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Football: Stokley just held his breath on final drive

Football: Stokley just held his breath on final drive

Football: Stokley just held his breath on final drive

Damon Mason’s late interception sewed up memorable win.

Bruce Brown

It might have been the longest half a quarter in college football history.
At least, it felt that way on Sept. 14, 1996 for the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns as they battled No. 25 Texas A&M before a record crowd at Cajun Field.

Cornerback Britt Jackson had given the Cajuns a the lead with a 30-yard interception return at the 6:30 mark of the fourth quarter, and UL needed to hold on.

They didn’t want to think about it, but it was hard for the Cajuns to ignore the creeping feeling that something could ruin another possible chance at history.
Coach Nelson Stokley had been there before, losing 21-20 to Oklahoma State in his first game as Cajun coach in 1986, and falling by the same score at Ole Miss later that fall.

UL lost 24-17 at Alabama in 1989, 9-7 at Arkansas in 1991 and 25-24 at Auburn in 1992. Something always seemed to happen.

"We’d had so many close opportunities," Stokley said. "I was on the sidelines and said, ‘Somebody, make a play.’ Everybody was just drained."

"I was thinking about those earlier games, especially when they were driving late," said Nelson Schexnayder, then UL’s athletic director. "They were moving down the field."

"On their last drive, I was thinking ‘Don’t let this happen. Don’t give them an opportunity to win,’ "" wide receiver Brandon Stokley said. "Then Damon Mason intercepted the ball on about our 30-yard line and we were able to hold on."

"When Damon made that interception, he just dropped to his knees on the field," Nelson Stokley said.

"Damon trapped the ball on that interception, but the official was unable to see it," Mike Doherty said. "So, we got a break there. But we also had another touchdown return called back, so it evened out."

Mason began the parade with a 42-yard touchdown interception, and concluded it with the clinching theft.

"I remember Damon carried us a good bit that night, and that the defense had a big night," quarterback Jake Delhomme said.

"Naturally," Nelson Stokley said, "anytime you beat Texas A&M you beat a heck of a team. The previous week they had lost at Brigham Young (41-37) and I think they got down a little bit. We looked at film and felt we had a shot, and they probably didn’t give us a whole lot of respect.

"It so happens we made the plays every time we had to have it. They gave us a couple of opportunities, but we made the most of it. And when we’d get backed up, we’d always get out of it."

Oscar-winning actor Robert Duval was in Louisiana filming a movie at the time, and was a guest in the Cajun Field press box. Ville Platte’s Greg LaFleur of LSU was also a visitor to the suite.

"I think Greg was as excited as I was," Schexnayder said.

"It was interesting to see Cajun Field filling in during the course of the game," said Doherty, who was stationed in the coaches’ box and saw fans get on board after seeing early success on TV.

"I was exhausted at the end of the game. You knew you had to make the right calls or you’d give up a big play. And we played so hard, I didn’t want that to happen."

When the upset was complete and the goal posts had been pilfered and the bedlam had subsided, the fallout began.

"The University of Texas called and asked us if they could have the goal posts for a pep rally when they played A&M," Schexnayder said. "I told them the last thing we wanted to do was embarrass someone, unless they agreed to come here and play us in return.

"I said they would probably beat us here, and that would embarrass A&M. But he said, ‘Don’t throw me in that briar patch, Br’er Rabbit.’ "

Originally published September 8, 2006