Defeating Death Valley: How Auburn football beat LSU in Baton Rouge 18 years ago

AUBURN, Ala. — Adlai Trone knows when it’s time for the battle of the Tigers he’ll have a cigar and a cell phone within reach.

The tradition started as somewhat of a joke. Whenever Auburn failed to beat LSU, as his team did in 1999, the former Auburn defensive back and some of his old teammates started finding a way to reunite and celebrate their glory days.

“We’ll call each other after the game,” Trone said. “Some guys get together if they’re close. If we’re not we get on the phone and smoke a cigar and tell some jokes and laugh.”

Then 18 years passed. Over the course of almost two decades Auburn never defeated LSU in Tiger Stadium and the matter became less humorous.

Trone remembers the 2 interceptions he had that afternoon. It was “a dream come true.” He recalls the plane ride back to the Plains and his arrival on campus. Even at the end of what had been a long day he was so energized he stayed up until sunrise.

Now, Trone says, it is someone else’s turn to experience that joy.

Current Auburn players could have the chance to do so this weekend when Gus Malzahn’s No. 10 team travels to the Bayou in hopes of breaking an unfathomable losing streak. It would be a signature win for both Malzahn and the program. It would be cause to stop and reflect on the past.

More importantly, it could propel Auburn into a memorable 2017 and inspire hope for future trips to lower Louisiana.

The dangers of the valley

Damon Duval warned his teammates. In the days leading up to Sept. 18, 1999, the Louisiana native was asked about the inside of Death Valley. He’d grown up going to LSU games in Tiger Stadium and knew the setting well.

The kicker was quick to point out that Auburn players would figure it out long before stepping on the football field.

“It held true because I was sitting by some people on the bus and as were even starting to pull in you’ve got little 8-, 9-year-olds throwing beer cans at the bus, flipping you the bird,” Duval said. “… LSU fans enjoy the game and the festivities before it.

“Everyone just looked at me and said, ‘Man, you weren’t lying.”

Opposing fans didn’t just throw cans and bottles. Often times they reached for rocks. People dressed head-to-toe in purple and gold literally rocked the Auburn team buses. They screamed “Tiger bait” and a long list of other expletives at the top of their lungs. And when Tommy Tuberville’s players got inside Tiger Stadium things didn’t improve much.

“LSU was notorious at the time for having the Tiger in its cage right at the exit of the visiting team’s locker room,” quarterback Ben Leard said. “You walk out and you’re not, but you feel like you’re looking this Tiger eye to eye. … We’re right in striking distance, you feel like from this Tiger. Visually, it’s imposing. It’s a mind game.”

That was just the beginning of the internal struggle. It’s a lot harder to get psyched up when it seems impossible to breathe. In the midst of typically the most humid state in the country, composure doesn’t come easy.

Cole Cubelic is certain that game was the hottest game he’d ever played in. It felt nearly 15 degrees warmer, the former Auburn offensive lineman said, than the 90 degrees it actually was.

As players adjusted to the heat and the atmosphere the fans started to come back into focus. After all, all 80,000 of them were hard to miss.

“The proximity of the fans to the bench is a lot closer,” Cubelic said. “They sit down at field level with you so you can see them and they talk to you. It’s just the way, how steep the stadium is. The fact that they’re sitting at field level. There are just a lot of things that are just a little bit different, very unique, about playing there.”

As an opponent, standing out was risky. Still, Ronney Daniels picked quite a game to emerge as a key playmaker for Auburn. The wide receiver caught 2 passes for 120 yards, and he can still hear LSU’s fans clearly. Daniels was older than other freshman after spending a couple of years playing pro baseball, but he didn’t need to be introduced.

“That game was big because that was the first time I ever knew that fans really knew who you were,” Daniels said. “They knew exactly who you were and what you were about. They already had what they wanted to say planned out.”

And whether it was fans or the LSU band, it was deafening. Cubelic, now an ESPN college football analyst, typically says the loudest stadiums in the country are those of the most successful teams. Conference and national championships mean the volume increases. Every year, however, Tiger Stadium seems to have the ability to be the loudest college football venue in the country.

During pregame, LSU’s band typically plays Touchdown for LSU. It doesn’t matter “who you pull for,” Leard says. The sound of that song “sends chills up your spine.”

Another challenge for Auburn in Baton Rouge is the physicality of the game. Playing the Bayou Bengals means taking and giving a beating — no matter the score.

Both programs have historically fielded hard-nosed defenses and offenses predicated on a threatening run game. It’s always going to memorable, Leard says, based on what happens on the grass in between the white lines. Being comfortable often seems impossible.

Home sweet home 

For Duval, the 1999 game was his first time playing in his home state and his first time taking over the kicking duties. At the end of Auburn’s initial drive he drilled a 27-yard field goal attempt.

That was fine, but it wasn’t good enough for Tuberville. After a three-and-out Auburn’s offense took over again. That drive unfolded differently.

Just when it looked like the visiting Tigers would line up for another field goal, Tuberville, who would later be recognized as the Riverboat gambler, upped the ante.

All week leading to the game the coach had injected “a little bit of cockiness and swagger” into his players. That was, as Leard says, Tuberville’s philosophy. The team had taken the time to practice a fake field goal.

“The great thing I always loved about Tubs, too, if we were going to take the time to practice the fake,” Duval said, “there was a 99.9 percent chance that we were going to run it in the game. He wasn’t just filling your ear with words.”

That’s what happened next. Duval caught a pass his holder threw over his shoulder. As expected, LSU’s ends collapsed and Duval “could have crawled into the end zone.” 10-0.

After that, Auburn players realized they not only could play with LSU, they could dominate.

