Merry Christmas A Cubs washout from Santa Claus came off the bench to give LSU its best present in years and ruin Tennessee's holidays

December 17, 2001

Having flown down from the town of Santa Claus, Ind., where they
reside on Christmas Lake, Roger and Kathy Mauck were having a
pleasant enough weekend in Atlanta before the second of their
three children turned the college football world on its ear. The
elder Maucks had spent the early afternoon last Saturday
lunching at a downtown seafood place with their son Matt, a
former minor league catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization and
now a reserve quarterback for Louisiana State. They had gone
shopping at the Peachtree Mall.

By eight that evening they'd settled into their seats in the
south end of the Georgia Dome to watch Matt's teammates take on
No. 2 Tennessee in the SEC championship game. All was peaceful
until about an hour later, when LSU senior quarterback Rohan
Davey went out with a broken rib and the elder Maucks looked on
in amazement as Matt jogged across the AstroTurf to join the
Tigers' huddle. Oh, boy--whatever you do, kid, don't fumble,
don't embarrass yourself, Roger thought. "Matt wasn't counting
on playing tonight," said Kathy after the game. "To tell you the
truth, we were just happy to be here."

In leading LSU to scores on six of the seven drives during which
he was under center, including two rushing touchdowns of his
own, the 22-year-old freshman from Santa Claus gave LSU a 31-20
upset victory. He also delivered an early Christmas present to
Nebraska, which was last seen losing 62-36 to Colorado on Nov.
23. To the Cornhuskers it must have seemed that the holidays had
come early: A day after its senior quarterback, Eric Crouch, had
won the Heisman Trophy, 11-1 Nebraska learned that the Tigers'
victory had catapulted it into the Rose Bowl national
championship game against Miami.

For the second consecutive year the regular season ended with a
brouhaha over whether the BCS had chosen the right teams for the
title game. Last year the BCS bypassed Miami in favor of Florida
State, which the Hurricanes had beaten, so BCS officials made
off-season changes in the formula used to rank teams to help
prevent such an injustice from recurring. This time around
Nebraska will play in the Rose Bowl instead of two-time loser
Colorado, which, a week after having thrashed the Huskers,
knocked off Texas 39-37 in the Big 12 championship game. "I'm
sure a lot of people in the BCS are praying we don't win," LSU
coach Nick Saban had said last Friday. "That would make things a
little uncomfortable for them."

For their role in shuffling the national championship deck, the
9-3 Tigers earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl, in which they will
face Big 10 champ Illinois (10-1) on New Year's Day. While the
Volunteers treated the SEC title game as a pit stop en route to
Pasadena, LSU, which last played in a major bowl in 1987, saw the
game as a chance to restore its pride. "People are talking like
Tennessee is already going to the Rose Bowl and that we're just a
tune-up, which makes me sick," said Davey four days before the
game. "Then again, we've been underdogs in every big matchup."

It's fitting that the 6'2", 210-pound Mauck, an underdog if ever
there was one, engineered this upset. Before his coming-out
party in Atlanta he'd been used sparingly in two games,
completing 13 of 26 pass attempts (22 of which came in a 44-15
loss to Florida) and running eight times for 48 yards. Against
Tennessee he connected on 5 of 15 passes for 67 yards and rushed
for 43 more on a dozen carries. More important, he kept his
composure when thrown into battle. "I've been waiting for my
time," said Mauck after the game. "Having played a professional
sport, I realize that sports is a business. You have to be
composed for yourself and your team."

Mauck learned that lesson the hard way. During his senior year
at Jasper (Ind.) High, in 1996-97, his 1.20 ERA for the state
champion baseball squad overshadowed his 940 passing yards and
567 rushing yards for the football team. "I was coming off my
second state championship, and I couldn't resist going for it in
baseball," says Mauck, who, after Chicago drafted him in the
sixth round, turned down a football scholarship from Michigan
State coach Nick Saban. "I said I'd give myself three years with
the Cubs to see what happens."

