USC barely managed to come out of LSU's Tiger Stadium—known as Death Valley—with its national title hopes alive
October 07, 1979

There are a lot of LSU fans just like me," Curly Brisset, 46, was saying at twilight last Saturday outside Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge amid the unbridled hysteria of fans getting tuned up for the evening's game with No. 1-ranked Southern California. And to show just what kind of a fan he is, Brisset reached for his wallet and whipped out some pictures...of his New Orleans home. It's lovely, unless one happens to have an aversion to a $200,000 home painted purple and gold, which happen to be LSU's colors. The four antebellum columns, the fence, the gate and the mailbox are decorated with the same color scheme. And that's not all, folks. There's a painting of a tiger on the double front doors.

"I thought you might notice that," said Brisset. "A lady did it. Took her 11 days and nights. Cost me $300. When I was having the doors put up, my neighbor was sneaking around in the bushes and I heard him call to his wife in this anguished voice, 'Gloria, he's at it again.' " Curly admits his house is a conversation piece, maybe even a traffic hazard. Less dedicated LSU adherents obviously don't hold it in such high regard—the place was egged three times last week.

One of the photos shows Brisset's purple Cadillac—he's a Caddy salesman—with the purple interior parked out front. How come no gold top, Curly? "That would not be in good taste," he sniffs. Inside the car are well-worn tapes of LSU songs and rebroadcasts of the Tigers' most stirring games.

LSU's biggest star ever was 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon. Years ago, when Brisset's wife, Rosemary, was pregnant, they were at a game and Curly said, "If we have a boy I'm naming him Billy Cannon Brisset." Rosemary said, "You wouldn't dare." Today, Billy Cannon Brisset is a student manager for the Tigers. Curly didn't attend LSU, but he simply loves its football team to death.

Indeed, nowhere else in America can fans match the bonkers-beyond-bananas support that LSU backers bestow on the Tigers. In their eyes, nothing is too outrageous, as long as it's done in behalf of ol' LSU. Witness: there's one guy who swears he'll pay $1,000 to anyone who catches him not wearing purple socks. Witness: Jim LeBlanc and his family wear simulated tiger-skin outfits to games. "We like to show our colors—or stripes," he says. Witness: Tiger Stadium is better known to visiting teams as Death Valley. In this sort of setting, Curly is just one of the boys.

Last Saturday evening 78,322 such zealots arrived in a frenzy and worked up from there as their Tigers whipped USC all over the field—until 12:23 remained in the final quarter. Then the Trojans, behind 12-3 and surveying what looked like the wreckage of their anticipated national championship season, found life in Death Valley. They scored two touchdowns—including the game-winner with 32 seconds left—in the noisiest stadium in America, to triumph 17-12. That ran their record to 4-0 and prompted USC Coach John Robinson to say, "We have the heart of a champion."

That was no overstatement, especially considering that Southern Cal had the misfortune of encountering an LSU team which, pumped up beyond belief by its raucous fans, went out and played the entire game without its feet ever touching the ground. That was the only way the Tigers could've stayed with the Trojans, who already have been proclaimed by three football coaches as the best college team ever. Now, that might just be an overstatement. "Flattery is seducing," says Robinson. "That's a lot to live up to." Had the Tigers been able to hang on for the victory, it would have been their biggest win since 1971 when they whipped Notre Dame 28-8. Former Governor John McKeithen, a fan of properly wild devotion, says, "For that game, we got 'em in the stadium, locked the gates and kept 'em there until we beat 'em."

Southern Cal narrowly escaped a similar fate and knows it. And have no doubt, the spectators played a big, big role in the near upset. "Nothing is done at LSU to inhibit the spirit of our fans," says Athletic Director Paul Dietzel. "And they will get cranked up." That's a tradition in Cajun country, where life's main preoccupation seems to be finding new and better ways to keep the good times rolling. Indeed, the sainted Billy Cannon, now an orthodontist, laughs and says, "Great fans. Great. They're with you through everything, win or tie." But he's joking, because nowhere are the rooters as loyal in defeat.

It all makes a body tingle. These folks go berserk when the band marches on the field. A huge roar is heard for the Invocation, for heaven's sake. They not only know the words to the national anthem, they sing them, loudly. And, when the Tigers win the toss—as happened Saturday—there are tears of ecstasy.

To get ready for Death Valley, Robinson rented a crowd-noise tape from Universal Studios and installed a high-powered sound system at his practice field to broadcast the roars during last week's drills. Alas, the first day the system didn't work too well, but Robinson was his usual philosophical self. "That's O.K.," he told the crestfallen technicians, "our team isn't perfect either." Anyway, added Offensive Guard Brad Budde, "great teams aren't intimidated by the crowd." Certainly Budde played as if he couldn't be intimidated by a stadium full of genuine tigers. He put on the kind of performance that has stamped him as the best offensive lineman in the country.

It's easy for fans to overlook Budde and his fellow linemen, most notably Center Chris Foote and Tackle Keith Van Home. That's because Tailback Charles White is very much in evidence—he carried the ball 31 times for 185 yards Saturday night—and so is the icy-cool, left-handed quarterback, Paul McDonald, who now has a .690 completion percentage. But Robinson isn't so easily distracted. He has watched Budde closely for four seasons now and extols him as "the most competitive football player I've ever been around. When he goes to the NFL, he'll be in the Pro Bowl for eight or nine years." Brad, son of former Kansas City Chief Guard Ed Budde, smiles when he talks of the weekly punishment inflicted on his body. "I should've listened to my dad when he told me I ought to become a field-goal kicker," he says. "But I think I can be better than he was [Ed was an All-Pro seven times in his 14-year career]. I expect it, and he expects it. See, at my position you have to love the game. It's not exciting to block."

