In its 2004 preseason magazine, Athlon Sports named "an evening game at Tiger stadium" the best football tradition that any of the 12 Southeastern Conference schools has to offer. Vanderbilt fans get a rare chance to experience that tradition Saturday, as the Commodores (2-5) travel to bayou country to take on LSU (5-2) at 7 p.m. (104.5 The Zone).
The pre-game atmosphere in Baton Rouge is second to none. Tiger fans are renowned for their tailgating, which includes Cajun cuisine like gumbo and jambalaya, not to mention generous libations. A night game along the banks of the Mississippi merely adds to the mystical, festive atmosphere, as loyal Tiger boosters take the entire day to, er, prepare themselves for the game.
In recent years, however, tales have circulated regarding out-of-control LSU fans' mistreatment of visiting fans. Bobby Johnson was asked about such tales at his Monday media conference.
“Coach Carter [running backs coach Kenny Carter] has told us some stories," Johnson said. "Really, the basic thing is that it’s going to be a great atmosphere and the people there care a lot about football. We've heard some outrageous stories."
At SEC Media Days in August, Johnson said he and his team were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to play before the 92,000 fans at Tiger Stadium.
"Fortunately for us, we'll be down on the field," he said. "I've heard our fans may not fare too well down there, but we'll be down on the field, at least, going against the LSU players."
For Commodore fans, simply playing a night game in a stadium called "Death Valley" on Halloween eve may be spooky enough. But considering all the outlandish and bizarre things that have happened over the years when these two teams have played, one can almost be certain something out of the ordinary will occur.
LSU holds a 19-6-1 record in a series that is almost a century old. Vanderbilt, coached by Dan McGugin, won the first meeting 22-0 in 1910.
The teams played eight straight years from 1933-1940, with LSU enjoying a 6-1-1 advantage. Vanderbilt's lone win came in 1937 in Nashville; Coach Ray Morrison employed a "hidden-ball" trick play to score the winning points (see Howell Peiser's story from earlier this week).
The two teams played seven more times between 1945 and 1951, with Vanderbilt winning twice. Coach Red Sanders' team destroyed the Tigers in 1948, 48-7. Vanderbilt also defeated LSU in Bill Wade's senior year, 1951; that win, by a score of 20-13, remains Vandy's most recent win in Baton Rouge.
Over the last 52 seasons the Commodores and Tigers have met only eight times, with the Commodores winning twice (1957 and 1990). The last four meetings, however, have been marked by furious finishes and controversies.
In 1990 at Dudley Field, a Watson Brown-coached Vanderbilt team took a 24-21 lead with 3:34 to play on a 4-yard Marcus Wilson run. LSU appeared to take the lead back in the final minute on a 42-yard pass from Chad Loup to Todd Kinchen, but the play was nullified by an offensive interference call. LSU coach Mike Archer was furious, but Vandy escaped with what would be its lone win of the 1990 season. The Commodores would proceed to drop nine games in a row, however, and Brown would be fired at the end of the season.
The 1991 game in Baton Rouge would prove to be another nail-biter. In Gerry Dinardo's first season at Vanderbilt, trailing 16-14, the Commodores drove to the LSU 2 with a minute to play, but failed to produce the winning score. Tailback Corey Harris was hit and fumbled just as he was about to cross the goal line, and LSU preserved a 16-14 victory.
The next time the two teams met, 1996 at Baton Rouge, Dinardo would be on the LSU sidelines after departing Vanderbilt. The week before the game, second-year Vandy coach Rod Dowhower invoked an NCAA rule that forced LSU, the home team, to wear colored jerseys instead of its preferred home white. The controversy did little but stir the beehive unnecessarily, and a fired-up LSU team poured it on the Commodores, 35-0.
The 1997 game in Nashville was one of the greatest in series history, and one of the most controversial. In a classic defensive struggle, an outstanding Vanderbilt defense virtually shut down LSU's vaunted rushing attack, and the Tigers led 7-0 going into the fourth quarter. On the final play of the game, Woody Widenhofer's team finally scored on a 12-yard pass from Damian Allen to Tavarus Hogans. Historic Vanderbilt Stadium nearly went berserk.
But no Vanderbilt fan will ever forget what happened next. Widenhofer boldly called for a two-point play, but LSU countered by calling time out. Not once but twice, the Commodores failed to get set before the 25-second clock expired. Two delay-of-game penalties pushed the line of scrimmage for the extra point back to the 13-yard line, and John Markham's PAT attempt from 30 yards out was blocked. Dinardo and LSU left town with a 7-6 win.
Over the years, out of the dozens of fabulous games that have taken place at Tiger Stadium, two probably tower above all others.
Billy Cannon's 89-yard punt return on Halloween night, 1959, is unquestionably one of the most memorable plays in college football history. With a mist hanging over the bayou giving the game an eerie, almost ghostly quality, and with LSU trailing 3-0, Cannon "careened off seven tacklers down the east sideline and darted 89 yards to immortality," reads the LSU media guide. The touchdown gave the Tigers a 7-3 victory over the Rebels.
Cannon went on to win the Heisman Trophy, and LSU went on to a 10-1 season. But Ole Miss would later gain revenge in a rematch between the two teams in the Sugar Bowl.
In 1988 Auburn visited LSU in a game between the SEC's top two powers. It was a game that most thought would decide the conference champion.
When Tommy Hodson hit Eddie Fuller with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass that would put LSU up to stay 7-6, it set off such a thunderous explosion from the 79,341 fans in Tiger Stadium that the LSU Department of Geology registered vibrations on its seismograph.
The game is now recalled as "The Night the Tigers Moved the Earth." That LSU team went on to win the 1988 SEC Championship.
Under the current SEC rotating schedule, Vanderbilt and LSU meet twice every five years. LSU comes to Nashville next year on Oct. 8. After that, the two teams are not scheduled to meet again until 2009.