Ruminations on the Bayou Bengals
Hello, friends! I am helping out norcalvol while he is away in Iceland, and throwing my 2 cents in about our Vols — specifically, to share some of my thoughts about Tennessee’s opponent this upcoming weekend, the LSU Tigers, and some recent history of the series between the two teams, from my own personal observations.
I want to give this caveat, however — I am not quite as technologically savvy as some of you, and am still learning about this whole blogging thing. So bear with me, and with that in mind, away we go!
Back in the late 1960s/early 1970s, my father decided to combat what he perceived as my severe introverted nature by sending me off to a summer camp — specifically, the “All Sports Camp” offered at the University of Tennessee. As a camper, I got to stay in Gibbs Hall and had a student athlete as my huddle group leader. We would take “classes” in all variety of sports — football, baseball, basketball, swimming, riflery, wrestling — all on campus and all using UT facilities. There were boys of all ages there, and I suppose that it had some redeeming social value for me (not much athletic value, since I seemed to have two left feet in every sport, and couldn’t follow a coach’s directions to save my life).
When I exited into Stokely Athletic Center from Gibbs Hall, I could wander up and down the corridors gazing at photographs of All-American football players, basketball players, baseball players, track team members, and the like; as a life-long fan of UT athletics, seeing these pictures of players whom I idolized, or about whom my parents had talked, was like being in heaven. Of all the pictures hanging on the walls of Stokely, however, a couple that caught my notice were pictures that depicted memorable plays from UT’s storied football past. One, of “Jackpot” Johnny Butler’s 56-yard run against Alabama in 1939, was called “The Run”; the other, of several Vol defenders gang-tackling Billy Cannon of LSU in 1959, was called “The Stop.”
As many may know, this scene took place in the Tennessee-LSU football game at Shields-Watkins Field on November 7, 1959 between the undefeated, defending National Champions, the LSU Tigers, and the Tennessee Vols, who were coming off a 4-6 season and who would eventually finish 8th in the SEC that year. LSU was led by its talented senior running back, Billy Cannon, a Heisman Trophy candidate.
After a scoreless first quarter, LSU took a 7-0 lead into halftime after a Billy Cannon touchdown run; Tennessee responded with two touchdowns in the third quarter — after a pick-six on an LSU pass, and then an LSU fumble that Tennessee recovered and drove in for a score — for a 14-7 lead. LSU came back in the fourth quarter and scored a touchdown after Tennessee fumbled the ball on its own 2-yard line; thereby setting the stage for “The Stop.” LSU elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win; Billy Cannon got the ball and headed over right tackle, but was stuffed on the 6-inch (or less) line by three Volunteer defenders: Charles Severance, Bill Majors (who had fumbled to set up the potential game-winning conversion by LSU), and Wayne Grubb. The picture of “The Stop” shows these three Vol defenders attacking Cannon in the best tradition of General Neyland’s Game Maxim 5, “pursue and gang tackle.” Cannon was kept out of the end zone, and UT held on for a 14-13 victory.
(FOOTNOTE: Billy Cannon went on to win the Heisman Trophy for 1959, and then played in the AFL for the Houston Oilers and Oakland Raiders; along the way he earned a D.D.S. degree — from the University of Tennessee! — and after his professional football career was over he worked as an orthodontist, until his conviction on federal counterfeiting charges in 1983).
The story of how an underdog Tennessee football team stopped the best collegiate football player in the nation at the game’s most critical situation, and ultimately beat what was perhaps the best football team in the nation at the time, always resonated with me. It was truly a David-and-Goliath story, and something that every Vol fan could take pride in. And that is where Tennessee-LSU football began for me.