However, Budde may not be all that much better than Van Home, a broadcast journalism major who prefers radio to TV, because "I like to be where I can be heard but not seen." Which is just about what one would expect of an offensive lineman. "The kind of guy who plays the offensive line is the kind who doesn't mind being overshadowed," says Foote. At this his wife, Suzy, looks up at him and says, "I watch you to see if you make your tackle."

"You mean my block," says Chris.

"Oh, yeah, your block."

In the first half on Saturday, it seemed as if Southern Cal had forgotten all about both blocking and tackling. The defense, which had given up 81 yards rushing a game, played as if it was scared LSU would complete a long pass, thus it allowed 145 yards, mostly on plays designed to yield short gains. And the offense seemed bewildered by the Tigers' eight-man line. All the Trojans could manage was a 32-yard first-quarter field goal by Eric Hipp following Jeff Fisher's interception of a David Woodley pass.

Meanwhile, the Tigers, like their fans, were letting it all hang out. After the Trojans' three-pointer, Steve Ensminger, who had replaced Woodley at quarterback, completed a pass to Split End Tracy Porter for 15 yards, and Fullback Jude Hernandez followed that with a 24-yard bolt up the middle. That put the ball on the USC 12. Two plays later Ensminger threw over the center to Tailback LeRoid Jones for an LSU touchdown. A fumbled snap spoiled the conversion attempt, but 10 minutes later, after recovering a USC fumble, the Tigers got to the Trojan 15 before they settled for a 32-yard field goal by Don Barthel. Thus, Southern Cal found itself trailing 9-3 at the half and hard-pressed to find anything to shout about—which at that moment made them unique in Tiger Stadium.

The third quarter was not one of substantial improvement for USC, although the Trojans did mount an opening 68-yard march that got them down to the LSU seven before it fizzled. After a field-goal attempt was off to the right, the Tigers roared right to a first down on the USC two. But a plunge for no gain, a nine-yard loss on a pitchout and an incompletion moved them back to the 11. In came Barthel again for a field goal, up went another three points, and USC was down by nine. However, the Trojan offensive line seemed to have overcome its uncertainty on the USC's second-half opening drive, and there were still 18½ minutes to play. Could it be that the Trojans weren't dead, but only lying in the weeds?

This seemed to be the case early in the fourth quarter when USC went 57 yards in six plays, thanks to some nifty passing by McDonald, who completed 14 of 20 against a Tiger defense that had allowed only 15 completions in winning its two previous games. Of course, the Trojan drive included some renditions of that old USC standard: Student Body Right, or 28 Pitch. At the end of this series White followed Budde, Van Home and Foote on three straight plays for 17 yards, the last gain four yards and a touchdown to make it LSU 12, USC 10.

Then, with 5:52 left, USC fumbled again, the Tigers' Alvin Thomas recovering on the Trojan 26, and it looked as if LSU would survive, maybe even prosper.

But an offensive-interference penalty and a delay-of-game call resulted in the Tigers having to punt from their 44. The ball was fair-caught at the USC 21, where Southern Cal went to work with 4:16 remaining. Helped by a face-mask penalty, the Trojans inexorably marched toward the Tiger goal line. The drive culminated with McDonald throwing from the eight, off a rollout, to Kevin Williams, running an out pattern, and USC was in front 17-12. It was Williams' 33rd reception of his USC career. Sixteen of them have been for touchdowns.

The Tigers had 24 seconds to regain the lead after a 20-yard runback of the kickoff and a holding penalty called on the Trojans spotted the ball on the LSU 42. A 28-yard pass from Ensminger to Robert Delee got the Tigers to the Trojan 30, but Safety Dennis Smith broke up two Ensminger passes in the end zone—and the LSU rooters' hearts.

The defeat was an especially trying one for LSU Coach Charlie McClendon, who at the end of this season—his 18th at Baton Rouge—is being fired as head coach, despite having won 70% of his games. In fact, it was only the return of Dietzel to LSU in the summer of 1978 that enabled McClendon to coach this year. The Board of Supervisors had given him the gate, but Dietzel worked out a plan to give his old friend one more season. Last year the signs around campus read "Help Mac Pack." But last week, what with the Tigers' start in which they had averaged 45.5 points a game, the sloganeers were testing a new one: "Bring Mac Back."

It was a finish that left everyone emotionally drained. It also left White in awe—again—of his offensive linemen. "I love 'em all," he said. "Everything seems to depend on them." Added Van Home, "When Charlie gets 185 yards, I know I had a good day." Which is not the same thing as a good night for the denizens of Tiger Stadium.

PHOTOMcDonald completed 14 of 20 pass attempts with the help of Center Chris Foote and his cohorts. PHOTOWhite rushed for 185 yards in the 17-12 win. PHOTODon Barthel hit for a pair of LSU field goals. PHOTOLeRoid Jones added six more points on a pass. PHOTOLSU's McClendon is a squawking lame duck. PHOTOChris Williams' fingertip grab of a pass intended for Keith Williams shut down USC's opening drive.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)