Thursday, August 28, 2014

Opening-game memories -- Part II

          As I said in the previous blog piece, LSU has been a tough opening-game opponent for any football team, especially the 18 seasons leading up to this one. Tough, but not always intimidating.
          The 17-1 record in that time includes some shaky victories and a couple that I consider great ones.
          Hopefully, Wisconsin will be added to the list of opening-game victims Saturday night, but it's a toss-up game. This Tigers team appears to have plenty of talent, plenty of potential -- and plenty of questions because it is one of the youngest teams in Les Miles' 10 years as coach.
Tyrone Mathieu, the "Honey Badger," and the LSU Tigers went Duck hunting
at Cowboys Stadium to open an almost-perfect 2011 season (
          We'll see soon enough, won't we?
          There are many people who have much more expertise in LSU football history than I do; mostly, I've been a fan and follower from a distance, even in my 25 years of sportswriting in Louisiana. But I have my favorite opening-day LSU victories and my least-favorite opening-day losses.
          I had to do some research to find that the Tigers had lost five consecutive opening games -- 1991 (at Georgia), 1992-95 (all Texas A&M, two at home, two away) before this current streak of success began.
          Now, for my favorite openers ... start with three years ago, 2011, the 40-27 thumping of highly touted, high-scoring Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. That was the coming-out game for Tyrone Mathieu as a legitimate star, the "Honey Badger" campaign and the first of 13 victories in a row by a team that was equal to any LSU team in history.
          Yeah, it ended badly with that one-sided loss to Alabama, but those Tigers were as dominant or more so than any of the three national championship teams. Hey, it's my opinion.
          Two favorite openers were ties -- 6-6 with No. 1-ranked Nebraska at Tiger Stadium in 1976 and 21-21 at Florida in the first game of the Bill Arnsparger coaching era, a sensational game (if I remember right) by running back Dalton Hilliard against a team that won Florida's first SEC title (later vacated because of NCAA penalties).
          Another favorite: The first game of the Les Miles coaching era: 35-31 at Arizona State, played there because Hurricane Katrina made it impossible to play at Tiger Stadium. Remember how the Tigers were behind 17-7 after three quarters, rallied to take the lead on special-teams plays, fell behind again -- and then won on a long late drive and JaMarcus Russell's 39-yard TD pass to Early Doucet ... on a fourth-down scramble and heave.
          (What we didn't know then: It would be a trademark of Miles' teams ... flounder for a while, then somehow put it together, make pulsating comebacks, and -- in Les vernacular -- finish first.)
          Another personal favorite: Last year, 37-27 over TCU, against at Cowboys Stadium. We live close to TCU, but I'm not a Frogs' fan -- no fan of the head coach -- especially against LSU. The Tigers didn't even need their top running back (suspended).
          The Tigers have had some one-sided opening wins over the years against lesser opponents and some against "name" schools in which they built nice leads and then had to hold on -- such as at Washington in 2009 (31-23) and against North Carolina in Atlanta in 2010 (30-24). In those, they were about one play from disaster.
            But in my opinion, no LSU opening win was more fortunate than the last one of Nick Saban's coaching era (2004). The defending national champions, ranked No. 4, trailed Oregon State 9-0 at halftime at Tiger Stadium and were still down 15-7 with 1:38 remaining before driving for a TD and tying two-point PAT and forcing overtime. And they won 22-21 when Oregon State's kicker missed a PAT kick for the third time in the game.
            That was a night when Saban had a lot of Les Miles-type luck.
            I looked this up: From 1956 through 1971 -- 15 seasons -- LSU opened all but one season against either Rice (five times) or Texas A&M (9).
            The only exception was 1966, and that was a memorable night at Tiger Stadium: When Paul Dietzel, coach of LSU's 1958 national champs and great 1959 team who left abruptly -- and disgusted LSU fans -- after the 1961 season for the head coaching job at Army -- returned to Tiger Stadium to begin his coaching stint at South Carolina. He was supposed to be greeted by "The Big Boo," but it didn't happen and LSU was happy with its 28-12 win that night.
             In a 13-year period (1958-70), the only time LSU lost its openers were memorable for me.
