Tiger Den Archives – XIII

1996 Comebacks - I Houston

Gerry DiNardo's second Tiger team pulled out victories in two home games with exciting Q4 rallies. Here's the story of the first one.

Gerry DiNardo

Kevin Faulk

Kim Helton

Chuck Clements

Ketric Sanford

Wade Richey

Denard Walker

Herb Tyler

David LaFleur

Alan Faneca

Cedric Donaldson

Antowain Smith

Larry Foster

Troy Twillie

Rondell Mealey

Kendall Cleveland
Gerry DiNardo "brought the Magic" back to Tiger Stadium when he was hired before the 1995 season to replace Curly Hallman.
  • His first team compiled LSU's first winning record since 1988: 7-4-1.
  • The '95 Tigers played in the school's first bowl game since 1988, the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, in which they defeat Nick Saban's Michigan State Spartans 45-26.
    TE Greg LaFleur, who had endured three losing seasons (one as a redshirt) under Hallman, recalled the change this way: Coach DiNardo came in that spring and changed the whole culture of the place. A very tough guy, a smart man who demanded respect. He really pushed us to our limit and tried to break us down. There was a lot of moaning and complaining, but looking back it was the right thing to do. ... He came in and instilled a mentality in us that we were going to be tough and run the ball.
  • The offensive star of Gerry's maiden voyage was RB Kevin Faulk, the highest-ranked player in the state coming out of Carencro High School. DiNardo made Kevin his #1 target when he took the job in Baton Rouge.
    Faulk recalled: Coach DiNardo was hired and introduced, and then he walked off the podium and came straight to my house. It was 45 minutes after his press conference. He came to the high school, we jumped in the car, and drove home to meet my parents.
  • Faulk lived up to his billing by leading LSU with 852y on 174 carries and six TDs as a freshman. That was good enough to earn him SEC Offensive Player of the Year despite the fact that he caught only five passes for 86y, ran back two kickoffs for 36y and didn't return a single pu nt. Kevin also won the offensive MVP Award at the Independence Bowl.

But an incident in his hometown February 19, 1996, nearly derailed Faulk's promising career.

  • He was arrested outside a bar for failure to move on, resisting arrest, and two counts of battery on a police officer, who missed four months of work with a broken foot.
    Faulk recalled: The thing about it was, I wasn't even part of the fight. I was trying to stop it and was caught up in the confusion.
  • On February 27, DiNardo suspended Kevin for the first game of the 1996 season.
  • But the Wednesday before the Houston game, the Carencro Police Chief asked the parish DA to drop the four misdemeanor counts against Kevin. The defendant would still have to ride with police officers and speak at Carencro schools on weekends and holidays.
  • The following day, DiNardo reinstated his star RB for the opener. Gerry explained that the suspension had not been for the misdemeanors but because "he showed a lack of respect for authority." Since Kevin "went back to the police and apologized," the coach insisted he was just doing "the right thing and the fair thing" by lifting the suspension. That explanation only exacerbated the charges of favoritism for his star RB.

The '95 turnaround had Tiger fans at a fever pitch not seen since '87.

  • A record number of season tickets - over 50,000 - were sold.
  • The Tigers were ranked #17 in the AP poll and one preseason national magazine pegged them at #12. Several other publications predicted LSU would win the SEC West.
  • DiNardo: This is it. We have to answer those expectations. It's time now. All the garbage is over. Let's play the game.

Houston had a game under its belt, a 43-25 victory over Sam Houston State.

  • Shackled by several years of NCAA sanctions, the Cougars suffered through a 2-9 season in '95, their fifth straight losing campaign. Houston had gone a miserable 4-28-1 the last three of those seasons under Kim Helton, who amazingly kept his job. (Some of the losses in his first year came via retroactive forfeits because of NCAA violations.) The penalties still were having an effect since Helton had only 69 scholarship playes, 16 below the Division I-A maximum.
  • Senior QB Chuck Clements led the pro-style attack. He had thrown for 2,641y in '95. He's as good a thrower as I remember us playing against. said DiNardo. You watch him on tape, and you wonder if you'll see anyone throw better.
  • With an inexperience secondary, the Tigers would rely on their good front and fine LBs to put pressure on Clement. However, LSU would be without its best D-lineman, though. T Anthony McFarland was sidelined with a broken foot.