Flash forward to 2000. Your humble narrator traveled to Baton Rouge to watch the Tennessee-LSU game at night in “Death Valley”. It was a truly wonderful occasion, with some of the best tailgating that I have ever experienced; and a sea of RVs outside Tiger Stadium filled with hospitable (and mostly intoxicated) LSU fans. A friend and I had tickets, and found ourselves sitting on the 5-yard line a couple of rows off the field; not the best seats, but we weren’t complaining. Tennessee was bringing a 2-1 record into this game against LSU, which had a first-year coach, Nick Saban, and a quarterback, Rohan Davey, who was impeded with a brace on his right leg. Tennessee was led by quarterback A.J. Suggs, receiver Cedric Wilson, and linebacker Eric Westmoreland.
The accoutrements of Death Valley were pretty nice — Mike the Tiger being led around in his cage, the announcer with his famous “It never rains in Tiger Stadium!”, TWO jumbotrons, and the best damn food I’ve ever eaten in a football stadium. Unfortunately, this all had to compensate for a miserable football game, which Tennessee lost in overtime after an underwhelming performance by A.J. Suggs, and an inept defensive scheme by then-UT defensive coordinator John Chavis.
The post-game bacchanalia by LSU fans outside the stadium was quite memorable, however — all of the LSU fans were very nice and friendly (probably because none of them really expected to win the game), the alcohol was free-flowing, and the next morning my friend and I had massive hangovers to work off before coming back to Tennessee.
The following year I found myself once again sitting among LSU fans — this time at the 2001 SEC championship game in Atlanta, Georgia, in the LSU endzone of the GeorgiaDome (I had gotten some tickets courtesy of a friend of my wife’s; they weren’t my preferred spot, but the price was right).
UT had reason to expect a victory in this game, having beaten LSU at home earlier in the year, 26-18. Tennessee’s offense, however, stumbled and bumbled all over the field (hey, thanks, Randy Sanders!); and Tennessee’s defense couldn’t buy a stop of LSU’s offense, even though LSU’s first-string quarterback and tailback had been knocked out of the game early on, and their backups finished out the game.
You know the rest: Nick Saban and LSU won the SEC championship game, 31-20; and Tennessee, having blown its chance to go to the Rose Bowl and play for the national championship, went to Orlando and whipped up on Michigan 45-17 in the Citrus Bowl — small consolation, indeed, for many Vol fans who were hoping to be celebrating a second national championship in three years.
To call the 2001 SEC championship game an upset would not begin to describe its effect on the Volunteer faithful. Quite frankly, this loss rocked the Volunteer world; and in my opinion it began the downhill slide of Coach Fulmer that ended with his dismissal as head coach in November 2008.
All of this brings me to the present game this weekend, and the question: Whither Tennessee? The Vols are a significant underdog in this game — 12th-ranked LSU is a two-touchdown favorite. LSU features a potential Heisman Trophy candidate in cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson (who, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel today, may be playing some downs on offense, a la Charles Woodson, in an attempt to burnish his Heisman credentials). LSU’s running backs Richard Murphy and Spencer Ware, who have been out with hamstring injuries, will be back to lend punch to LSU’s running game. John Chavis, who left Tennessee in 2008 and is now LSU’s defensive coordinator, will certainly be motivated to do everything he can to stifle Tennessee’s offense. And of course the game will be in the very hostile environs of Tiger Stadium, with the Vols bringing a depleted, knocked-about, and largely inexperienced group of players to match up against the talented and experienced Bayou Bengals.
Working in Tennessee’s favor is the play of LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who is one of the least effective quarterbacks in the SEC; not to mention the erratic coaching of Les Miles, who, if he does not win enough games this season, may not be long in this world as LSU’s head coach. But these advantages are likely to be dwarfed by the talent on offense and defense that LSU brings to the game.
I am nevertheless encouraged by the thought of that band of Volunteers who, over 50 years ago, took on a highly ranked and talented LSU team which featured an eventual Heisman Trophy winner, on a cold November day; who, in the words of General Neyland’s maxim, played for and made the breaks, and then scored off of them; and who, against all odds, triumphed against superior talent in a victory that is best remembered by two simple words — The Stop.
Can Tennessee make The Stop against LSU this weekend? Perhaps not; but then, stranger and more unexpected things have happened between these two teams.