The trip to Baton Rouge was both remarkably terrific yet completely miserable. As you know, my wife and I pick one conference game each year to attend without our tribe of children. As a player, you're wisked in and out of campus and see very little, so I enjoy seeing the campuses, meeting rival fans, experiencing other team traditions and game day atmosphere and comparing them to the Auburn experience. With respect to what goes on outside the stadium, I must admit I was blown away.
The LSU fans were the most hospitable group I've ever seen offering Dana and me more food and drink than we could consume. Alligator sausage, boudin (pronounced BOO-DAN), duck gumbo, red beans and rice, hoghead cheese, and catfish all made up my pregame meal. I was fed by three or four different tailgates, people that just came over with enormous bowls or platters wanting to share food and fellowship. It's more than a gathering, it's a party...a celebration of culture consisting of genuine people that live life to the fullest. At Auburn I get the feel of thousands of individual tailgates. We say War Eagle or nod or waive and walk on to "our spot." At LSU, it felt like one enormous party from one tailgate to the next. There were no ropes marking off spots...just tent after tent after tent of fine cajun cuisine freely offered to all passers-by. It was a clinic in tailgating.
The reason for my rant on the hospitality...walking to the game from our hotel a man stops his truck a few hundred yards from us. He gets out and waits for us to approach. He lets us know we are about to be walking through a bad part of town. He insists we ride in his truck and shuffles his grown kids around in the cabin to make room for the enemy. When we get to the stadium and part ways he insists we return to eat. On the way back...same story, different family. They took care of us and we were appreciative! We ran into a couple of LSU's finest representatives and left humbled in more ways than one.
Inside the stadium, LSU showed us how far we have to go to return to the pinnacle of college football. We were outmanned, outmatched, outcoached, and over-run from opening to closing whistle. We did all the classic things you can't do when you're playing a superior team in their house...inopportune penalties that kept drives alive resulting in points for LSU, giving up the big play, poor punting, losing the field position battle, inability to protect the quarterback, inability to establish the running game. To beat just about anyone on the road these things can't happen. To beat the number one team in America, and quite possibly the most athletically powerful team I've ever seen, you must not only be dominant in these categories, you need to be a little lucky too.
I was most frustrated by the silly defensive penalties in the first half, all of which sustained drives by gifting LSU 1st downs, and all of which led to touchdowns that shouldn't have occured. 1st drive...3rd and 4--> illegal defensive substitution giving LSU the first down. Second scoring drive...2nd and 10--> Jordan Jefferson fumbles snap and is sacked for a loss of 10 negated by a silly personal foul grabbing of the facemask penalty. 3rd and 20 becomes 1st and 10. Two plays later they're in the endzone. Third scoring drive just before half. It's still a ballgame. 3rd and 5. Demetruce McNeal breaks up the pass on what should have been an INT setting AU up in LSU territory. Instead, pass interference on Chris Davis. Automatic 1st down. Three plays later, repeat bomb to Reuben Randle. Game effectively over.
The next most frustrating was watching our special teams, particularly our kickoff returners get absolutely destroyed kick, after kick, after kick. LSU was bringing the hammer and we were content with being the nail. It's been a long time since I've seen a special teams group make ours look inept and frankly cowardice.
Final most frustrating moment...listening to their crowd chant, "WE WANT BAMA" with half the game left to play. That added insult to injury knowing this game was over long before the final whistle.
But when you step back and look at the big picture, things aren't as bad as they seemed walking out of Death Valley. Entering October, I wrote a best case scenario would be to split the four game gauntlet. We did just that. When you look at who we have lost to...Clemson, Arkansas, LSU...all ranked in the top 8 with combined records of 22-1. Our schedule has been the nation's most difficult according to Sagarin and we remain ranked in the BCS (#23) even with 3 losses and no ranking in the Coaches Poll (the computers recognize the schedule strength).
At one point during the second quarter, I pointed out to my wife Dana we had six true freshman on the field at one time defensively...including the entire defensive backfield. Last year those guys were playing high school ball. This year they're playing the top team in college football. People get tired of hearing about youth, but it's legitimate. These kids are still cutting their teeth, but I promise you something. This is the kind of beat-down you don't forget. This is one that pushes you during spring and winter drills when no one's watching. You never forget what it felt like and you promise one another the next time you play this group there will be hell to pay. There will be a day of reckoning and it will make it all the more pleasurable and fulfilling having experienced the low point.
This team can still win eight or nine football games and far exceed even the loftiest of expectations. Will be interesting to watch how they respond against Ole Miss.