‘Miracle’ doesn’t fade
Iconic catch lives with Birmingham, Nutt
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.
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.