By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE – One of the silliest things about Southeastern Conference football is its historical quirky scheduling habits. There have not been enough games between certain schools, like LSU versus Tennessee and LSU versus Georgia and Alabama versus Florida, and too many games between other schools, like Alabama versus Tennessee or LSU versus Kentucky.
LSU and Auburn also only played sparingly before the two were put in the West when the SEC went to divisions in 1992.
Consequently, LSU never got to play against three of the greatest SEC players of all time – tailbacks Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson of Georgia and Auburn, respectively, in the 1980s and Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning of New Orleans in the 1990s.
LSU did come very close to playing Manning in 1997, though, in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta … less than a minute away that is.
The Tigers were that close to their first-ever SEC West championship on Nov. 22, 1997, but an offensive coordinator named Bruce Arians, a fullback named Ed Scissum, a defensive back named Martavious Houston, a kicker named Jaret Holmes and a quarterback named Dameyune Craig took it away.
LSU was open that day and sitting atop the SEC West in a tie at 5-2 and at 7-3 overall in the third year of Coach Gerry DiNardo. Auburn was also 5-2 and 8-2 overall under Coach Terry Bowden and the versatile Craig. Alabama, meanwhile, was awful in the first year of Coach Mike DuBose, who got the job basically because he played and coached under Bear Bryant. The Tide was 4-6 overall and 2-5 in the SEC with a 27-0 loss to LSU and a 26-20 loss to Louisiana Tech.
But Alabama played well in the Iron Bowl and had a 17-15 lead with the ball in the final minute and appeared as if it would win its first game in Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama. The series had featured its first game at Auburn only in 1989 as the rivalry was usually played in Legion Field in Birmingham. Alabama had lost its first three in Auburn.
The Tide faced a third-and-eight on its 36-yard line. A run and a punt would have meant that a struggling Auburn offense would have had to get into field goal position with about 40 seconds to play. Instead, Bruce Arians, who was the New Orleans Saints tight ends coach the year before, called a pass to Scissum, who had not caught a pass all year. Quarterback Freddie Kitchens completed it, but Houston nailed Scissum, who fumbled. And Auburn’s Quinton Reese recovered at the Bama 33-yard line with 42 seconds to go. Craig, who left Auburn’s wide receiver coaching position recently to become LSU’s wide receiver coach, passed Auburn closer. And Holmes hit a 39-yard field goal with 15 seconds to go for the win.
Arians and other Bama assistant coaches, including former LSU head coach Curley Hallman, were soon fired from Alabama’s staff by DuBose, who would be fired just three years later. Arians bounced back well and is the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals.
Auburn stood at 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the SEC after the gift win. Had Alabama held on, LSU would have won the SEC West and earned the right to play Tennessee and Manning in Atlanta because it defeated Arkansas, 31-21, on November 28 in Tiger Stadium to finish 9-3 overall and 6-2 in the SEC. Instead, Auburn and LSU finished in a tie for the West at 6-2. Auburn won the tiebreaker because of a head-to-head victory over LSU by 31-28 victory at Tiger Stadium on September 20. LSU and tailback Cecil Collins, who gained 232 yards on 27 carries that night, led that game, 28-24, until the final minute.
Craig, who completed 23 of 45 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns versus LSU, took Auburn on a last-minute touchdown drive for the win as tailback Rusty Williams scored on a 1-yard run with 30 seconds to play.
Manning and Tennessee edged Auburn and Craig, 30-29, in the SEC title game. LSU would not win its first SEC West title until December 1, 2001, with a 27-14 win over Auburn. Both teams finished 5-3 in the West that season, but LSU went to Atlanta because of the head-to-head victory. The game had been moved to December 1 from its original date of September 15 because of 9/11. The Tigers defeated Tennessee, 31-20, in the SEC Championship Game for their first overall SEC title since 1988.
Had Arians run the ball on that third-and-eight, Alabama likely would have won and LSU would have won the SEC West.
And had Arians taken note of that LSU-Auburn game, he may have reconsidered his choice to pass. Because DiNardo had faced a third-and-two from the Auburn 47-yard line with about 10 minutes to play. Collins had just scored on a 42-yard run for a 28-24 lead and was well on his way to his 232-yard night with 8.5 yards a carry. But DiNardo called a pass, and quarterback Herb Tyler threw incomplete to wide receiver Larry Foster. LSU punted.
Then with just over three minutes to go, DiNardo faced a third-and-five from the exact same yard line – the LSU 36 – that Arians called his pass against Auburn. Instead of calling Collins’ number, DiNardo had Tyler keep it. He was stopped two yards short, and LSU punted. And Craig took Auburn 80-yards in 10 plays in two minutes and 42 seconds. He completed 5 of 8 passes on the drive for 69 yards. Craig became just the second Auburn quarterback to win at LSU since 1939. Stan White had won in 1993.
At his introductory press conference at LSU recently, Craig was asked if he ever thanked LSU for not giving it to Collins on that third-and-two.
“They gave it to him enough,” he said. “He was a great running back. I tell people he was one of the best running backs I ever laid eyes on.”
Craig had to be reminded that the Tigers didn’t get the ball to Collins on two critical third downs.
“Oh, they didn’t,” he said smiling. “We got the ball back. OK.”
The victory was one of Craig’s most treasured as an Auburn player.
“I really love this atmosphere,” he said. “I love coming here and playing. Great fans. They’re passionate about what they’re doing. It’s just difficult to win here. The fans make it really, really hard.”
Now, nearly 20 years later, Craig can help pay back LSU its lost SEC title that he helped take.
“I want to win a championship here,” he said. “My mind is on winning a championship here.”