24 loss to Ole Miss in which LSU did as much to beat itself as did the Rebels, the defense against the pass improved markedly, dramatically slicing almost 50 yards off opponents’ passing averages. At the same time, and this was crucial in the turnaround, the Tiger offense became more efficient and time-consuming, keeping the defense – and opposing offensive units – on the sidelines for longer periods of time.
Five victories later, LSU claimed its unlikeliest SEC championship, not only upsetting second-ranked Tennessee 31-20 (by outscoring the Volunteers 24-3 in the second half) in the league’s championship game, but also doing it with backups at key positions. Davey went out after taking a second jarring shot in the first quarter, and Toefield soon followed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But reserve Matt Mauck filled in capably at QB, finishing off one drive for Davey and guiding the Tigers to all their points. Domanick Davis – who split his previous playing time in the secondary – performed superbly in Toefield’s stead by rushing for 78 yards. Davis especially shone in the fourth period on LSU’s last touchdown drive, when he carried six times for 32 yards, not only eventually scoring the put-away TD, but helping the Tigers run 6:04 very valuable minutes off the clock.
That victory, against a team that had beaten the Tigers 26-18 in September, put LSU in its home-state’s major postseason game for the first time in 15 years. After all the animosity through the years between the bowl and the school, both were elated to have each other.
As it turned out, the Tigers’ opponent would be once-beaten and seventh-ranked Big Ten champion Illinois, making for an alluring game of contrasts: Illinois’ heralded quarterback Kurt Kittner threw for a school-record 26 touchdowns and 2,994 yards, putting the Tiger defense again under the gun. At the same time, Illinois brought a more-than-capable secondary, which allowed an average of 214 yards for the season, to challenge LSU’s aerial prowess.
In another year Illinois would have been unavailable to New Orleans. For the first time the Rose Bowl, for a half-century the postseason home for Big Ten and Pac-10 champions, was to host the BCS national championship game. This season Miami and Nebraska would be in Pasadena.
Illinois fell into the Sugar’s lap.
It also reunited two old friends, Saban and Illini coach Ron Turner, who used to enjoy beers together when both were NFL assistants, Saban in Cleveland and Turner in Chicago. Also, although the schools had never played before, they had a major bond. Mike Chambers, LSU’s trainer in the 1930s, played for Illinois in the Red Grange era. He became such a beloved figure in Tigertown that LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger, whom Chambers helped secure, was named for him.
Warm feelings aside, more than anything the pairing was a boon to the Sugar Bowl, Executive Director Paul Hoolahan said ticket demands ranked as high as the bowl’s recent record national title games.
“Talk about a windfall!” Hoolahan said two days before the Sugar Bowl. “This is as good a situation as we could have possibly hoped for. We were obviously concerned, as were the other bowls, that plane travel would be an issue for some people. So if we had our druthers, we were hoping to secure a local team.
“Sure enough, the way the stars were lined up, it all fell into place.”
Recap excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.