In Tigers' biggest game, Saban shows he's worth every penny
Posted: Monday January 5, 2004 3:24AM; Updated: Monday January 5, 2004 3:26AM
By Stewart Mandel, SI.com
NEW ORLEANS -- As part of a clause in his contract, LSU's Nick Saban automatically becomes the new highest-paid coach in college football -- by $1 -- thanks to his team's national championship victory in Sunday's Sugar Bowl.
Which is fitting because in the course of beating Oklahoma 21-14, Saban thoroughly outcoached Bob Stoops, the game's current highest-paid coach.
The Sooners, so accustomed to having their way with things on offense this season, couldn't get a handle on Saban's masterful defensive game plan, one that thoroughly confused Heisman-winning quarterback Jason White and reduced the Sooners' speedy receivers to virtual non-factors.
"This was probably one of the most well-prepared games we had," Tigers safety Jack Hunt said. "Based on how they lined up and the motions they ran, we almost knew the routes they were going to run. It was a great job, and they couldn't do anything about it."
Anticipating the Tigers' penchant for blitzing, OU devised an offensive game plan that clearly aimed to take advantage of one-on-one matchups on the outside.
So you can imagine the surprise when LSU came out with a standard four-man defensive rush and stayed that way for a large majority of the game.
"They didn't blitz as much as we planned on," White said.
As a result, White, who spent much of the regular season completing one deep ball after another to receivers open by a mile, found himself with ample protection but no one to throw to. It bit him right from the get go, when, on the Sooners' second play of the game, he rolled out in his own end zone, pump faked and, despite the double-coverage, lofted a ball deep down the right sideline to Will Peoples that Tigers cornerback Corey Webster promptly picked off.
LSU took over at the Oklahoma 32 and went up 7-0 three plays later on Skyler Green's 24-yard touchdown.
Time and again in the first half, White would look to complete one of his patented big plays to receivers Mark Clayton or Brandon Jones, only there wasn't the slightest passing lane. Often when it appeared there was, one of LSU's linemen jumped up and tipped his pass.
Meanwhile, the Tigers, known for their creativity on defense, started mixing in a zone blitz that made things even more confusing for White. In arguably the game's biggest sequence at the start the second half, White rolled out on first-and-10 on his own 20 only to find defensive end Marcus Spears there waiting for him, resulting in a 3-yard sequence.
On the next play, Spears dropped into pass coverage unbeknownst to White and picked off his pass, returning it 20 yards for a touchdown to give LSU an insurmountable 21-7 lead.
"We watched a lot of film," Tigers cornerback Corey Webster said. "[White] is a good quarterback, but we noticed some of his faults, how he loafs the ball in there. He just lets his receivers make plays on the ball. We weren't going to let that happen."
As the Sooners continued to stall, they also got rattled, committing a season-high 11 penalties.
"We pick up a first down on the 3-yard line going in and we had an [illegal] shift and they call it back, and we never did overcome it," Stoops said. "We had a second-and-1, procedure gets us second and 6 and we never did overcome it. They are hard to overcome against a great defense."
Late in the fourth quarter, after OU had closed the gap to 21-14 and was looking to tie the score, it looked like the Sooners finally had stumbled on to something with running back Kejuan Jones, who carried seven times for 35 yards and was helping move the chains.
For whatever reason, however, they called 10 straight pass plays to end the game. White, who finished 13-of-37 for 102 yards, didn't complete a single one of them and got sacked by linebacker Lionel Turner on the Sooners' final play.
"I'm not going to sit here and act like it was just because our guys didn't make plays," Stoops said. "We probably should have made some better decisions as coaches, too."
As a result of both this game and the Kansas State meltdown, it may take some time for Stoops to regain his previous reputation as the sport's best big-game coach.
For Saban, on the other hand, the game was a defining moment for a coach who's budding reputation as a guru has several NFL suitors drooling over him. It's been clear on numerous occasions this season -- the two wins over Georgia, Ole Miss, a late-season rout of Arkansas -- that the Tigers are a very well-prepared team.
"I think the chancellor of LSU is happy that the coaches don't work on an hourly salary," joked quarterback Matt Mauck. "They put in a lot of effort."
It paid off Sunday with the ultimate reward.