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Stewart Mandel Inside College Football

Blue-collar champ

USC did it with glamour, but LSU went old school to win its half of the title

Posted: Monday January 5, 2004 4:48AM; Updated: Monday January 5, 2004 4:49AM
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  Marquise Hill
Marquise Hill put Jason White's game on "mute" in the Sugar Bowl.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS -- There were no movie stars hanging around the Superdome sidelines Sunday. No song girls in sweaters, no mountains in the backdrop.

In fact, there was very little at all aesthetically pleasing about LSU's 21-14 Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma.

And that's just the way the Tigers like it.

Three days after USC staked its claim to one half of the national championship with its usual display of razzle and dazzle, LSU showed you don't really need it when you have, quite simply, one of the most dominant defenses on the planet.

"Those guys [USC], if they have a quarterback and a kicker who can walk and chew gum at the same time, they get on the cover of Sports Illustrated," said LSU defensive end Marquise Hill. "That's why when I watch football, I put it on mute."

Before our West Coast readers get overly testy about Hill's assertion, it should be noted that his sarcasm wasn't directed solely at the Trojans. Try the opponent his team teed off on Sunday night.

All season long, while the Tigers, in virtual anonymity, were rolling off one hard-fought win after another over some of the best the SEC has to offer, pundits like this one were going bonkers over all the lopsided scores Oklahoma was posting on, what seemed at the time at least, worthy Big 12 adversaries.

As proven by LSU and Kansas State before them, we were wrong.

Sugar Bowl
SI.com's Stewart Mandel
If the Trojans represented L.A. glitz, then the Tigers were Bayou blue collar in beating the Sooners in the Sugar Bowl.
Closer Look
Nick Saban showed why he deserves the huge raise that is coming his way after winning the national title.
Spotlight
HERO: LSU defense
The Tigers held the top-ranked Sooners offense to 154 total yards, only 52 on the ground. LSU had five sacks and forced two interceptions that led to touchdowns.
GOAT: Jason White
The Heisman winner flopped in the big game, completing only 13-of-37 passes and tossing two picks, one of which was returned for the game-deciding touchdown.
Rose Bowl
SI.com's Stewart Mandel
It may not have been USC's typical blowout, but after watching the Trojans manhandle Michigan, AP voters will have no trouble justifying their opinion.
Spotlight
HERO: Keary Colbert
Overshadowed by All-American Mike Williams the entire season, the senior WR caught six passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns in his final collegiate game.
GOAT: Michigan's O-Line
The same bunch who plowed over Ohio State couldn't get the job done against USC, as John Navarre was sacked nine times and Chris Perry ran for just 85 yards.
BCS Recap
Sugar: LSU 21, Oklahoma 14
Rose: USC 28, Michigan 14
Orange: Miami 16, Florida St. 14
Fiesta: Ohio State 35, Kansas State 28
2003-04 bowls schedule and results

Chalk this one up to SEC might over Big 12 fraudulence. The Tigers held one of the nation's most powerful offenses statistically this season to a grand total of 154 yards -- 154 yards! -- and bullied the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback to a 13-of-37, 102-yard day.

And LSU's defenders hardly seemed surprised.

"We knew we could do it," said cornerback Corey Webster. "You all saw what we could do all season, the points-per-game [average of 10.8] and all that. It was up to their offense to come in and prove themselves against an SEC team. I don't think they could do it."

Sure, it all seems quite simple in retrospect. What else did we possibly think would happen when Jason White, after a season of having his way with such illustrious defenses as Oklahoma State and Missouri, ran into one that had already made roadkill out of Eli Manning? That he would redeem himself from the Kansas State game?

Wrong again.

"I think in the Big 12, they were more of front-runners. No one really challenged them," Hill said. "Ole Miss posed a bigger challenge. They have a strong quarterback and guys who make plays. They don't have poster boys."

Ouch.

Thing is, LSU doesn't really have poster boys, either. The Tigers' star running back is an unheralded freshman who barely played the first half of the season. Their quarterback is more likely headed to dental school than the NFL. Even their out-of-this-world defense only had one consensus All-America selection, defensive tackle Chad Lavalais.

Quite a contrast to their fellow national champion to the West, seemingly half of whose roster was at that Orlando awards show in December.

But like Ohio State a year ago, LSU is the ideal blue-collar champion. The Tigers' offense, besides Justin Vincent's 64-yard run on the first play and Skyler Green's 24-yard touchdown scamper, had nary an eye-popping highlight. Their defense, on the other hand, could put out an instructional video from all the backbreaking plays it made against White.

Seemingly everyone got into the action, too, whether it was Webster picking off White's first pass, defensive end Marcus Spears dropping into pass coverage and returning an interception 20 yards for a touchdown, Jesse Daniels breaking up White's potential game-tying pass to Mark Clayton in the end zone late in the fourth quarter or Lionel Turner drilling White on a delayed blitz on OU's last-ditch effort.

"How this ended is how the season went all year," safety Jack Hunt said. "I think it's perfect it ends this way with the defense stepping up."

What speaks volumes about LSU's defensive dominance is that even in the couple instances where it looked like momentum might be turning Oklahoma's way -- after the Sooners tied the score 7-7 following a blocked punt and after they made it 21-14 moments after Brandon Everage's 49-yard interception return -- few in the stadium actually believed OU would be able to generate enough offense to make the comeback.

"Some people would completely melt down psychologically and it would affect them for the rest of the day," LSU coach Nick Saban said. "We got a punt blocked today and it was like, 'Stuff happens.' We have so much resiliency to anything that happens in the game and nothing affects us."

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That nothing, apparently, includes all the BCS hoopla surrounding this game. Clearly, Oklahoma's confidence was affected by the Kansas State loss. Maybe some of its own players started believing they didn't belong in this game.

No one necessarily questioned the Tigers' inclusion, but in the three days since the Rose Bowl they did have to listen to reporters remind them that USC already had locked up the AP trophy.

Truth is, we will never know which was the better team in 2003, LSU or USC. And making it that much more difficult to decide is that we couldn't be dealing with two more opposite animals.

As the Trojans showed, glitz and glamour often do equate to a national championship.

As the Tigers showed, you can do it the old-fashioned way as well.

Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.

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