‘Mir­a­cle’ doesn’t fade

Iconic catch lives with Birm­ing­ham, Nutt

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BOB HOLT ARKANSAS DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE

FAYET­TEVILLE — DeCori Birm­ing­ham thought he was go­ing to be a de­coy. In­stead the Arkansas Ra­zor­backs sopho­more flanker made one of the most mem­o­rable catches ever in an SEC game.

Birm­ing­ham was lined up to the left with Richard Smith and Sparky Hamil­ton. Ge­orge Wil­son was alone on the right side of the for­ma­tion as quar­ter­back Matt Jones took

the snap and faded back to pass.

“The idea of that play was to have three guys run­ning post routes to be de­coys and drag the de­fense across the right side of the field away from Ge­orge,” Birm­ing­ham said. “Matt was look­ing for Ge­orge, and I guess LSU picked up on that, but to this day, I don’t know why he threw me the ball.

“I guess he had to get rid of it or just chunk it up and see what hap­pened.

“So I’m run­ning my route, but I never ex­pected the ball to come to me. When I saw it, I said, ‘I need to take a shot at this to make a grab or at least keep LSU from pick­ing it off.’ ”

Birm­ing­ham caught the ball be­tween LSU cor­ner­backs Ran­dall Gay and Travis McDaniels — who each went on to play eight sea­sons in the NFL — in the back of the end zone for a 31-yard touch­down play with nine sec­onds left.

The touch­down, along with David Carl­ton’s 35-yard ex­tra point af­ter a cel­e­bra­tion penalty, lifted the Ra­zor­backs to a 21-20 vic­tory over the Tigers be­fore a deliri­ous crowd at War Memo­rial Sta­dium in Lit­tle Rock on Nov. 29, 2002. A CBS na­tional TV au­di­ence also watched the game on the Fri­day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing.

With Alabama in­el­i­gi­ble to win the SEC West be­cause of NCAA sanc­tions, the Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, Fayet­teville shared the di­vi­sion ti­tle with LSU and went to At­lanta the next week to play Ge­or­gia in the SEC Cham­pi­onship Game.

“Jones to Birm­ing­ham to At­lanta,” read the head­line in the sports sec­tion of the next day’s Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette.

“It was one of those deals where the stars aligned just right and it worked out for us,” said Birm­ing­ham, who is now a Texas state trooper in his home­town of At­lanta, Texas. “I re­mem­ber catch­ing the ball and hit­ting the ground — and I tell peo­ple this all the time — but I didn’t hear a sound. Peo­ple al­ways say the sta­dium was rock­ing and ev­ery­body was cheer­ing and scream­ing. I didn’t hear any­thing.

“It was like there was just me and the foot­ball. The con­cen­tra­tion that I felt I needed to catch that pass was nearly un­real. I don’t think I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing like that be­fore or since.

“I looked over my shoul­der and saw the ref­eree throw his hands up and thought, ‘Oh man, touch­down.’

“As a kid you go out­side and play foot­ball all the time, and you al­ways want to be the guy catch­ing the game-win­ning touch­down. To have it ac­tu­ally hap­pen is kind of sur­real.”

Hous­ton Nutt, the Ra­zor­backs’ coach from 1998-2007, said Jones and Birm­ing­ham ex­e­cuted well un­der pres­sure.

“The ball had to be per­fectly thrown and DeCori made a phe­nom­e­nal catch and did a great job to get his feet down in the end zone — plus in big­time traf­fic,” Nutt said. “Guys were all over him.”

LSU had time for one more play, but Bran­don Holmes sacked quar­ter­back Mar­cus Ran­dall to force a fum­ble that clinched the vic­tory.

The im­prob­a­ble vic­tory quickly was dubbed the “Mir­a­cle on Markham” af­ter the street that runs ad­ja­cent to War Memo­rial Sta­dium.

Birm­ing­ham’s catch capped an 81-yard drive that took three plays and 25 sec­onds af­ter LSU went ahead 20-14 on John Cor­bello’s 29-yard field goal.

Hold­ing the Tigers to three points meant Arkansas could win the game with a touch­down and ex­tra point, but the odds of that hap­pen­ing seemed slim con­sid­er­ing Jones had com­pleted 2 of 13 pass for 46 yards to that point and had thrown an in­ter­cep­tion in the end zone. The Ra­zor­backs also were out of time­outs.

But Jones, a sopho­more from Fort Smith, showed no signs of panic or lack of con­fi­dence while get­ting ready to go on the field for the Ra­zor­backs’ fi­nal pos­ses­sion.

“We were in a TV time­out and Matt was rid­ing a [sta­tion­ary] bike to stay loose,” said Nutt, who lives in the Dal­las-Fort Worth area and works for CBS Sports. “I said, ‘Hey Matt, a lit­tle sense of ur­gency here now. We’ve got a hurry, hurry sit­u­a­tion.’

“We were go­ing over the plays that I thought could work, and he looked like he’s all non­cha­lant. I said, ‘Matt, c’mon now, we’ve got to get this done.’ He said, ‘Coach, don’t worry. I got it.’

“That’s Matt. He was al­ways

so cool un­der pres­sure.”

Birm­ing­ham said it wasn’t a sur­prise Jones led the game-win­ning drive de­spite his strug­gles in the pass­ing game.

“A lot of peo­ple used to give Matt flak about how if he wasn’t hav­ing a good game he didn’t look dis­ap­pointed about it,” Birm­ing­ham said. “But Matt was one of those quar­ter­backs who didn’t get rat­tled, be­cause he didn’t want the rest of us to get rat­tled.”