What happened is that the Cubs envisioned him as a third
baseman, not a pitcher, and moved him to catcher after his first
spring practice. When his self-imposed deadline arrived, Mauck
was hitting .160 for the Class A Lansing (Mich.) Lugnuts and
feeling like a spare part. After talking to his parents about
his desire to go to college, Mauck in June 2000 contacted Saban,
who had taken over at LSU in 1999. "Nick Saban was the most
honest, straightforward coach we had dealt with, so we stuck
with him," says Roger, a onetime quarterback for the Division II
University of Evansville (Ind.) who was overjoyed to see Matt
return to Roger's favorite sport.

Saban, too, was pleased. "He was a plenty good athlete coming
out of high school," says Saban, "and I thought if we couldn't
use him at quarterback, he'd make a decent defensive back. Also,
when it came to character, Matt was as good as it gets."

Mauck, whose tuition is paid for by the Cubs, came to LSU on a
mission: A straight-A student at Jasper High, he's intent on
earning a premed degree. "Matt is very mature, the type of
player with whom you can actually have a grown-up conversation,"
says Candace Fisher, wife of LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo and
the recipient of a well-written thank-you note from Mauck after
the family had him over for Thanksgiving a year ago.

"Matt's the hardest worker on our team," says sophomore wide
receiver Blain Bech. "He studies more film--studies more of just
about anything--than anyone else."

With his average hovering around A- and finals looming, Mauck
was more concerned with studying for exams last week than with
getting ready for Tennessee. "It's been so hectic with all my
schoolwork that I didn't have a chance to think much about the
game," he said on Saturday night.

His mind hightailed back to football when Davey lay motionless
on the sideline, having been shoved hard out-of-bounds by Vols
linebacker Kenyon Whiteside with 11:30 left in a scoreless first
quarter. Before his heart rate had a chance to catch up, Mauck
hurried onto the field, where the Tigers faced third-and-four on
the Tennessee 35. He used his 4.5 speed to gain five yards and
move the chains on his first play. Three plays and three
Volunteers penalties later he stretched a quarterback sneak into
a four-yard dash into the end zone for the first touchdown of
his career.

"I expected him to get on the phone after that and start talking
a million miles a minute," said Fisher, who was calling plays
from the press box. "But on the other end of the line I hear,
'Hey, Coach.' The kid was totally cool. Then it was, 'We can do
this, and let's maybe try that, and what about this?' At that
point I knew we were in great shape."

Although LSU would lose starting tailback LaBrandon Toefield to
a sprained left knee in the second quarter, Fisher's optimism
would build throughout the second half as the Tigers continued
to exploit Tennessee's uncharacteristically soft run defense
with quarterback draws and sneaks and other plays the Vols, who
had spent the week studying film of Davey's deft passing game,
hadn't prepared for. "We knew Mauck was mobile," said Tennessee
coach Phil Fulmer, still mystified an hour after his Rose Bowl
prospects had gone down the drain. "We hit him a lot, and he
kept getting back up."

As the clock ticked toward zero and sugar packets rained on the
field, Mauck's hands flew to his head in momentary disbelief of
what he and the Tigers had accomplished. "This is as big as it
has ever gotten for me," he would say later. Maybe as big as it
will ever get, at least in the athletic arena. Having done time
as a professional athlete, Mauck is set on becoming a
pediatrician or an obstetrician.

Freshly showered and clutching his MVP trophy an hour after the
win, Matt met his all-but-speechless parents, who were seemingly
the only fans outside the locker room who recognized him. "I'm
not quite sure what this win means for other teams," said Matt,
"and I don't really care." One thing is certain: The quarterback
from Santa Claus is going to have a busy holiday season.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Quarterback streak Mauck, who was as elusive as he was calm, wound up with 110 yards total offense against the Volunteers. COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Heads, you lose Demetrin Veal and the other Vols had no trouble keeping Davey under wraps, but Mauck was another story.

"Matt's the hardest worker on our team. He studies more
film--studies more of just about anything--than anyone else."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)