Tiger Stadium waiting to erupt once more

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIGLSU cheerleaders fire up the fans before the South Carolina-LSU game last month in Tiger Stadium.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIGLSU cheerleaders fire up the fans before the South Carolina-LSU game last month in Tiger Stadium.

LSU and Florida in 1997. Tigers and Trojans in 1979. Hodson to Fuller. Halloween night and Billy Cannon. Four notes. Rain never in the forecast. History happens here. Memories are made here. Opponents’ dreams come to die here. This is Tiger Stadium, part Roman Coliseum and part passion play, and in here ...

The LSU offense had come off the field against South Carolina and Josh Dworaczyk — the Tigers’ player turned coach turned player again — was going from one fellow lineman to the other to go over plans for their next possession.

With South Carolina’s offense trying to operate, the crowd noise cascading onto the field was like an aural tidal wave, swamping the conversation on the LSU sideline.

“I’m a foot away, and they still can’t here exactly what I’m saying,” Dworaczyk said.

The atmosphere for the Tigers’ 23-21 victory over the Gamecocks on Oct. 13 was a perfect storm of Tiger Stadium atmosphere at its best: night game, highly ranked opponent, strong performance by LSU.

But if that night was a 10 on the decibel meter, then Saturday’s game against No. 1-ranked may be — and perhaps better be — an 11.

LSU’s players are not just expecting Death Valley to roar to life.

They’re counting on it.

“That’s what I play for,” Tigers defensive tackle Anthony “Freak” Johnson said. “When the fans are into it, I’m into it. I know if I make a big play, the fans are going to go crazy. It just lifts up the team. I think that’s going to play a big part.

“I think they’re going to name it, ‘The Earthquake Game, The Sequel.’”

Nearly five years before Johnson was born in 1993, LSU beat Auburn 7-6 on Oct. 8, 1988 in a game that became indelibly etched in Tiger Stadium lore.

The game-winning touchdown pass from Tommy Hodson to Eddie Fuller in the back of the north end zone set off such foot-stomping, eardrum-rupturing bedlam that the very earth trembled beneath the old stadium, registering on the seismograph across campus in the Geology Department.

It’s the kind of tale — like Billy Cannon’s 1959 Halloween night punt return or Bert Jones’ last-second touchdown pass to Brad Davis in 1972 (both against Ole Miss) — that have helped make Tiger Stadium one of the most legendary and feared venues in all of sports.

Especially at night.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the peak time for physical activity is after 5 p.m., when lung capacity is nearly 18 percent better than at noon.

There is something about a nighttime setting that adds weight to an occasion, says event planner Kayla Wavra of Oak Lodge Reception and Conference Center.

“It adds more depth, I would say, than the daytime,” Wavra said. “Daytime events are more laid back than ones in the evening. Evenings are more serious.”

Wavra said she handles more weddings at night than during the day than corporate outings.

“People feel they can be more themselves at night. And,” she said, “there’s more alcohol.”

It doesn’t take a party planner to know that a full day to imbibe at the countless tailgates blanketing the campus can make things a lot more, ahem, festive than an 11: 21 a.m. kickoff when the crowd has been limited to Bloody Marys.

“It’s like the whole place is one well-served student section,” CBSSports.com writer Bruce Feldman said.

“I hope the fans have a lot to drink Saturday and they’re rowdy Saturday night,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said.

That’s almost a guarantee. So is the fact that all the noise the well-lubricated Tigers (and Tide) fans generate will be funneled quite effectively onto the field.

Though the big curving upper decks flanking the old lower bowl of Tiger Stadium do more to hold the sound in than was the case before they were built, it seems as if the night sky puts a lid over Tiger Stadium as well, turning it into a noisy pressure cooker.

The proof is in the winning.

Since 1960, LSU is 226-60-4 in night games, a suffocating 60-5 since 2000. That compares to a 28-25-3 mark in the day.

“Dracula and LSU football,” the late Beano Cook said, “are at their best after the sun goes down.”

The Tigers have also won 22 straight home games (day and night), a school record and currently the longest active streak in the nation.

“This is Death Valley,” LSU coach Les Miles said after the South Carolina win. “This is truly where opponents’ dreams come to die.”

It starts with the thump of a big base drum as the LSU band marches out onto the field for pregame, belting out those stirring first four notes of “Hold That Tiger.”

“The best line I’ve heard came from my former (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) colleague, Ed Hinton,” said Tony Barnhart of CBSSports.com. Hinton said, “The first four notes of ‘Hold That Tiger’ … it will make the hair stand up on a dead man’s chest.”

CBS announcer Verne Lundquist has been doing play-by-play for more than 40 years, but he said he never heard anything quite like it the night he was here in 2007 for the LSU-Florida game.

“That was the first time I ever got to be there for a night game,” said Lundquist, who has been calling SEC games on CBS for 13 years. “I’d heard about it all my life. I don’t think I ever heard a louder crowd than when they announced the final score of the USC-Stanford game (the 41-point underdog Cardinal beat the No. 2 Trojans 24-23).”

Lundquist knows if things go well for the home team, considering the depth of the LSU-Alabama rivalry, that Saturday night could rival that night five years ago.

“I’d be shocked if it doesn’t equal that experience,” he said.

Alabama is nearly a 10-point favorite over LSU, but Lundquist thinks the nighttime home field advantage could mean a lot for the Tigers.

“I think you count them out at your peril if you play them at home,” Lundquist said. “I think they’ll play a really fine game. Alabama, in my view, is the best team in the country. But this will be a challenge.”

A challenge to be heard above the roar, if nothing else.