LSU entered the fray a 23-point favorite.

  • Sam King wrote in the Advocate: LSU will put plenty of points on the board, but if Clements gets a hot hand, the Cougars could make a game of it. Still Sam picked the Tigers to win 38-28. He also wondered if Faulk may find more pressure on himself to perform in lieu of DiNardo's decision to reinstate him...
  • Another Advocate reporter, young Scott Rabalais, predicted a Tiger romp, 38-13. He expected LSU to control the ball with its running game, but the Tigers would have to avoid giving up too many big plays.
  • The mobility of sophomore QB Herb Tyler, who finished '95 with a 4-0 record as a starter, including wins the last three games, posed a threat for the UH defense.
80,303, the largest season-opening crowd in Tiger Stadium history and the fourth biggest overall, saw LSU need not just an average performance by Kevin Faulk but a sensational one to pull out their first season-opening victory since 1990.

Quarter 1

  • Houston started strong when Ketric Sanford returned the opening kick 51y before K Wade Richey dragged him down at the LSU 46. The Cougars moved 35y in 10 plays aided by a personal foul on CB Denard Walker to set up Sebastian Villarreal's 27y FG. Houston 3 LSU 0 (10:27)
    The Tigers stifled their first possession with two penalties. But after an exchange of punts, DiNardo's offense embarked on a five-play, 66y drive highlighted by Herb Tyler's 3rd-down pass to massive TE David LaFleur just before the QB was flattened by two Cougars. The 6-7 278 pounder rumbled to the 23. The TD came when Faulk, one play after he ran 20y to the 3, waltzed through a big hole over the right side behind Alan Faneca. LSU 7 Houston 3 (4:07)
    Amazingly, it was the first time LSU had scored in Q1 of a season opener since 1990 against Georgia.
    After punting to LSU, the Cougars got the ball right back when CB Delmonico Montgomery picked off a Tyler pass and returned it 30y to the LSU 40 with 0:29 left in the period.
    END Q1: LSU 7 Houston 3
    Faulk recalled years later: Everything we did early seemed to backfire. We were playing against ourselves as much as Houston.

Quarter 2

  • Three plays gained only 4y. So Villarreal booted another FG, this one from 42y out. LSU 7 Houston 6 (13:56)
    On their next series, the Cougars looked to be in deep trouble, backed up to their own 6 with the Tiger faithful seated in the EZ yelling in their ears. But an interference call against Walker on Maurice Bryant got UH out of the hole. Sanford ran for 12 and 17 on consecutive plays, and two slant-ins by Johnson produced 13 and then 8. From the 25, Antwain Smith burst through the right side on a delay past LSU blitzers and got a clearing block at the 5 by WR Jason DeGroot on the final two defenders. Cedric Donaldson intercepted Clements' pass for two points. Houston 12 LSU 7 (6:52)
    On LSU's first play, Tyler faked to Faulk and fired to Larry Foster who ran down the sideline to the Tiger 47. Faulk then took an option pitch around the right side for a 1st down at the UH 43. Two plays later, Herb kept the ball on the option to the 18. Faulk then tried to reverse his field on a pitch but lost 12y. That forced LSU to pass but two incompletions brought in Richey, who missed badly from 45y out.
    After forcing a punt, the Tigers had a chance to take the lead before halftime. Instead, Faulk fumbled the ball to UH at the 29 with 1:24 on the clock.
    Following two runs that gained 5y, Clements looped a 24y scoring strike to Damion Johnson running free at the 3 between CB Walker and S Troy Twillie. Smith rushed for two points. Houston 20 LSU 7 (0:32)
    Some boos rang down on the Tigers as they left the field at halftime.
    END Q2: Houston 20 LSU 7

