Unlikely heroes add another worthy chapter to the LSU-Auburn rivalrySeptember 16, 2018
AUBURN, Ala. — The end was surreal. As soon as the ball hit the back of the net behind the uprights and LSU beat Auburn 22-21 on Saturday, the kicker was off and running into the night. He sprinted down the center of the field, arms stretched wide to both sides as if he would fly right out of stunned Jordan-Hare Stadium back to the hero’s welcome that surely will greet him in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Here was Cole Tracy, the unlikely hero of the latest installment in one of the most head-shaking rivalries in all of college football — a rivalry that has featured an earthquake reading, a fire and, most recently, a last-second finish that resulted in one coach being fired and a furious 20-point comeback that nearly put another coach on the hot seat. Tracy didn’t belong. He grew up near the beach in Southern California, playing football and soccer; signed with Division II Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts; graduated with a degree in marketing; and said yes to going to grad school and playing one more season of football in the SEC, in probably the most un-Massachusetts state of in the union.
His home stadium at Assumption was called Multi-Sport Stadium. Literally. It has no bleachers on one side of the field and draws about 2,200 people on a good day.
What must he have been thinking when he silenced 87,000 screaming fans in Jordan-Hare Stadium, or when he walked into the locker room after the game and heard Ed Orgeron’s father, Bé Bé, let out a primal victory cry? You could hear Coach O through the thick metal door and cinder block — that thick Cajun accent of his, that gravely drawl he honed in the bayou town of Larose. It was like a muffled Ric Flair the way he shouted “Woo!” over and over again.
Way to go bay-bee! … We were stronger, we were tougher, bay-bee! … Yeah! … Woo!
When Orgeron finally calmed down and spoke with reporters, he said he knew all along that Tracy was up for the challenge. He was so sure, in fact, he considered kicking it on third down rather than trying to pick up a few extra yards on a running play.
“That’s how much confidence we have in him,” Orgeron said emphatically.
To be fair, everything Orgeron does is emphatic. It’s his shtick. He’s rowdy, boisterous, combustible. For most of his first three decades in coaching, it seemed that those qualities meant he wasn’t what you call “head-coaching material” at a place with LSU’s history of success.
From the moment he was hired last offseason, he’s been second-guessed. He won nine games in 2017 and nothing changed. Even after LSU dominated Miami in its opener this season, Orgeron and the Tigers had their detractors.
“We feel good about ourselves right now,” Orgeron said. “We felt good about this football team the whole time. Whether people talk good about us or bad about us, it doesn’t matter. This group, it doesn’t matter. We just go to work the next day, stay humble and do the best we can for the Tigers.”
When there were no other questions, Orgeron smacked both hands on the table and left the room.
Enter Tracy, who said he received a text from the vice president of Assumption earlier in the week with news that some eager LSU fans had donated $500 to the university. He thought the whole thing was hilarious.
If the transfer kicker was overwhelmed by the moment, he didn’t show it. He noted that the uprights were the same everywhere, “in Worcester, in Jerry World, in Tiger Stadium and now at Auburn.” When asked if there was a time he realized there would be a potential game-winning kick to make, he said matter-of-factly, “I knew on Monday.”
Never mind that Auburn was a 10-point favorite. Never mind that the entire stadium was ready to hand Auburn the victory late in the third quarter after LSU squandered a 10-0 lead and Auburn ran off 21 unanswered points.
“You know when you’re playing at Auburn it’s going to be a close game,” Tracy said as if he were a seasoned pro, “and all three phases would have to do well.”
That they did.
The offense, and in particular the offensive line, was solid throughout. When Derrick Dillon caught a pass over the middle of the field late, no one was catching him until he went all 71 yards to pay dirt.
Most impressive was quarterback Joe Burrow, himself out of place in this rivalry. He started out as a highly rated recruit who graduated from Ohio State and transferred to LSU this offseason. The last game of this magnitude that he’d been part of was his final game in high school, he said.
If the heat bothered him, Burrow didn’t show it, either. The pressure seemed to slide right off him as he hung in the pocket and delivered big pass after big pass.
In fact, the only time he got hot under the collar was when he beat himself up at halftime for missed opportunities. The first words out of his mouth when speaking with reporters were, “I didn’t play great.”
LSU fans would beg to differ after Burrow completed 15 of 34 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown. After suffering through mediocre quarterback play for the past decade, they might finally have a quarterback with the confidence to deliver.
When Tracy attempted the winning 42-yard kick, Burrow didn’t even watch. He couldn’t. He put his hands over his head and waited.
He said he knew it was good when the crowd fell silent.
“It shows that we’re a really tough team,” he said of the chief takeaway from the victory. “We gritted this one out.”
It wasn’t pretty, but nothing in this game ever is.
This time it took a kicker from a Division II school in Massachusetts, a former Ohio State quarterback and a coach no one thought would ever be running a program like LSU.
The win felt special. Maybe the start of something big. Certainly worthy of a chapter in the rivalry that is Auburn-LSU.