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November 4, 2006
LSU rallies for the win in Knoxville
• Experts' blog
• Scenes from Saturday
• The College Football Wire
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – About 100,000 Tennesseans celebrated prematurely.
But they didn't celebrate Early.
LSU receiver Early Doucet made a clutch fourth-down catch to extend a late drive that ended on his touchdown reception with nine seconds remaining to lift the No. 13 Tigers to a 28-24 Southeastern Conference football victory over No. 8 Tennessee.
Doucet's score instantaneously left rollicking Neyland Stadium quiet as a library - except for the much smaller contingent of LSU fans who made the trip.
Don't blame the Volunteers among the crowd of 106,333 for celebrating too soon, though.
Why shouldn't all those Tennessee fans hoarse from cheering backup quarterback Jonathan Crompton and singing Rocky Top raise what was left of their voices in triumphant exultation?
After all, Tennessee (7-2, 3-2) has made a habit of fourth-quarter comebacks, having rallied for victory in the final 15 minutes of its last three games. When Crompton - who replaced injured starter Erik Ainge - and Robert Meachem connected on a 54-yard pass for a 24-21 lead with 7½ minutes remaining, it appeared the Volunteers were just following a familiar path.
So was LSU (7-2, 3-2), which had squandered opportunities in previous road losses at Auburn and Florida. The Tigers had already lost three interceptions and a fumble and committed eight penalties, so when they were flagged for a false start on fourth-and-two with just over two minutes remaining there was every reason to believe they would self destruct again.
Six plays later, Russell hit Doucet with a 4-yard touchdown pass and LSU shook off any doubts that it could not win in a ranked opponent's stadium.
"Our football team will play until the last minute, till the last second," LSU coach Les Miles proclaimed in a voice rising to a shout. "Our football team is strong and lithe.
"That is who we are. If you want to define who we are, if you want to write who we are, that's who we are right there."
Forgive anyone who didn't know LSU's true identity. It has been easy to confuse.
The Tigers have been great at home against a collection of cupcake opponents – Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane, Fresno State – but couldn't make the big play when needed in a 7-3 loss at Auburn and lost five fumbles in a 23-10 defeat at Florida.
Russell was similarly schizophrenic against Tennessee. He threw three interceptions, including one that Demetrice Morley returned 31 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the second half.
However, he was exceptional when it mattered most completing five of seven passes (all to Doucet) and rushing for 14 yards on the game-winning 15-play, 80-yard drive.
"I knew we were still in it," Russell said in reference to his three interceptions. "I just had to go out there and fight, sacrifice my body and myself and be willing to do whatever it takes to help my team. We just had to go out there and make plays no matter what happened."
But why did LSU make them now? The Tigers may indeed be the most talented team in the SEC and one of the most talented teams in the country, but they hadn't proved it against upper-echelon teams. They're like a pitcher with a dominating fastball that has a tendency to throw a hanging curve.
"This was a big victory for us," Doucet said. "Everybody was saying we couldn't win big games on the road. But we believed in one another. This team won't let outside stuff spoil what we've got going."
The No. 13 Tigers will be going up in the national rankings. Miles feels they could be climbing in the SEC West Division standings, too.
The road losses at Auburn and Florida left the Tigers in third place in the Western Division. Their outside shot at reaching the SEC championship game requires they win their remaining games against Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas.
That would also require Arkansas, which faces Tennessee next week, and Auburn to take some losses, too.
But first things first, and the first step for LSU was proving itself on the road.
"We needed this one to contend," Miles said. "This team (Tennessee) had the opportunity to win the East. Now all we have to do is finish out and get in position to win the west. We have to take it one at a time from this point."
That's right. You wouldn't want to get ahead of yourself. Ask those Tennessee fans.