Arkansas started its fi­nal pos­ses­sion with a play that had Smith run a deep clear-out route. The idea was Wil­son would be open un­der­neath and catch a pass that got the Ra­zor­backs close to mid­field to set up a “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone.

In­stead LSU’s de­fen­sive backs bit on Wil­son’s route and Smith broke open at the Tigers 35. Smith had to slow down to catch the un­der-thrown ball and was tack­led at the 31.

“Richard has given me a lot of flak about my touch­down, be­cause he was wide open run­ning down the side­line,” Birm­ing­ham said with a laugh. “Richard al­ways says he would have scored if he’d caught the ball in stride and every­one would re­mem­ber him — in­stead of me — for scor­ing that win­ning touch­down.”

Af­ter an in­com­ple­tion, Jones con­nected with Birm­ing­ham.

“It was one of those deals where you see a win­dow, and it doesn’t need to be a very big one, be­cause you’re down and you’re just hop­ing you get lucky,” Jones said in 2012 on the game’s 10th an­niver­sary. “DeCori made a heck of a catch.”

South Carolina Coach Will Muschamp was LSU’s de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 2002.

“I was re­spon­si­ble for the ‘Mir­a­cle on Markham Street,’ or what­ever they call it,” Muschamp said in 2012. “I re­mem­ber it like it was yes­ter­day.

“We ob­vi­ously had a busted cov­er­age on their first play and cut a guy loose deep, and then on the touch­down, we were in a two-man deep look and they hit us over the top.

“That drive is some­thing that still sticks with me to this day, but it was a heck of a throw by Jones in the back in the end zone.”

Nick Sa­ban, go­ing into his 11th sea­son as Alabama’s coach, was LSU’s coach in 2002.

“I re­mem­ber a lot about that Arkansas game,” Sa­ban said in 2012. “You don’t for­get those kind.

“A lot of it was not good ex­e­cu­tion by our de­fense, but it also was a great player mak­ing some great plays for them. Matt Jones was a great player.”

What many might have for­got­ten about the game is that tail­back Fred Tal­ley’s 56-yard touch­down run with 6:33 left pulled the Ra­zor­backs within 17-14 to keep them in strik­ing dis­tance.

Tal­ley got the ball on a draw play — and Arkansas caught LSU in a blitz — on sec­ond-and-19 af­ter Jones was sacked.

“Fred made a PlaySta-tion-type run where he broke about nine tack­les,” Jones said.

“It was one of the best runs ever in Ra­zor­back his­tory if you watch that. I mean, it was an amaz­ing run.”

Tal­ley made sev­eral cuts and out­ran the Tigers to the end zone.

“I kept feel­ing peo­ple hit­ting my legs and my heels,” Tal­ley said af­ter the game. “But I just dug down and tried not to be de­nied.”

Arkansas safety Tony Bua made an­other big play when he tack­led LaBran­don Toe­field for a 1-yard gain on third-and-6 from the Ra­zor­backs’ 13, lead­ing to Sa­ban’s de­ci­sion to kick a field goal for a six-point lead.

“The of­fen­sive line kicked it into gear and Matt picked his game up, and we made some plays on that last drive,” Birm­ing­ham said. “We be­lieved we could pull it off.

“When Richard caught that long pass, it was like, ‘OK, we’ve still got life. We’ve just got to make one more play, so let’s fin­ish this thing. We didn’t come this far to lose.’ “

The game marked the last time Arkansas beat a Sa­ban-coached team.

Three weeks ear­lier, LSU won 33-30 at Ken­tucky on the fi­nal play when Dev­ery Hen­der­son caught Ran­dall’s de­flected pass for a 75-yard touch­down.

“When I met Nick at the 50-yard line af­ter the game, I said, ‘Coach, boy, that was a tough one,’ ” Nutt said. “He said, ‘Hey, we won a game just like that at Ken­tucky. I know how you feel. Con­grat­u­la­tions.’ “

The vic­tory im­proved Nutt’s record as Arkansas coach to 14-0 in his home­town of Lit­tle Rock.

“I loved play­ing in Lit­tle Rock,” Nutt said. “The at­mos­phere was al­ways so good. You grew up watch­ing the Hogs there. I felt like we had a 10-point lead to start the game in Lit­tle Rock.”

Birm­ing­ham signed with the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots as a rookie free agent af­ter the 2004 sea­son and ran into Gay, who was in his sec­ond year with the team.

“I was up in New Eng­land for a mini­camp, and when I walked into the locker room for the first time I saw Gay’s name plate over his locker,” Birm­ing­ham said. “I’m a rookie, and I didn’t want to go up to him and say, ‘Hey, I’m DeCori Birm­ing­ham. I’m the one who caught that touch­down pass against you when you were at LSU.’

“Later that day he came up to me in the cafe­te­ria when we were eat­ing lunch and said, ‘Man, I haven’t for­got­ten what y’all did to us. I thought I had a chance at that ball.’ He said it just grazed over his fin­ger­tips.”

Birm­ing­ham, who was named the Texas State Trooper of the Year in 2015, said he some­times runs into Arkansas fans on the high­way who rec­og­nize him.

Demo­crat-Gazette photo il­lus­tra­tion

Arkansas’ Ja­son Pe­ters (left), Shawn An­drews (right) and Fred Tal­ley carry the Golden Boot Tro­phy off the field af­ter the Ra­zor­backs’ vic­tory over LSU in 2002.

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