If two straight losses to Alabama represents domination and frustration to you as an LSU football fan, you weren’t around 35 years ago. You weren’t here for the truly lean years. You didn’t live through LSU’s version of the recession.
From 1971-81, the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers 11 straight times, grinding LSU up in the gears of its vaunted Wishbone offense.
But in 1982, the Tigers turned the Tide, going to Birmingham’s Legion Field and coming away with a 20-10 victory.
It was a landmark win for LSU, arguably one of the most important and impactful in the school’s long football history. It showed that the Tigers could play with and beat the Southeastern Conference’s most monolithic program and in a tangible sense laid the groundwork for the success LSU enjoys today.
Despite all the consternation surrounding LSU football as it regards current Alabama and former LSU coach Nick Saban and the success the Crimson Tide is having, despite the Tigers having suffered through nine losing seasons from 1983-99, taken as a whole LSU and Bama have been on a fairly even footing the past 30 years.
Since 1982, Alabama only leads the series with LSU 16-15-1. That includes a remarkable 22-8-1 record for the visiting team, with the Tigers going 11-4 at Alabama.
All since 1982. It was a year that led to a seismic shift for Alabama as well, as it was the year legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant retired after 25 seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Bryant died in January 1983 and took a large measure of Alabama’s mystique to the grave with him. But before he went, the seniors on the 1982 LSU team exacted their pound of flesh from The Bear.
“As seniors, we wanted to beat the ‘Old Man,’ as we called him,” said Greg Bowser, the former Tigers defensive lineman who now provides color commentary on LSU football game broadcasts on CST. “We hadn’t beaten Alabama. It was a chance to do something special.”
Doing something special meant gumming up the Bama Wishbone. That LSU did, holding the Crimson Tide to 45 rushing yards in the first half while the Tigers built a 17-0 lead.
“Everyone was talking about getting 11 hats to the ball,” Bowser recalled. “If we did that, we had a chance to win. That was our theme.”
Offensively, LSU had chucked the Veer offense (think Wishbone lite, no calories and not always a lot of points) from the previous two seasons for a more pro style attack under new offensive coordinator Mack Brown.
Yes, that Mack Brown, Texas’ head coach and the man LSU fans hope will step aside so Saban can take his job.
The Tigers offense fairly bristled with weapons, led by an experienced quarterback in Alan Risher, a talented freshman running back duo of Dalton Hilliard and Garry James and converted running back Eric Martin at wide receiver. Back then they called it split end (Martin’s position) and flanker. I miss that.
“Mack said that day we’d have to do things totally different,” Risher said. “Break all our tendencies. We ran a reverse on first down. They had a great pass rush, and I got lucky a couple of times to scramble and keep drives going. We threw a lot of screens to keep them off balance.
“It was like night and day.”
When the Tigers returned to the airport in Baton Rouge (Ryan Field back then), hundreds greeted the team plane as though LSU had won the national championship. I was one of them, standing with my friend Mark Mestayer on top of what I think was a state police car with a couple of dozen other folks.
When the team departed, we got off the car and saw the roof and hood was caved in and all four tires were flat.
Sorry, Mark. Hope for our sakes there’s a statute of limitations on such foolishness.
For the Tigers to return from Alabama with a win this Saturday, Bowser and Risher said they’ll need to echo some of the things their team did to beat the Tide in 1982.
“I think they’ve got to have self-scouted to try to break their tendencies,” Risher said. “Tendencies can be broken on where you do things on the field.
“You can run the same plays but it’s where you run them in terms of down and distance. I think Cam (Cameron, LSU’s offensive coordinator) will put together a plan to do that, especially on the road.”
Bowser said he believes Alabama’s cornerbacks can be vulnerable to the Tigers’ vertical passing attack. Conversely, LSU has to avoid being vulnerable to AJ McCarron’s deadly play-action passes.
“They pound the ball (with the run), then go to play action and hit the big pass — and that’s what kills you,” Bowser explained. “When you’re worried about the big pass, they go back to pounding you. If LSU stays away from the big pass and can stop the run and force turnovers, they can win the game.”
And repeat a glorious afternoon in the Birmingham sunshine when, for LSU football, everything changed.