“If we hadn’t scored early, the score wouldn’t have been as favorable as it was for us,” Trone said. “Striking early was extremely important. And I think they underestimated us.”

Just because Auburn got up early didn’t mean LSU was done for the day. The rowdy fans inside the stadium had no problem motivating the home team.

“They’re the type of fans where if you don’t win there they’re going to give you hell,” Daniels said. “They’re going to give you grief about it. I think that’s why it’s hard to go there and win.”

‘It was that kind of day for us’

Even when it seemed like disaster would strike for Auburn, everything went according to plan.

“LSU, they were going to have dudes at almost every position,” Cubelic said. “You knew that no matter what, even if they didn’t play great, it was still going to take your best effort.”

Leard felt like LSU played well enough defensively to have beaten “anybody in the country that day.” The Auburn offense didn’t try to do too much or press for production. That didn’t mean everything was perfect, though — far from it.

“There was one pass in particular I threw to Ronnie on an out and up late in the second quarter and he broke away from that side’s cornerback,” Leard said. “He was running paying attention to him and the opposite corner absolutely cleans his clock. He fumbles the football on like the 4 yard-line, fumbles it into the end one and gets up and recovers it in the end zone for a touchdown.

“One of the craziest plays you’ll ever see,” Cubelic said. “Ronnie was just a special player. He was dominant.”

The play should have resulted in a turnover. It should have ended up in the hands of LSU players and awoken their fans. But it went Auburn’s way.

“It was that kind of day for us,” Leard said. “When that happened it was like, ‘Man, look. We’re good. Nothing’s going to go wrong guys as long as we don’t act like a bunch of idiots we’ll be fine.'”

A ‘lit’ celebration

As the final buzzer  sounded and a 41-7 score lit up the scoreboard, hand-shaking began. Select Auburn players ran to the visitors’ locker room for what Tubs, as he was affectionately known, had been hinting at all week.

Tuberville’s biggest thing was his hope to be “a player’s coach.” How he demonstrated that after his team pummeled LSU in Baton Rouge may be unrivaled. So far that year Auburn had taken down Appalachian State and Idaho. Auburn had been “limping in” and trying to figure out what kind of team it would be.

A statement win — it was also’s Tuberville’s birthday — meant a discernible postgame experience.

“We’re high-fiving, shaking hands. The guys that were kind of aware of what was going on, we immediately ran to the locker room,” Leard said. “As we walked in there was what looked to be like a pallet full of cigar boxes. The Alabama State troopers that were our security were handing the boxes out to us. Then you look around the managers and the equipment staff are handing them out to everybody.”

It’s what “life was about” under Tuberville. Working hard sometimes resulted in a monumental win and pausing to enjoy it.

“Some of the greatest pictures I have are of that postgame celebration at LSU smoking cigars with my former teammates,” Leard said. “They’ll be hanging up in my house for as long as I’m around.”

It wasn’t a gesture others appreciated.

“A lot of people will remember that. LSU people didn’t like it. The conference made it stop, made us stop,” Cubelic said. “We had to go into our next team meeting that Tuesday night I think, we had to pay for the cigars. It was all just really weird.”

The meaning of a win

As Ben Leard and his family walked out of Jordan-Hare Stadium last weekend, he pointed out to his daughter that Auburn hadn’t won in Baton Rouge since he was the Tigers’ quarterback.

The 13-year-old did the math and looked up, realizing it had been  well … a few years.

It’s a storyline that shouldn’t matter but does. A streak, especially a losing one, weighs a program or franchise down in any sport. LSU has compiled incredible teams during the 21st century. Former head coach Les Miles will return to Baton Rouge this weekend to be honored for his team’s 2007 national title that topped Ohio State.

Yet there have also been years where Auburn has had a more talented team and still came up short in Death Valley. While the experience at LSU is one of the most memorable in college football, a win is a game changer for an opponent.

“Aw, man it’s going to be huge,” Leard said. “From a historical standpoint it will be exciting for me as an old-timer to see them go in there and win and hopefully do so convincingly and hopefully listen to, you know I’m sure that will be part of the stick of the game is, ‘Hey, last time these guys won was 1999.”’

It will be cool Leard admits, if he and his former teammates get a shoutout on ESPN or CBS. They won’t shy away from the attention or ignore the nod. But “the end all be all is what it means to the team this season,” Leard says.

Players on Auburn’s current roster shouldn’t be affected by the losing streak. Most weren’t born when Tuberville’s Tigers were smoking cigars in Tiger Stadium. A win at LSU will provide a jolt of confidence that could distinguish this team as special.

“It gets the proverbial monkey off the program’s back,” Cubelic said. “The fact that it hasn’t been done in a long time. It’s a big win for Malzahn just because he hasn’t done it as a coach. A lot of kids on that team they’ve had a couple of shots at it and haven’t been able to do it.”

If Auburn does walk off the field with another win players like Jarrett Stidham, Kerryon Johnson and Tray Matthews — just to name a few — will be the ones people turn to for stories about playing in Death Valley.

Leard says he’ll be “the first one carrying the flag being excited for current players” if there’s a happy ending for Auburn on Saturday. He’ll feel no animosity or jealousy.

Tyrone takes it a step further. He’d like to see the cigar tradition passed down (maybe not publicly). After 18 years, he says, “it’s been long enough.” Defeating LSU at home will mean Auburn has climbed out of the trenches of Death Valley. They won’t just have survived, they’ll be flourishing.

“It makes people like me and Ronnie Daniel and Ben Leard a lot less relevant because we weren’t the last ones to win there,” Cubelic said. “That can be taken as a positive.”

The post Defeating Death Valley: How Auburn football beat LSU in Baton Rouge 18 years ago appeared first on SEC Country.

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