In Focus: USC vs. LSU 30 Years Later

Was this the greatest game in Tiger Stadium history?
Was this the greatest game in Tiger Stadium history?
Kent Lowe (@LSUkent)
Kent Lowe (@LSUkent)
Communications Sr. Associate

It’s been 30 years since Charles McClendon coached his last season in Tiger Stadium. No one knew what the 1979 season would hold. There were some of those in the know people picking LSU to win as few as three games.

But on a humid Sept. 29 night in Tiger Stadium in 1979, the Tigers put out one of the greatest efforts ever displayed in that historic venue. The crowd was so intense and so into the game that if you were at home trying to listen to the game, you couldn’t. The players wanted it for their lame duck coach. The fans wanted to see No. 1 go down. Not just any No. 1, but the No. 1 of Southern California and John Robinson and Charles White and student body left and student body right.

It was a modern day crusade and until the last 32 seconds, the Tigers had USC right where they wanted them behind on the scoreboard. But when the final second ticked off the clock, the Tigers were 17-12 losers.

I witnessed that night from the press box of the stadium as a graduate student and a correspondent for the Shreveport Times. I remember the night vividly. But so do the many thousands who were there and the other thousands who claim to have been there.

It’s been called the greatest game every played in Tiger Stadium. I don’t know. I think that’s subjective. If LSU had won there would have been no doubt to that moniker. But LSU lost and it’s hard to put a greatest game tag on something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But there is no doubt that both teams played to their potential and more. Never had two teams left it all on the floor of a stadium like USC and LSU. But never had a crowd helped will a team on like that night in “Death Valley.” They wouldn’t leave at the end of the night, cheering every single Tiger long after they had gone in the  dressing room.

Maybe 30 years later I can agree. It could well have been the greatest game ever played in Tiger Stadium. Win or lose, the events surrounding and some of the things that happened that night are certainly the stuff of greatness. Here’s a few of my memories with the help of a little recall from some of our clip files in the office (which included a couple of my old newspaper stories that are only slightly yellow with age after 30 years):

The Prelude

There was a big pep rally the night before the game (we had those things back then) and AD Paul Dietzel and the team captains including late quarterback David Woodley spoke to the fans. Coach Mac spoke as well and the students were beginning a chant heard off and on during the year “Bring Mac Back.”

But the fun of the pep rally took place after the official event when a few thousand of the crowd left the pep rally and headed to Tiger Stadium to “greet” the USC team when it arrived for its walk-through. For a while the Trojans couldn’t get off the bus, before cooler heads and security got things settled where the team could exit the bus, but had to walk through a line of Tiger fans shouting “Tiger Bait” and whatever it was we shouted back that long ago.

“That was kind of unique,” said Coach Robinson. “We run into a lot of different things, but that was different.”

Entertainment and Sports Programming What????

In 1979, college football telecasts were few and far between and there certainly wasn’t a 15-year contract between the league and various networks. Now the game was televised, but if you saw it on tape-delay or happen to have a copy of it, you own something rare. A brand new network, something called the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, yea that ESPN network that will never last, was there with legendary Jim Simpson calling the game. It was barely available so it didn’t seem to matter to too many people.

From the Box

The game drew some of the top writers in the nation to the LSU press box (which didn’t seem as antiquated back then) and SID Paul Manasseh made sure as usual everyone was well taken care of. Luckily, I was in one of the Shreveport Times seats next to sports editor Gerry Robichaux. The band came on the field and for the first time I felt the press box shake and it would shake for most of the next three hours.

The decibel mark didn’t set off a seismograph like would happen some 10 years later, but it was one of those impossible to hear yourself think nights from start to finish.

LSU’s radio network in the upper part of the old press box was finding out how loud the crowd was. No one at home could hear John Ferguson and Walter Hill. If I remember correctly, Doug Moreau was running for possibly a judgeship and couldn’t do the broadcasts for most of that season.

All the crowd microphones along the booth were removed to help fans hear the announcers, but other than going into the hallway where they couldn’t see the game, the sound was just going into the booth and overwhelming everything else.

The Game

Southern Cal would score first to take a 3-0 lead, but the Tigers came back on a 14-yard pass from Steve Ensminger to LeRoid Jones to give LSU a 6-3 advantage and that lead expanded and had the Tiger Stadium crowd really buzzing when walk-on kicker Don Barthel hit a 32-yarder in the final two minutes to send the Tigers to the dressing room up an amazing 9-3.

The first of those defining moments of this game came near the end of the third quarter when LSU drove to the Trojan two-yard-line. LSU dropped a TD pass in the end zone and an end-around lost nine yards and the Tigers were forced to settle for another field goal that made it 12-3 heading to the final 15 minutes. The Valley was roaring, shaking and there was a pent-up emotion that was hard to contain.

A four-yard touchdown by Charles White off a 56-yard drive closed the game to 12-10 and there wasn’t a seat being used for its practical purpose in the crowd of over 78,000. LSU recovered a fumble on the Trojan 17 but a 15-yard penalty wiped out that chance to get some insurance points, meaning USC would have one more chance entering the final four minutes.

The Trojans would drive 79 yards in 10 plays and had the quarterback dropped on a third down, but a mysterious facemask penalty on the play when the LSU bench and fans thought there should have been a motion infraction kept the drive alive.

USC would eventually score the go ahead touchdown with 32 seconds left when Paul McDonald hit Kevin Williams with an eight-yard pass.

LSU in the final seconds would reach the USC 30, but two desperation passes into the end zone were incomplete and No. 1 had survived and all the air seemed sucked out of Tiger Stadium for a few minutes.

Then the crowd suddenly came to life and gave the losing team, their Tigers, the biggest cheer ever heard in a losing effort. The fans weren’t worried about 2009 things like play calling and mistakes and coaching decisions. They were proud of their team and their coach. Charlie Mac looked like he had played every play as he walked off the floor of the stadium and later met with the media.

“Fellas, this team reached way down deep,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of an LSU football team.”

The Aftermath

The game was called by a split crew of Pac 10 and SEC officials. That was the common thing back in a day when there was a one-game series like this. It’s common now for either all-SEC officials or sometimes the other conference will call when the team is on the road in a home and home series. Coach Mac hated those types of split crews.

“I think things just work smoother when all the officials are from the same league,” he said. “I would have much rather had an all-Pac-10 crew or an all-SEC crew than a split one.”

And, while most USC fans would call it sour grapes, Mac wanted to make one final point about things the following Tuesday when he met with the media in the stadium for his weekly luncheon.

The coach brought some tape from his team film that showed some unique things, including most notably quarterback David Woodley being tackled on the USC sideline with the aid of a player not in the game. A helmet-less No. 34 appeared to help bring down the LSU signal caller as he came into the bench area and LSU receiver Carlos Carson is shown on the film trying to explain to an official on the scene just what happened to no avail.

The motion no-call was also shown to the press and all those years later the what ifs of the game still abound.

Greatest Night in Tiger Stadium? I’m not fully convinced. Was it one of the greatest teams that LSU faced in Tiger Stadium? No doubt. It definitely was two teams that gave their all from start to finish resulting in what many feel to this day was the greatest game in the hallowed history of Tiger Stadium and I’m glad to say I saw it all.




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