LSU beats Arizona State
Sunday, 09/11, 2:15 a.m.
TEMPE, ARIZ. - After enduring the unthinkable -- players housing 20 family members in two-bedroom apartments blocks away from a campus where armed guards walked among the oak trees -- LSU leaned on the improbable to lift the spirits of a torn region.
These vagabond Tigers, playing a home game more than 1,000 miles away from their transformed city, scored four fourth quarter touchdowns -- two on special teams blocks and the last already vaulted into barroom lore -- and left the desert with a 35-31 victory against No. 15 Arizona State.
Guilty of three key drops and a crucial block-in-the back penalty, LSU receiver Early Doucet cradled redemption and the winning touchdown on a fourth-down, 39-yard touchdown pass from JaMarcus Russell with 1:13 remaining.
When asked to describe the final 15 minutes, Coach Les Miles paused before calling it, “willy-nilly.”
Defensive tackle Kyle Williams saw it differently.
“It’s kind of hard to deny fate when you look at this game tonight,” he said. “I mean, we’re down and out. Then, a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, a blocked punt returned for a touchdown, then our offense starts rolling. It was kind of like it was meant to be.”
Russell connected with Doucet twice on the Tigers’ final drive and bought just enough time for the sophomore receiver to improvise his original route. Miles sarcastically called it a "double roll” before admitting that when the play broke down, Russell completely ad-libbed.
“I’ve got faith -- never give up,” Russell said. “I never gave up in (Doucet’s) ability. God was with him. He’s been with all of us this far.”
The fourth quarter began with a quiet, confident hush among the mostly partisan Sun Devils crowd, but was disrupted by a pair of thuds and a rush of points, 42 combined when the all the willy-nilliness ceased.
Down 17-7, Tigers defensive tackle Claude Wroten rushed through the line and got a hand on a 47-yard field-goal attempt for the first thud that then bounded into the air. Mario Stevenson waited for the ball to land from its brief flight and carried it 55 yards for a touchdown.
On the Sun Devils’ next possession, LSU forced a punt. Jacob Hester clobbered Arizona State punter Chris MacDonald before the kick -- the second thud -- allowing Craig Steltz to scoop up the loose ball and return it 29 yards for LSU’s first lead.
“It was crazy,” Steltz said. “When Claude came in and blocked the field goal, we were all going crazy. Then, something happened again and changed momentum and it was crazy.”
Even more maddening, the two teams then traded the advantage four more times until Arizona State’s last gasp fluttered incomplete after moving deep into LSU territory.
“Let me tell you something,” Miles said. “Our team has had the longest training camp in the history of training camps. And it’s been surrounded by a real-life trauma. Not a made-for-TV. They wanted this game for the people back home. We’re thrilled.”
In the third quarter, LSU failed to capitalize on help from above. The Pac-10 replay crew wiped out an apparent 19-yard touchdown run by Sun Devils tailback Rudy Burgess. The Tigers pushed Arizona State to the eight-yard line thanks to two stuffed runs and a false start penalty. But on third-and-goal, Keller floated a screen pass over the rush, permitting Burgess to gain back that touchdown and put the Sun Devils ahead 17-7.
One of the more forgotten moments in a game loaded with key plays came in the first quarter.
Ronnie Prude failed to follow his defender as Arizona State lined up 10 at the line, allowing punter Chris Jackson to loft a 12-yard pass for a first down. It was a gutsy move for the new coach, but it eventually gave LSU only extra room to punt, as the drive stalled on the next series of downs.
For every rabbit Miles pulled out of his hat, LSU matched it with typical first-game behavior: Xavier Carter dropped a potential touchdown in the second quarter, two first downs were erased because of penalties early, and most notably Russell squandered a chance for points in the first quarter when the ball slipped out of his hands while in the passing motion.
The turnover, recovered by Sun Devils defensive tackle Jordan Hill, capped a marathon 19-play, 11-minute drive that originated at the LSU 1-inch line. Miles blew the dust off Nick Saban castaway Shyrone Carey, who carried seven times for 31 yards on that drive.
But as school officials yelled for the players to hurry up and get on buses, headed for the airport, those multiple mistakes were excused for the ride home.
“We need to milk this one,” Skyler Green pleaded to those in rush. “Let me milk this one.”