KNOXVILLE — Malik Jackson sat at the goal line as a jubilant LSU sideline emptied and surrounded the Tennessee defensive lineman.
Just moments before, it was a jubilant Volunteers bench that emptied onto the field at Tiger Stadium thinking it had stolen a 14-10 upset win against the 12th-ranked Tigers.
Neither Jackson nor any other Vol need a reminder of what happened next.
“We just messed up,” Jackson said. “It was an assignment alignment error. They got lucky off our mistake, and they beat us. It was a very sad moment.”
When the Vols host top-ranked LSU on Saturday, there’s little doubt the highlights from last season’s crazy ending will be rehashed by the television networks. It’s a scene that Jackson said he skips when he’s watched the video to prepare for this Tigers offense.
The Tigers converted a third-and-13 and a fourth-and-14 on their final drive, and a pass-interference penalty on cornerback Marsalis Teague gave LSU the ball on UT’s 2 with 32 seconds left. After quarterback Jordan Jefferson was stopped a yard short of the end zone, LSU, without any timeouts, decided to substitute in for a three-receiver set with the clock draining.
The Vols were in their goal-line package and needed to bring in a matching personnel group.
“There was just bullets flying everywhere,” Jackson recalled. “You’re trying to hurry up and get yourself set so you’re not the one who messes up.”
Two Vols ran in from the sideline. Four ran toward the sideline before two returned to the field. The snap sailed by Jefferson as time ran out, but UT was penalized for having 13 players on the field.
LSU tailback Stevan Ridley plowed into the end zone on the untimed play.
“It’s like finding out someone died in your family that was doing oh so well,” Vols defensive end Jacques Smith said. “It was a big shock. Your heart drops, sinks to your stomach. You’ve got to continue on in life and play the next play. That’s what we did, and unfortunately we came up short.”
The hangover from the loss stuck with the Vols when they were blitzed on the road against Georgia the next week, but LSU went on to beat Florida the next week and finished with 11 wins and a Cotton Bowl berth. The Tigers’ lone losses were to eventual national champion Auburn and a 10-win Arkansas team, both on the road.
“Victory is victory, no matter what way you cut it,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “The enjoyment that I had after that game was significant with the feel of victory. I don’t necessarily think there was bad taste in anybody’s mouth in any way. I can tell you that we did the things we needed to do in unusual circumstances to get victory. I enjoyed it and I am going to stay that way.”
The last play was what everybody remembers, but it’s the first play — Jefferson’s 83-yard touchdown run — that sticks out to Prentiss Waggner. The junior defensive back whiffed on tackling Jefferson.
“I think it was a play that I easily should have made,” said Waggner, one of the three Louisiana natives on UT’s roster. “I think my anxiety level was too high on that play. We calmed down and played hard-nosed football.
“I got a chance to talk to family a lot about the LSU game. Mostly my whole family told me that we had the game won, but the referees and the coaches took it away from us. Looking back on the film, it was miscommunication between the coaches and the players, so hopefully that won’t happen this year.”
Quarterback Matt Simms had to watch it all unfold from the sideline, having done what he could do put the Vols in position to win the game. The senior’s 3-yard touchdown run put UT in front with 11:34 to go.
Linebacker LaMarcus Thompson intercepted Jarrett Lee in the end zone on LSU’s next drive, and UT could have put the game away. But the Vols couldn’t pick up 2 yards on two plays with four minutes left.
“I did an interview with someone in the summer and they asked me who was the one team I would love to go against, and I said LSU,” said Simms, who will start for injured sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray on Saturday. “I got what I wished for.”
What UT’s coaching staff wishes for is the kind of effort the underdog Vols showed in that near-win last season. The Vols were outgained 434-217, but Tauren Poole gained more than 100 yards rushing, the defense forced four turnovers and Simms survived a gamelong beating from LSU’s daunting defense.
“I come off that game,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said, “and I thought one thing: The things we’re trying to build the program on with toughness and effort, I felt like we laid that on the field last year. I want to do that again and again and again. If we keep that up, I’ll be comfortable with what takes place.”
The short-term feelings and the memories of that October afternoon were anything but comfortable for Jackson, but as he said, it’s in the past. The focus this week has been moving past UT’s unfortunate string of injuries and preparing for a tough matchup with the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
“That whole year was crazy last year with the [North Carolina] game and the LSU game,” he said. “I’ve never been a part of a year like that. But you know it builds characters and it builds teams and it makes people come together when they really need to. I guess it kind of helped us a little bit.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...