The LSU Tigers were ranked No. 6 in the country and 3-0 on the season, including a 31-19 thumping of Auburn on the road.
Sounds like one of Les Miles’ Tiger teams, doesn’t it?
In reality, it was 1998, when Gerry DiNardo, predecessor to Nick Saban, was head coach. And LSU was flying high after sharing the SEC Western Division title in 1996 and ’97 and destroying the Idaho Vandals on Sept. 26.
The thought of bringing in a new head coach just a little over a year later was the furthest thing from the minds of LSU fans.
LSU’s offense was clicking on all cylinders against the Vandals that night, throwing it for 289 and running it for 244. Future New England Patriot Kevin Faulk set a school record with 268 all-purpose yards, passing Dalton Hilliard (1982-85) on the list. Faulk scored on a 50-yard pass and on runs of 1, 11 and 81 yards before coming out of the game in the third quarter. His 178 yards rushing came on only 13 carries.
In fact, Faulk was one of 20 future NFL players on that loaded ’98 team, with names like Larry Foster, Todd McClure, Anthony McFarland, Rondell Mealey, Mark Roman, Kenderick Allen, Jarvis Green, and Robert Royal anchoring the roster.
After the 53-20 victory over the Vandals, the lone trip Idaho has ever made to Tiger Stadium, it was easy to ignore the concerns regarding Defensive Coordinator Lou Tepper’s defense. Despite their beloved team giving up 22 first downs and 410 total yards–including 192 on the ground, Tiger fans looked forward to a Top-15 matchup with No. 12 Georgia in Tiger Stadium and chalked up the poor defense to a lack of inspiration in playing the lowly Vandals.
Then Georgia and Quincy Carter went stir-crazy on the Tiger defense the next week and there was no longer any room for delusion.
This ultra-talented Tiger team who was being named a dark horse for a national championship run had absolutely no defense. Or, as the Tiger program and unfortunately-for-him DiNardo would find out, a really bad defensive coordinator.
Georgia beat LSU 28-27 that night in a game that never seemed as close as the score would indicate, and it marked the beginning of one of the most stunning collapses ever in the history of SEC football. The Tigers, gushing with NFL talent, finished 1–7 in the last eight games of the season for a final record of 4-7, giving up an atrocious 32.6 points per game in those seven losses.
1998 LSU has been jestingly called the greatest 4-7 college football team of all time.
It has been a theme of mine lately to showcase why LSU fans should appreciate what Les Miles is doing with the current program. It isn’t just sheer talent that is winning, even though the Tigers continue to stockpile talent like they’re collecting coins. Sound coaching and a philosophy of melding all three phases of the game are also reasons LSU has entrenched itself as one of the most prestigious programs in college football.
One of the most noticeable stats from that 1998 Idaho game is time of possession, a stat Miles takes great pride in because he believes securing the ball keeps opposing offenses off the field. And if they’re off the field, they can’t score. DiNardo would have done well to execute this philosophy, especially with Tepper running the defense. Time of possession for the Idaho game?
LSU 23:24, Idaho 36:36.
LSU’s current defensive coordinator John Chavis recently remarked that one reason his defense is so good is because the Tiger offense is so efficient at running the ball and chewing up clock. Simply put, his defense doesn’t have to be out there as long. And when it’s fresh, it’s faster and stronger than the opposition for all four quarters.
But the 1998 LSU team shows why it is important not to get wrapped up in gaudy offensive statistics. It is why Tiger fans should be happy that Miles will never allow a quarterback–not even Zach Mettenberger–to sling it all over the field without establishing a dominant rushing attack. Securing the ball kept Tim Tebow and the unstoppable Florida offense off the field back in 2007 and ever since then Miles has implemented the philosophy that the best defense is aided by a run-first, time-consuming offense.
LSU scoring 53 points this coming Saturday will probably please many Tiger fans and their thirst for modern gimmick-driven football. But don’t expect it. Don’t expect the Tigers to reach 50 unless their defense and special teams score as well. And when they don’t score 50, give Miles and his philosophy some credit. There’s some genius behind that–a holistic manner of thinking that keeps the program at the top of college football. Remember that 53-20 and 3-0 and No. 6 can very easily spiral to 4-7 without a coach who keeps things in balance.