After enduring¬†a fortnight of the chaos and sorrow that flowed into Baton Rouge along with the thousands of evacuees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the fifth-ranked LSU Tigers had one more obstacle to overcome before they could finally start the season, before they could close what first-year coach Les Miles called "the longest camp in the history of camps." They had to travel 1,400 miles, to Tempe, Ariz., to play what was supposed to be their second home game of 2005, against a No. 15 Arizona State squad that already had a 63-16 win over Temple under its belt. Some disaster-weary fans who had traveled to the desert would have been happy with a good game, "a return to normalcy" as one Tigers rooter, bedecked in Mardi Gras beads, put it before the game. But LSU had other ideas.
Plagued for three quarters by kinks that might have been ironed out in a season opener against North Texas--postponed until Oct. 29 because of Katrina--the Tigers rallied from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit. They scored four touchdowns, taking the lead three times, and denied the Sun Devils one last go-ahead TD in the waning seconds to win 35-31. "I felt like they could not come away without victory, they would not be denied," said Miles of his beleaguered players. "They had great courage. No matter what obstacles were presented to them, they were going to find a way to win."
As the only major college power in a state that cherishes football, LSU gave shell-shocked Louisianans something to cheer about with the victory. "We wanted to win for our fans," said senior wide receiver Skyler Green, one of 23 Tigers from the New Orleans area (68 are from Louisiana). For much of the past two weeks Green has shared a bed with his roommate, 297-pound offensive lineman Brian Johnson, and his two-bedroom apartment with as many as 20 displaced friends and relatives.
"It was good to relax a little [in Tempe], but a lot of these guys have a lot of family [in Baton Rouge], a lot of concerns there," said tackle Andrew Whitworth, who's from West Monroe, in the northern part of the state, which escaped the storm's severest damage. "They still have it on their minds."
Arizona State officials worked hard to ease the strain on LSU, securing donations for such expenses as meals and lodging to offset the Tigers' unexpected travel costs and ensure that the bulk of the game's proceeds--projected to be more than $1 million--would be given to the hurricane relief effort. Because this was supposed to be an LSU home game, Tigers players chose to wear their white jerseys and entered the stadium after Arizona State; the hotel the Tigers were staying in even provided them with their customary grits at breakfast. About 3,000 LSU fans made it to Sun Devil Stadium on short notice.
In fact, some Louisianans reached the Valley of the Sun before the football team did. Christopher Claverie, a 36-year-old security-company supervisor, was evacuated from the New Orleans Convention Center last week and flown to Phoenix along with about 500 other evacuees. He was among some 200 of them who accepted free tickets to the game. "I was born and raised in New Orleans and have been an LSU fan my whole life, but this will be my first LSU game," said Claverie before kickoff. "In Baton Rouge it's a pretty tough ticket."
Claverie couldn't have picked a more breathtaking game to witness. Down 17-7 after three quarters to an Arizona State squad with one of the most potent passing games in the country, LSU got a spark in the fourth quarter from its special teams. With 14:47 to go, Claude Wroten blocked a Sun Devils field goal attempt, which Mario Stevenson returned 55 yards for a touchdown. A little more than a minute later, the Tigers' Craig Steltz streaked toward the goal line with a bungled Arizona State punt for another TD.
That was just the start of a wild fourth quarter that saw the lead change hands four more times. Finally, on fourth-and-10 at the Sun Devils' 39 with 1:23 remaining, LSU sophomore quarterback JaMarcus Russell rolled to his right, then back to his left and found second-year wideout Early Doucet along the left side of the end zone. That touchdown put LSU up for good; Arizona State's final drive fizzled at the Tigers' 28. Said Russell, "We were not going to give up."
Let that be a warning to Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and the rest of LSU's SEC opponents. If this game was any indication, the travails of the last two weeks have strengthened a team that was expected to be potent under normal circumstances. The Tigers still need some polish, but they clearly have something that can't be bought--or coached. "With all the hurricane stuff going on, everybody grew closer," said senior running back Joseph Addai, who gained 112 yards on 16 carries. "Through tough times, in a family atmosphere you are going to prevail." --Kelli Anderson