Randall's Relief Effort Comes Just at the Right Time
By David Steinle
Special to LSUsports.net
The decision by LSU coach Nick Saban to start redshirt freshman Rick Clausen over sophomore Marcus Randall at quarterback against Ole Miss was widely questioned by members of the media in the press box on Saturday night, as it likely was by the 91,613 in Tiger Stadium and millions of fans listening to the game on the LSU Sports Network and watching on ESPN2.
On the surface, the move backfired. Clausen was 2-of-6 for 9 yards with an interception in the first quarter, as the Tigers mustered just 33 yards despite running 19 offensive plays and holding the ball for more than ten minutes of the opening period.
Deep down, the decision to start Clausen probably lit a fire under Baton Rouge native Randall, who threw for just 39 yards and was booed at times by the Tiger Stadium faithful in last week’s 31-0 loss to Alabama.
Following this week’s heartstopping 14-13 victory over Ole Miss, if there were any lingering doubts surrounding the question of who will start on Friday against Arkansas in Little Rock, Randall put them to rest late in the first half, then positively buried them once and for all with a scintillating fourth-quarter drive to keep LSU’s SEC West title hopes alive.
With 9:51 remaining, LSU was 74 yards away from the end zone, but Randall calmly began to drive the Tigers downfield, hitting Michael Clayton for 13 yards, scrambling for 5 more, then finding Jerel Myers for another 12 yards and a first down at the Rebel 44.
Then, after going to the ground for five consecutive plays, Randall faced a third-and-four at the Ole Miss 27 that had Tiger fans worried about another drive that would fail to produce fruit.
But Randall found Clayton on the left side, and the sophomore from Baton Rouge sprinted past the Ole Miss secondary to drive the sellout crowd into delirium and boost the Tigers one step closer to a return to Atlanta.
Most would have scoffed at the notion Randall could have pulled a rabbit out of his hat a week ago at this time. But yes, it was the same Randall who helped LSU win its first one-point game since a 7-6 triumph at Vanderbilt in 1997, also the last time that LSU won a game when scoring 14 or fewer points until tonight.
The Baton Rouge native’s numbers aren’t going to win awards, but his 13-for-20, 179-yard effort may go a long way in helping the Tigers reach a New Year’s Day bowl game. Randall also added 31 yards rushing and avoided several situations where he could have been thrown for a big loss.
Randall came in with 82 seconds elapsed in the second quarter, and immediately got the Tigers on the move, leading the Tigers from their own 41 to the Ole Miss 6, mixing in handoffs to Toefield and scrambles with a key 24-yard pass to Reggie Robinson down the left sideline that brought the sellout crowd to its feet for the first time.
The drive came up empty, though, when Toefield fumbled and the Rebels recovered at their own 14, but it was clear the magic Randall possessed in the Bluegrass Miracle two weeks earlier on his 75-yard pass to Devery Henderson was back.
That magic came alive in the final 56 seconds of the first half after Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning hit Mike Espy for a 20-yard touchdown to give the Rebels a 10-0 lead and deflate LSU.
Randall immediately reinflated those hopes with a 17-yard strike to Myers. Then, needing to convert a third-and-6 from his own 45 to keep the march going, Randall calmly found Domanick Davis in the flat, and “Double D” ran over a pair of Rebel tacklers for 8 yards and the needed first down.
Completions of 15 and 13 to Clayton and Davis had the Tigers knocking on the door from the Rebel 19, and with time waning, Randall looked for his new port in a storm, Henderson. The junior from Opelousas was the man of the hour, breaking off his route in the end zone to come back and snare Randall’s pass, pulling the Tigers to within 10-7 at halftime.
That was the good news. The bad news is that the touchdown reception is likely Henderson’s last of the 2002 season, as he was taken to the locker room at halftime, where x-rays revealed a broken left wrist.
The injury to Henderson could not have come at a worse time, as the track speedster was beginning to establish himself as a compliment to Clayton, and his loss will certainly hamper the Tigers against Arkansas and in the post-season.
Despite the loss of Henderson, the Tigers know that with the help of Clayton, Myers, Robinson and the rest of the deep receiving corps, Randall now has the confidence that could carry the Tigers to another SEC championship, much in the storybook fashion his predecessor, Matt Mauck, guided the 2001 Tigers to the league title.