70th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic ~ January 4, 2004
#2 LSU 21 (Final: 13-1, #2)
#3 Oklahoma 14 (Final: 12-2, #3)
How LSU and Oklahoma Met in the 2004 Sugar Bowl
From the start, with Tiger freshman Justin Vincent juking linebacker Gayron Allen and shooting 64 yards in the open field on the game’s first play to set the tone, LSU seemed to be in command.
But the Tigers, a six-point underdog by the oddsmakers, and an even bigger long-shot by the nation’s sports pundits, never completely put the game away in this landmark Sugar Bowl – the last to be played with a No. 1 title squarely on the line. A rotating and separate-from-the-bowls BCS national championship game would soon make that determination.
Despite the fast start, LSU had to contend with Oklahoma’s offense which led the nation by averaging an eye-popping 45.2 points. And the Sooners were also the nation’s third-best overall defensive team, giving up an average of 255.7 yards a game.
Not only did the Sooners have seven first-team All-Americans, but they practically swept the major individual awards that go to the sport’s crème de la crème, including the Heisman Trophy, which was collected by quarterback Jason White.
Next to the Sooners, the Tigers just had two All-Americans, defensive tackle Chad Lavalais and cornerback Corey Webster.
Conversely, despite its relative anonymity, LSU was a complete team, scoring an average of 35 points behind Matt Mauck, a 24-year-old former minor-league catcher who had the SEC’s highest quarterback rating, along with a dangerous combination of running backs and receivers and a big, fast offensive line that combined for 156 starts.
It was on defense, though, where LSU separated itself from the rest of college football. The Tigers led the nation in rushing defense, yielding a miniscule 68.2 yards, and were atop the statistical list in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 10.5 points a game.
It was obvious that in the Sugar Bowl something would have to give – but not the self-discipline of the Tigers, very much aware LSU hadn’t won a national title in 45 years.
Between Vincent’s run and the last meaningful play, with Tiger linebacker Lionel Turner flattening OU quarterback White on a delayed blitz, this may have been the biggest seven-point rout in football history. Put this in focus: LSU held Oklahoma to just 152 total yards and 1.8 yards per rush; and only two touchdowns.
And the Tigers spent the night, as they did all season, responding positively to adversity.
Vincent’s long run to open the game was stopped short of the goal line when Sooner defensive back Derrick Strait ran him down at the Oklahoma 16. Four plays later, playing a first-and-goal at the 1, Mauck fumbled the snap and the Sooners recovered.
In just two plays, though, Webster intercepted White’s first pass at midfield and returned it to the 32. LSU was on the boards in short order as speedster Skyler Green turned around the right end and tip-toed along the sidelines 24 yards to the end zone.
In the second quarter, Oklahoma showed its first signs of life when it blocked a Tiger punt two yards from the LSU goal. It took OU four plays (after a penalty) to punch it in and tie the score. The Sooners had been outgained 204-50 at that point, yet the teams were even on the scoreboard.
LSU put together a big-time response, driving 80 yards before Vincent ran the final 18 on the same play with which he opened the game, this time finding the end zone. The Tigers again had the lead with 4:21 remaining until the half – a half in which Oklahoma managed a total of 44 yards.
“That was the turning point of the game,” LSU Coach Nick Saban said of the go-ahead drive. “They blocked a punt and scored (an easy touchdown), and our offense came right back.”
What proved to be the final nail in Oklahoma’s coffin came with 47 seconds gone in the third quarter when White unleashed his first pass of the second half – and hit Tiger defensive end Marcus Spears in the flat. “I dropped back and it was like a gift,” Spears, a former tight end, said. “When I saw it coming, I said, ‘Man, put your hands up and try to get the thing to the end zone.’ ”
Twenty yards later, that’s exactly where Spears found himself.
After a Tiger field goal, which would have given LSU a 24-7 lead, was wiped away by a penalty Oklahoma got new life, LSU made its only major mistake of the game, a third-down interception of Mauck that Brodney Pool returned 49 yards to the Tiger 31. Somehow Oklahoma was seriously back in the fray. Kejuan Jones went in from the 1 with 11:01 -plenty of time – to play.
The Sooners had Tiger fans gripping their seats from that point to the end, as White, taking over at the 5:45 mark, moved Oklahoma from its 39 to the LSU 12 in eight plays. From there, however, the Tigers threw up their prickly defense, giving OU no openings in the passing lanes. Only on fourth down did the Sooners come close.
The tying touchdown pass was tipped by safety Jack Hunt and trickled off the fingers of Mark Clayton in the end zone. “I just tried to give somebody a chance to catch it,” White said. “He almost caught it.”
LSU, despite the controversy, finished with its first national championship in four decades, even if Southern Cal, playing in the Rose Bowl, also claimed a piece of it.
Mauck had no doubt who was No. 1. “All I know is the powers that be selected us to be in this game; (and) we just received the (BCS championship) trophy.”
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.