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Having flown down from the town of Santa Claus, Ind., where they reside on Christmas Lake, Roger and Kathy Mauck were having a pleasant enough weekend in Atlanta before the second of their three children turned the college football world on its ear. The elder Maucks had spent the early afternoon last Saturday lunching at a downtown seafood place with their son Matt, a former minor league catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization and now a reserve quarterback for Louisiana State. They had gone shopping at the Peachtree Mall.
By eight that evening they'd settled into their seats in the south end of the Georgia Dome to watch Mart's teammates take on No. 2 Tennessee in the SEC championship game. All was peaceful until about an hour later, when LSU senior quarterback Rohan Davey went out with a broken rib and the elder Maucks looked on in amazement as Matt jogged across the AstroTurf to join the Tigers' huddle. Oh, boy—whatever you do, kid, don't fumble, don't embarrass yourself, Roger thought. "Matt wasn't counting on playing tonight," said Kathy after the game. "To tell you the truth, we were just happy to be here."
In leading LSU to scores on six of the seven drives during which he was under center, including two rushing touchdowns of his own, the 22-year-old freshman from Santa Claus gave LSU a 31-20 upset victory. He also delivered an early Christmas present to Nebraska, which was last seen losing 62-36 to Colorado on Nov. 23. To the Cornhuskers it must have seemed that the holidays had come early: A day after its senior quarterback, Eric Crouch, had won the Heisman Trophy, 11-1 Nebraska learned that the Tigers' victory had catapulted it into the Rose Bowl national championship game against Miami.
For the second consecutive year the regular season ended with a brouhaha over whether the BCS had chosen the right teams for the title game. Last year the BCS bypassed Miami in favor of Florida State, which the Hurricanes had beaten, so BCS officials made off-season changes in the formula used to rank teams to help prevent such an injustice from recurring. This time around Nebraska will play in the Rose Bowl instead of two-time loser Colorado, which, a week after having thrashed the Huskers, knocked off Texas 39-37 in the Big 12 championship game. "I'm sure a lot of people in the BCS are praying we don't win," LSU coach Nick Saban had said last Friday. "That would make things a little uncomfortable for them."
For their role in shuffling the national championship deck, the 9-3 Tigers earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, in which they will face Big 10 champ Illinois (10-1) on New Year's Day. While the Volunteers treated the SEC title game as a pit stop en route to Pasadena, LSU, which last played in a major bowl in 1987, saw the game as a chance to restore its pride. "People are talking like Tennessee is already going to the Rose Bowl and that we're just a tune-up, which makes me sick," said Davey four days before the game. "Then again, we've been underdogs in every big matchup."
It's fitting that the 6'2", 210-pound Mauck, an underdog if ever there was one, engineered this upset. Before his coming-out party in Atlanta he'd been used sparingly in two games, completing 13 of 26 pass attempts (22 of which came in a 44-15 loss to Florida) and running eight times for 48 yards. Against Tennessee he connected on 5 of 15 passes for 67 yards and rushed for 43 more on a dozen carries. More important, he kept his composure when thrown into battle. "I've been waiting for my time," said Mauck after the game. "Having played a professional sport, I realize that sports is a business. You have to be composed for yourself and your team."
Mauck learned that lesson the hard way. During his senior year at Jasper ( Ind.) High, in 1996-97, his 1.20 ERA for the state champion baseball squad overshadowed his 940 passing yards and 567 rushing yards for the football team. "I was coming off my second state championship, and I couldn't resist going for it in baseball," says Mauck, who, after Chicago drafted him in the sixth round, turned down a football scholarship from Michigan State coach Nick Saban. "I said I'd give myself three years with the Cubs to see what happens."
What happened is that the Cubs envisioned him as a third baseman, not a pitcher, and moved him to catcher after his first spring practice. When his self-imposed deadline arrived, Mauck was hitting .160 for the Class A Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts and feeling like a spare part. After talking to his parents about his desire to go to college, Mauck in June 2000 contacted Saban, who had taken over at LSU in 1999. " Nick Saban was the most honest, straightforward coach we had dealt with, so we stuck with him," says Roger, a onetime quarterback for the Division II University of Evansville (Ind.) who was overjoyed to see Matt return to Roger's favorite sport.
Saban, too, was pleased. "He was a plenty good athlete coming out of high school," says Saban, "and I thought if we couldn't use him at quarterback, he'd make a decent defensive back. Also, when it came to character, Matt was as good as it gets."
Mauck, whose tuition is paid for by the Cubs, came to LSU on a mission: A straight-A student at Jasper High, he's intent on earning a premed degree. "Matt is very mature, the type of player with whom you can actually have a grown-up conversation," says Candace Fisher, wife of LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo and the recipient of a well-written thank-you note from Mauck after the family had him over for Thanksgiving a year ago.