  In 1961, the Tigers went to Rice and its 70,000-stadium was full that night. Dad and I made that trip to Houston to see friends and go to the game. LSU lost 16-3, its only loss of Dietzel's last season there; it won its last 10, ending with the Orange Bowl. I remember one of the Rice stars that night: fullback Roland Jackson, from Ruston.
              The reason I remember the 1970 opening loss to A&M was because it was so stunning. Most old-time LSU fans will remember it. The Aggies had minus 42 yards rushing, but LSU had six turnovers and here's the main reason we remember it: A&M won 20-18, on a 79-yard Hail Mary pass in the last minute, Lex James to Hugh McElroy. Unbelievable.
              (It wasn't quite as bad as Iowa's last-play, 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU 30-25 in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day, 2005, in Saban's last game as LSU coach. But it was bad.)  
            In the previous blog, I wrote about some of Louisiana Tech's opening-game challenges and my memories of two openers while I was in school there. In researching Tech's football history, I came upon this gem: When it lost its 1973 opener at Eastern Michigan, 21-19, it was the only loss in a 38-game span. Amazing; the most successful Bulldogs era ever.
            That was the last two games in '71; a 12-0 season in 1972; 12 wins in a row after the loss at Eastern Michigan with the last one the NCAA Division II national championship; and then 11 more wins in 1974 before a loss in the second round of the national playoffs.
            What Keith Prince, the longtime Tech sports information director, remembered about that one loss was that Jerry Pope kicked what all the Tech people thought was the winning field goal in the last minute. Only the officials didn't think so.
              NFL openers are another week away, but a quick note about the Dallas Cowboys. We've learned that no matter how they do in their opener under Coach Jason Garrett, it's only the start of an 8-8 season (three in a row).
              Once upon a time, when The Man in The Hat coached the Cowboys, they won 17 opening games in a row and 21 out of 22 (only loss to the Steelers, 36-28, in 1982). You could count on Tom Landry's teams starting 1-0, just as you almost always could count on them making the playoffs.
              But that was then. Now the playoffs are only a hope, only something they talk about. But they have won five of their last seven openers ... after winning one of the previous seven.
              Let me know when they are worth watching ... or when you-know-who is no longer in charge. 
              For more than 50 years, I followed high school football -- first as a student, a manager/statistician and then in my sportswriting career. Covered many a season-opening game, and dealt with others on the sports desk as an editor. It was always a love. It was work, but a love.
               But I have a special memory of the first high school opening game I covered, in 1969, my first year as a fulltimer at The Shreveport Times: Minden at Bossier, Memorial Stadium in Bossier City.                           
               As happened with several other games I've mentioned, it rained -- significantly. And the visiting team, Minden, whose program had floundered for several years, pulled a muddy 6-0 upset of a Bossier team that the year before had come within one late Woodlawn TD pass of winning what would've been a surprising district championship.
               The Minden people, and coach Billy Roach, were elated. Bossier's coach was Milford Andrews, an excellent high school baseball and football coach but not -- from a media standpoint -- all that quotable. That night, Milford didn't have much to say at all. The rookie reporter, admittedly unsure of covering the first game of his career, had about as much success getting quotes as the coach's team did scoring.
                I don't have a copy of that game story, but I know it wasn't an effort I liked.
                Don't recall much about other openers I covered, but I do know the last two: In 2011 for The Dallas Morning News at Weatherford's beautiful new stadium ... the Kangeroos -- great nickname -- upset the visiting Haltom Buffalos (yes, that's spelled correctly) 28-20, and in 2012 for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at old Wilemon Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where Arlington Bowie outlasted Mansfield 59-43.
                 The wild, fast-paced game, with touchdowns coming rapidly, had me thinking that I was too old to keep pace with the statistics and play-by-play that you need to chart in covering high school football. It was -- there's a laugh here -- the beginning of the end of my career.
                Now I can just sit here and write about the opening week of football season -- and how much I've always loved it, no matter who won or lost. But I prefer that my teams win.

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