The most impressive run that Louisiana State tailback Kevin Faulk made last Saturday night didn't show up on the stat sheet because it came after LSU had stunned Florida 28-21 for its first victory over a No. 1 team in its 104 years of playing football. As the final seconds ticked away, fans vaulted the chain-link fence surrounding the field at Tiger Stadium to launch a wild assault on the goalposts. "The crowd didn't bother me," Faulk said. "That's why they give us helmets. I just put on my helmet and went through."
The official attendance was 80,677, but as the years pass at least a jillion LSU fans will claim they were there on the most magical night in Baton Rouge in decades. Indeed, the Louisiana State program has been living in the past for so long that it was only fitting that third-year coach Gerry DiNardo reached back to 1958, the year the Tigers won their only national title, for a gimmick that helped LSU end the Gators' 25-game SEC winning streak and knocked them out of the top spot in the rankings.
Those 1958 Tigers are remembered mostly for halfback Billy Cannon and a special unit of scrubs, known as the Chinese Bandits, who served mainly to give the defensive regulars a breather and create esprit de corps. So last week DiNardo and his staff decided it was time for some deja voodoo in Cajun Country. Hoping to keep their defensive starters fresh enough to maintain pressure on Florida quarterback Doug Johnson throughout the game, the LSU coaches revived the Bandits concept. For the heart of the new unit, they tapped six players who hadn't played much.
October 19, 1997
The new Bandits were on the field early in the fourth quarter when cornerback Cedric Donaldson stepped in front of Gators wideout Jacquez Green, picked off a Johnson pass and ran 31 yards for the touchdown that gave the Tigers a 21-14 lead with 13:13 to go. The din in Tiger Stadium after that play made the Swamp in Gainesville seem almost serene.
Less than two minutes later, after Florida had fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, LSU scored what proved to be the winning touchdown, and the new Bandits' place in Tigers folklore was secure. Their names, for the record, are Aaron Adams, Monte Gatlin, Roshaun Matthews, Johnny Mitchell, Wardell Sykes and Theo Williams. All of them are linemen or linebackers, and all except Gatlin are from Louisiana, which made their success especially sweet. Yet even Gatlin, who hails from Magnolia, Miss., appreciated the significance of the revival. "It sent chills down my body," he said. Now LSU is 5-1, with its loss having come 31-28 against No. 6 Auburn in the final seconds, and is ranked eighth in the AP Top 25, its highest perch since 1987.
As for Florida (5-1 and now No. 7), the Gators will need to win at unbeaten Auburn on Saturday to keep alive any hope of successfully defending their national title. Johnson, the successor to 1996 Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel, who led Florida to a 56-13 win over LSU last year, completed 32 of 57 passes for 346 yards. But he was sacked five times and threw four interceptions, two to Donaldson. The Gators also failed to get a passing touchdown, ending their NCAA-record streak at 62 games.
Florida seemed to be bothered and confused most of the night by the crowd noise at Tiger Stadium. The Gators were penalized nine times, and four of the flags were for illegal formations and false starts, infractions that can result from confusion in the face of vociferous cheering. Florida also burned two timeouts trying to get its signals straight. "The stadium has never been that loud since I've been here," DiNardo said.
There was no shortage of heroes for LSU fans to cheer. Junior quarterback Herb Tyler, who had been criticized a week earlier for failing to get the Tigers' offense going in a 7-6 escape against Vanderbilt, completed 10 of 17 passes for 172 yards and rushed for 50 yards and two touchdowns. With a team-high 78 yards rushing, Faulk, who suffered a pulled hamstring in LSU's season-opening victory over Texas-El Paso, looked like his old self; he also had a 30-yard punt return to set up a touchdown and 76 yards on three kickoff returns.
But what made Saturday night special were the Bandits, a gang of misfits and underachievers. The 6'4", 231-pound Matthews, for example, is a classic tweener: too slow to be a linebacker but not big enough to be a defensive end. Sykes had played only sparingly in the season opener, and the LSU staff had grown tired of waiting for the 6'5", 300-pound Mitchell to play up to his potential. Adams had blocked a field goal in last season's 10-7 Peach Bowl win over Clemson but this year fell out of favor with the coaches, as had Williams, who started 10 games in 1996 but none this season. "I thought the idea of the Bandits was great," said Mitchell after Saturday's victory. "Every time we ran onto the field, the look in the Florida players' eyes was, 'Oh, here come the fresh guys.' It feels good to be a contributor in a game like this. All we need now are some BANDITS T-shirts."
The idea for the special unit was defensive coordinator Carl Reese's. Early last week, while studying tapes of Florida's 56-7 win over Arkansas on Oct. 4, Reese noticed that the Razorbacks hit Johnson 16 times, sacked him twice and forced him to scramble four times. "They had the right idea," Reese said. "The problem was that their good players wore down. We wanted to get enough bodies in to chase the quarterback. Fresh legs and fresh minds can make it happen for you."
When the Bandits were in the game, LSU went from a four-man front to a 3-3-5 alignment. Williams and Matthews went in at end, Mitchell at tackle and Adams, Sykes and Gatlin at linebacker. In the secondary LSU kept first-stringers Donaldson and Chris Cummings at the corners and Mark Roman at free safety but brought in Troy Twillie and Chris Beard as the nickelback and strong safety, respectively.
The Bandits entered the game on Florida's first possession, thoroughly befuddling the Gators. "They had never seen anything like us before," Adams said. Nevertheless, when Florida coach Steve Spurrier was asked about the Bandits on Sunday, he feigned ignorance. "I didn't notice," said Spurrier, who insisted that the Bandits didn't beat his team as much as the Gators beat themselves. "We had some bad plays that we usually don't have," Spurrier said. "Usually the other team has those, but we had them tonight."
DiNardo seemed determined to show no emotion. "We played hard, and Florida played hard," he said after the game, "but we play Ole Miss in seven days, and it would be a shame to not go out and play as hard." Outside, the crowd, still roaring as the fallen goalposts were toted around the field, definitely was not thinking about Ole Miss.
"I guess he doesn't want us to get too much in awe of this upset," Mitchell said Sunday night at a team dinner. "But I know all the Bandits were really excited. After the game, all we said was, 'We did it! We did it!'"
Non-Bandit defensive tackle Chuck Wiley, who had a sack among his six tackles, had a wicked smile and some pointed words for analysts who had predicted a Florida rout and made the Gators snapping gesture with their hands. "To everybody who didn't think we could win," said Wiley, "including some on our own campus, I say, Like it or don't like it, but learn to love it because this is the best that's going on anywhere today."