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Gators coach Will Muschamp won a national title in the Sugar Bowl as defensive coordinator at LSU.

Tuesday January 1, 2013Muschamp's Path to UF Highlighted by Sugar Bowl Win to Clinch National Title

Gators coach Will Muschamp won a national title in the Sugar Bowl as defensive coordinator at LSU.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- The ending could not have been more perfect. Not after the way the LSU defense played that night here nine years ago.

Oklahoma quarterback Jason White, the Heisman winner and director of the nation's No. 1-ranked offense, faced a fourth-and-10. The Sugar Bowl title and Oklahoma's national championship hopes were down to one play.

The Superdome was on the verge of pandemonium, filled to the top rows with LSU fans anticipating the school's first national title since 1958. White dropped back to pass, and as soon as he got set, boom.

Meet LSU linebacker Lionel Turner.

Turner broke free up the middle and swallowed White for a game-clinching sack. With less than two minutes remaining and LSU's ball, it was laissez les bon temps rouler in the French Quarter.

The Tigers were BCS national champions and their defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, was the newest member of the most-respected-assistant-coaches club after the Tigers held the Sooners to 154 yards of total offense.

White had the Heisman but he never had a chance against Muschamp's stifling LSU defense, which held White to only 13 completions in 37 attempts and 102 yards. He was picked off twice.

"This was as good a defensive performance as you've ever seen in a bowl game,'' ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said moments later on the postgame show.

Muschamp returned to the site of his greatest coaching triumph on Thursday when the Gators opened practice at the Superdome, where Muschamp's Gators face Louisville on Wednesday night in the 79th edition of the Sugar Bowl.

The team he returns to New Orleans with is similar to the 2003 LSU team that finished ranked No. 1 in the country in total defense. The Gators are ranked fifth in total defense and held opponents to 12.9 points per game, the school's lowest total since 1964.

LSU's 21-14 win in the 2004 national title helped Muschamp climb another step toward taking over his own program one day and gave current Alabama coach Nick Saban his first national title.

"Will was real excited about the game,'' said his brother Mike Muschamp, who was at the game and is head coach at The Lovett School in Atlanta. "I remember him talking about it and he felt like they had a real good chance."

The matchup provided Muschamp an opportunity to test his top-ranked defense against Oklahoma's top-ranked offense, which averaged more than 50 points a game.

"You look at it as a great opportunity,'' Muschamp said after Monday's practice. "As a competitor, you want to be in those situations to play the best. We wanted to be able to affect White in the game. He was not a very mobile passer so we wanted to get him off the spot and we were able to do that."

The former Georgia safety was in his third season on Saban's LSU staff -- second as defensive coordinator -- and had assembled a defense that set a school record with seven defensive touchdowns that season.

Stopping White and Oklahoma's fast-paced offense was crucial since LSU's offense wasn't nearly as prolific.

The Tigers did exactly that, sacking White five times. LSU also scored a defensive touchdown early in the third quarter when defensive lineman Marcus Spears dropped into coverage and intercepted White, racing 20 yards for a touchdown that put the Tigers up 21-7.

LSU limited Oklahoma to four of 15 on third-down conversions and six of the Sooners' drive resulted in negative yardage. Oklahoma's two scoring drives went for a combined 33 yards.

"We had a lot of good players,'' Muschamp said. "When you go back and look, there are still a lot of guys playing on Sunday who played on our football team that year.

"We felt we dominated the line of scrimmage throughout the game. We didn't feel they had played line-of-scrimmage teams like there are in the SEC. We had a lot of confidence going into the game."

A turning point that season for the Tigers came before they played their first game.

Early in camp true freshman LaRon Landry, now an All-Pro safety with the Jets, moved up the depth chart to earn the starting job at free safety. Landry's emergence allowed Muschamp to move future NFL defensive back Travis Daniels to cornerback, where he teamed with Corey Webster to give the Tigers one of the top coverage tandems in the country.

From that point LSU's natural talent took over as the Tigers finished 13-1, defeating Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and then Oklahoma for the BCS national title.

The Tigers split the national title with USC, which finished No. 1 in the AP poll for the first split national title of the BCS era.

"It's like winning the lottery, if you have to share the Powerball with one other person, that's still a good deal,'' LSU defensive tackle Chad Lavalais said on the field afterward. "We won't put co-national champions on our ring."

The LSU defense that season continues to hold special meaning for Muschamp, whose Florida team is ranked No. 3 and 11-1 entering this year's Sugar Bowl.

He knew they had talent that year but there were concerns. The Tigers' only loss that season was to the Gators.

"You never really know until you go through a season and see how guys are playing, and certain guys you thought were going to play well played a little better than maybe we thought,'' he said. "Other guys that we were very questionable about going into the year really played well and had outstanding years for us.

"That's really what it takes."

That sounds similar to this year's Florida defense. Players like Matt Elam, Jon Bostic and Sharrif Floyd have lived up to expectations, but young players such as Dante Fowler Jr., Jonathan Bullard and Antonio Morrison have developed quicker than some expected, and senior safety Josh Evans and defensive tackle Omar Hunter have enjoyed the best seasons of their careers.

Like LSU did nine years ago in shutting down White, the Gators face a similar task Wednesday against Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Muschamp would like a similar result. The last time he won a Sugar Bowl he won a national title and emerged as a potential candidate to become a head coach one day.

"Everybody likes a winner,'' he said of the impact the game had on his career. "They want to know the formula for how you did it. We had an outstanding staff, and of course Nick does a great job.

"We have all spring-boarded from there and a lot of people on that staff have had opportunities to be head coaches."


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