Quarter 3

  • On the first play from scrimmage, Faulk shot through a hole up the middle, veered to the left behind a block by LaFleur, and outran the Cougars down their sideline for an 80y TD. Houston 20 LSU 14 (14:47)
    Faulk: When I realized I was in the open I started thinking, "Don't let anyone catch you now." When I hit the end zone I was relieved.
    In 2009, Faulk recalled his success at LSU: I had a good career there and a big reason was we had good offensive lines, guys good enough to play in the NFL. My favorite play was the zone play, where I would read off the linemen's leverage and make one cut and then go.
    The Tigers began their next series with a 25y run by redshirt freshman TB Rondell Mealey. But a few minutes later, LB Mike Parker stripped the ball from TE David LaFleur inside UH's 20, and FS Damon Harris sprinted 66y with the recovery to the 25 where Faneca, of all people, pushed him out of bounds. After a 6y gain, Sanford ran 18y to the 1. From there, Clements rolled right and flipped a pass to Jonathan Dennis. Houston 27 LSU 14 (6:11)
    It wasn't long before disaster struck LSU again. On the first scrimmage play after the kickoff, Faulk fumbled again when hit at the end of an 11y run, and S Stedmon Forman picked up the pigskin and raced 30y to paydirt for UH's 24th and 25th points off Tiger turnovers. Instead of going for two to get to a multiple of 7, the Cougars kicked the point. Houston 34 LSU 14 (5:57)
    Helton on not going for two: We missed a two-point conversion earlier, and we missed one last week. So we went for one. At that point, I didn't think they'd get back in the game.
    : The fumble really got me down. But I picked my head up and followed my blocking. ... When we got down by 20, we still thought we could win. Never for a minute did we think we weren't capable of coming back.
    The Bengals gained their 15th and 16th first downs before two successive losses forced LSU to go to the air. That resulted in an INT when the ball was tipped into Parker's hands.
    Letting the play clock run down as far as possible before snapping the ball, the Cougars just missed a 3rd down conversion as the period ended.
    END Q3: Houston 34 LSU 14

Quarter 4

  • The final period started with a bang just like the 3rd. Faulk took a line drive 30y punt on the run at his 22 and ran up the middle through the Cougars, then veered right to the end zone untouched as his escort, Foster, didn't have to throw a block until he leveled the punter at the UH 30. Houston 34 LSU 21 (14:44)
    Faulk: He kicked it straight on, and I got a running start, so those are the kind of punts to return. It helped us shift the momentum of the game. Kevin became the first Tiger to score more than one TD of 75+y in a single game.
    Houston RB Antowain Smith (later an NFL teammate of Faulk) remembered: We had a big discussion on the sidelines about whether to kick to Kevin or not. I guess they decided to take a chance. But the punt went right to him. Coach really chewed our punter out when he got back to the sidelines.
    Clements & Company rolled up one first down on a nice run by Smith before punting to the LSU 20.
    Faulk went to work right away, gaining 16 around LE on the first play and ripping off another 17 on the next through a big hole at RT. After a short run, Kevin gave way to redshirt freshman Rondell Mealey, who kept the momentum going with a 29y run to the 2.
    Mealey had been questionable for the contest with an offseason concussion and headaches. He had expected to be the starter until Faulk was reinstated. Afterward he said, Everybody's making a big deal about starting. It didn't matter if Kevin started or Kendall started. As long as we whipped Houston, it was no problem. ... I had no problem coming off the bench. I came to play. It didn't matter.
    That set up Kendall Cleveland's scoring plunge from the 2. Houston 34 LSU 28 (8:22)
    Needing a FG to perhaps ice the game, the Cougars couldn't get close enough against the fired up Tiger defense and had to punt again.
    Kevin started the possession with scampers of 7 and 11y but then a blitzer dropped him for a loss as he took the handoff. That led to a punt.
    But LSU got the ball back again, Faulk luckily recovering his muff of the punt at the 32. From there, the Tigers marched to the go-ahead score against the tiring Houston D. With the ball on the UH 36, Mealey slid off LT and broke loose down an alley along the sideline to pay dirt on a play called Slant Check 37. Richey's kick put LSU ahead. LSU 35 Houston 34 (3:22)
    Mealey on his TD run: They didn't have anyone there, and I just ran. It was a great call.
    Though overshadowed by Faulk, Mealey ended the evening with 161y on just 14 carries. He became the first LSU freshman to rush for 100y in his first game since Dalton Hilliard gained 133 against Oregon State in 1982. It was also the first tiime LSU had a pair of 100y rushers in a game since Harvey Williams and Sammy Martin against Georgia in 1986. With Kevin, I, and Kendall in the game, it's hard to stop us, said Rondell. In my first game, to have a night like this, I mean I can't have a better game.
    Fittingly, Faulk clinched the victory on LSU's next possession with a 43y scamper to the 17 on 3rd-and-1 with 2:05 left. He broke through a hole at RT and set sail for the EZ. But a diving Cougar got a hand on his heel and tripped him enough that he couldn't keep his balance and fell to the ground 15y down the field. The game ended with LSU taking a knee inside the 10.
    Houston ended the second half with just 112y and five first downs. The Tigers outgained the Cougars 201-49 in Q4 and outscored the visitors 21-0.

