First-year head man Tommy Tuberville’s placekicker of choice for the 1999 season, freshman Damon Duval, hadn’t let the coach down yet.
The Morgan City, Louisiana native had connected on field goals on 55 and 57 yards thus far in the young season. Faced with a 4th and short inside the LSU two-yard line with a 3-0 first quarter lead at his back, The Riverboat Gambler elected to take the points with a chip-shot 30-yard field goal.
Or so the LSU Tigers thought.
The holder flipped the pigskin over his right shoulder in the arms of a streaking Duval, who pranced into the endzone unscathed for the one-yard score.
Tuberville smiled and celebrated on the sideline. His gutsy play-call sparked a raging fire that set nine-point favorite LSU ablaze, as his Auburn Tigers ravaged the Bayou Bengals in Death Valley 41-7. Thanks to the near-perfect execution from his ball-club, on Sept. 18, 1999, the Auburn legend could celebrate his 45th birthday in style.
The Duval touchdown pushed the lead to 10-0 in the first quarter for Auburn, which came into the contest at 2-0 with home victories over Appalachian State and Idaho. The blue and orange Tigers scored later in the opening period with a 36-yard strike from quarterback Ben Leard to hot receiver Ronney Daniels, extending the lead to 17-0.
Leard crushed the LSU secondary on that early September afternoon. Leard, who beat out starting QB Gabe Gross in the season opener against Appalachian State, picked up his first SEC victory thanks to 16-of-23 passing with 304 yards a trio of touchdown tosses.
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The 6-foot-3, 217-pound QB delivered on his NFL-caliber size and arm strength in his first big test as an Auburn Tiger.
The Hartwell, Georgia product added to the early Auburn rout in the second quarter, after LSU kicker John Corbello missed out on the Tigers’ first points of the game by doinking a 37-yarder off the left upright. Leard loaded up on a 2nd and 14 at his 16-yard line and dropped a dime into the outstretched arms of Daniels on the right sideline.
Daniels had a trio of LSU defenders around him, but a quick cut to the middle of the field gave him the edge to take the play to at least the LSU five-yard line. Just as it appeared that Daniels was going to be dragged down from behind by the LSU cornerback responsible for him, the free safety came from the opposite side of the field to lay a huge hit into the receiver.
Daniels inevitably coughed up the football, which rolled in front of three LSU defenders – a fortuitous chance for the home Tigers to grab momentum with a turnover.
Daniels, who popped right back up after being smashed to the turf by the huge hit, never quit on the play. He was rewarded with a miraculous touchdown – the receiver scooped up the loose ball in front of a host of LSU defenders for the score.
An interception on LSU’s ensuing drive off quarterback Josh Booty cut down any hopes of slicing into the now-gaping halftime deficit of 24-0 for LSU. Head coach Gerry DiNardo benched starter Rohan Davey in favor of Booty after two early interceptions.
The Bayou Bengals offense had to rely on Booty for any consistency, seeing as Auburn defensive coordinator John Lovett’s unit suffocated the LSU rushing attack to the tune of 26 yards. Booty finished at a 50 percent clip – 29-of-58 passing for 248 yards and a pair of picks.
Duval knocked in a 44-yard field goal at the end of the third quarter’s opening drive, a series again catalyzed by the right arm of Leard. Big plays from Leard spread across the receiving corps, and they became a theme from which the offense stemmed.
On Auburn’s next scoring drive, it was a 40-yard pass from Leard to Reggie Worthy that dropped the Tigers off just outside the redzone yet again. Four plays later, the Auburn backfield finally got in on the onslaught with an eight-yard scoring run from Clifton Robinson.
Tuberville’s third quarter stranglehold now sat at 34-0 on the Tiger Stadium scoreboards.
LSU’s only points of the day came at the end of a 15-play drive towards the end of the third quarter, when Booty found a wide-open Ed Dangerfield in the back of the endzone.
In the fourth, as LSU fans were pouring out of Death Valley by the hundreds, Auburn defensive end James Callier inadvertently signaled to start exiting by the thousands.
Collier bulldozed the LSU left tackle and smacked the quarterback hard enough to pop the ball free, handing Auburn possession in the redzone again. A Leard touchdown pass three plays later wrapped up the scoring in Tuberville’s birthday bash.
Tuberville had the contest in Death Valley circled since he first stepped foot on The Plains as the Tigers’ leader on the gridiron. The SEC opener was vital for the team's success, considering Auburn’s previous season featured only three wins and the resignation of head coach Terry Bowden.
Tuberville’s method of celebration following the win set the tone for the coach’s entire tenure.
"He told us flat out, we're gonna celebrate," Leard said. "We win this ball game, we're going to smoke cigars."
True to his word, Tuberville had cigars lined at each player’s locker following the win. The team elected to celebrate back out on the field, trading their pads for an outgoing celebration with the loyal and the Auburn University Marching Band.
On nationally televised ESPN, Tuberville’s squad had announced their rebirth into SEC relevancy and the almost debauching swagger that came with it.The coach’s legendary career was to come. It would just have to wait.
Tuberville no question turned around the Tigers’ program in 1999, however Auburn still found themselves second-to-last in the SEC West by season’s end with a record of 5-6 (2-6 SEC). Below them was LSU, who fired DiNardo in favor of a Michigan State transplant by the name of Nick Saban.
The “Cigar Game,” while motivating for Auburn at the time, became a curse for Tuberville and his staff. Auburn hasn’t beaten LSU in Baton Rouge since, and the Tiger Stadium fans made sure to remind the Plainsmen of that in the coming years by sarcastically smoking cigars after LSU victories.
18 years later, the 41-7 rout still serves as Auburn’s largest margin of victory in the series’ history. The No. 10 Tigers have their best chance in recent years to end the dry streak in Death Valley this year, as LSU was most recently beaten at home by the Troy Trojans.
While the cigars are most certainly off the table, a win on Saturday for Gus Malzahn’s team would unquestionably be grounds for extreme celebration, no matter the score. The end of a dominating streak for LSU could propel Auburn into the tail-end of the season with an energized outlook on their SEC tile odds.
Rising QB Jarrett Stidham and his ferocious defense ride a 3-0 SEC record into Saturday’s matchup, the team’s best conference start since 2010. No. 10 Auburn will begin its quest to snap history at 2:30 p.m. CT on CBS.
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