    Kevin Faulk breaks into the open on his game-clinching run.
Faulk's 246y rushing (on 21 carries) and 376 all-purpose yards were both school records. His performance ranked 2nd in SEC history for all-purpose yards behind Kentucky's Moe Williams (1995).

The statistics implied LSU dominance rather than a one-point squeaker. But Tiger turnovers and penalties allowed Houston to build the 20 point lead.

  • First downs: LSU 24 Houston 17
  • Total yards: LSU 601 Houston 277
  • Yards rushing: LSU 433 Houston 162
  • Yards passing: LSU 168 Houston 115
  • Turnovers: LSU 5 Houston 0
  • Penalties: LSU 6-63, Houston 2-18
  • DiNardo: That's one of those early retirement games. ... To me, the most important thing he did was come back from the (second) fumble. ... If a group deserves tremendous credit, it's the offensive line. ... We put ourselves in a hole with the turnovers. I think Houston played a heck of a game with a good plan. We could have played better on offense as far as the turnovers are concerned. On Faulk: I was impressed with the way he came back after he fumbled. That would demoralize most people. ... I was praying I would have a good game because I knew you'd be hassling me if I didn't. ... I owe everything tonight to blocking. The offensive line was unbelievable. They opened up the holes, and luckily we were able to bring it home.Faulk: If you want to call it a great game, okay, but I fumbled two times.
    A legendary Tiger RB congratulated Kevin in the locker room. Charles Alexander, whose record of 237y against Oregon in 1977 Kevin broke, told onlookers, That was one of the best performances I've ever seen in this stadium. They'd better get ready to put him in the Heisman race.
    LB Allen Stansberry spoke for the defense: Heart, pride and the want to win. That's how we came back tonight. I tip my hat to the offensive line. We came back in the second half and stepped up and did the things that we were capable of.
  • Houston coach Helton was steaming. I think the greatest thing that happened to them was the fact that their coach changed his mind and let No. 3 play. No. 3 got unsuspended and made a lot of runs. He's a talented guy. ... Fatigue got to us. It was a great job by them. They pushed the ball at us ... We really didn't feel we allowed them to get back in the game. To their credit, they got themselves back in the game.

References: What It Means To Be a Tiger, Ray Glier (2009)
Game of My Life LSU: Memorable Stories of Tigers Football, Marty Mule (2006)