A Look Back: The Miracle on Markham

Sep 15, 2018; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Overall view of the field before the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the North Texas Mean Green at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Nov. 29, 2002, is a day that will live forever in the memory of the Arkansas Razorbacks football program. Dubbed the “Miracle on Markham,” the Razorbacks shocked the LSU Tigers in the final seconds to take both the SEC West Division Crown and the Golden Boot Trophy.

The deciding play was a 31-yard pass from Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones to wide receiver Decori Birmingham. Arkansas never led until the final 0:09, and trailed by 10 points twice during the game. Birmingham’s “miracle catch” makes this game one that is still talked about by fans of both schools. It not only gave the Razorbacks the Golden Boot Trophy but also gave them the SEC West Division Title and a trip to their second SEC Championship Game in program history.

Prior to 2014, these two historical rivals played each other every year on the day after Thanksgiving in what was then known as the “Battle for the Golden Boot.” This Black Friday tradition began in 1996. The two teams alternated home sites each year. The fierce rivalry between these two teams, however, predates Arkansas joining the SEC in 1992. These two teams first met in 1901, setting off a string of meetings with important implications throughout the next several decades. The two became conference rivals in 1992.

One such game was in 2002. The final SEC West standings from that year show the Alabama Crimson Tide in first place. The division champion that year was Arkansas, who finished with the tie-breaking advantage in a three-way split with the LSU Tigers and the Auburn Tigers. The final game of the regular season between LSU and the Razorbacks determined who would win the division crown and move on to the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta against the SEC East champion Georgia Bulldogs.

The Crimson Tide received a severe penalty in February 2002 due to a recruiting violation involving boosters paying money to prep players. That set the stage for a winner-take-all division game between Arkansas and LSU. LSU was 5-2 in the conference, while Arkansas was 4-3.

The Auburn Tigers finished the regular season with a 5-3 conference record in the SEC West, as did Arkansas. The Razorbacks beat Auburn earlier in the season to hold the tiebreaker, however. LSU would have won the division title outright with a 6-2 record.

The two teams met in War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, which had become the traditional home site for Arkansas during most of the Golden Boot Era. Markham Boulevard, a heavily traveled route in central Little Rock, runs adjacent to the stadium. Picking a title for this historical upset was simple.

The Razorbacks entered that season’s chapter of the Battle for the Golden Boot with a five-game winning streak, picking up conference wins over Ole Miss, south Carolina and Mississippi State along the way. On Black Friday, they were one game behind LSU in the SEC West.

The Tigers entered ranked No. 17 in the nation. LSU had a good start to the season, winning six straight games after losing the season opener to Virginia Tech. Aided by a rushing attack consisting of Domanick Davis, LaBrandon Toefield and Joseph Addae, starting quarterback Matt Mauck led the Tigers’ offense to four straight wins after that Virginia Tech loss, and was primed to lead them to a fifth straight win. LSU picked up that Week 6 victory, a 36-7 win over Florida, but Mauck suffered a broken foot during the game. He missed the rest of the season.

Marcus Randall stepped in. He led LSU to a win in his first start, a 38-14 rout of the Gamecocks, but LSU faltered in three of the next four games, causing them to fall to 5-2 in the conference. Those two conference losses put the Tigers in a must-win situation heading into their final regular season matchup in Little Rock.

As for Arkansas, everything on offense went through Matt Jones. The tall, lanky quarterback who could create a big play by running downfield or by throwing downfield was at the center of the Razorbacks’ offense. Fred Talley was the team’s leading rusher; he was a talented back who is unjustifiably an afterthought when Razorback fans discuss some of the all-time greats at the position.

The wide receiver corps was led by George Wilson and Richard Smith. Birmingham, who caught the division-clinching catch, was a talented supporting cast member on the Arkansas offense.

The game started off as many probably expected: two SEC teams meeting on the gridiron for the right to play again the following week. The game started off with both teams standing each other up on defense. Neither team was able to score for the first five minutes of the game. That scoreless streak ended when Randall hit Skylar Green for a 67-yard touchdown. Randall found Green on a wide receiver screen and passed underneath. Green caught the pass and turned upfield, outrunning the Arkansas secondary for the score.

The Tigers added a field goal in the second quarter to go up 10-0 at halftime. Arkansas got into the red zone once in the half. That drive ended with Jones throwing a pick on the right side of the end zone. Jones scrambled around in the pocket before moving to his right. He threw a poor pass to Smith in double coveragle. LSU defensive back Corey Webter had little trouble making the pick.

The Arkansas defense forced a three-and-out to start the second half. After being unable to create any momentum in the first half, the offense found a lifeline early in the third quarter. Jones found Smith on a slant, and Smith was able to turn that catch into a 25-yard gain to the LSU 20. The drive ended with Mark Pierce leaping over the pile and extending the ball just enough to cross the plain.

LSU responded with a touchdown: a five-yard run by Randall. Neither team scored again in the third, and the Tigers went into the fourth quarter with a 17-7 lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Razorbacks scored again. With the ball at the Razorbacks 44-yard line, the offense lined up in the shotgun formation. Tally took the handoff from Jones and ran to the right before finding a seam and turning up field. Tally stepped out of an ankle tackle at the LSU 34, and went untouched the rest of the way for the touchdown, cutting the Tigers’ lead to 17-14 with less than eight minutes left in the game.

LSU responded with a long, 13-play drive that milked nearly all the remaining time from the clock. The drive resulted in a field goal, putting Arkansas in a difficult spot. The Razorbacks needed to make up a 20-14 deficit and had only 0:34 to work with. The drive started at the Arkansas 19. The first play? A downfield pass that was caught by Smith for a 50-yard gain. The Razorbacks had no timeouts but sat at the 31-yard line.

After spiking the ball on the next snap, only 0:17 remained on the clock. Jones connected with Birmingham on the next play. After taking the snap on the next play, Jones moved around in the pocket before moving to his right and throwing a dart to the end zone. Birmingham was in triple coverage, and leapt to make the catch over LSU defensive back Randall Gay. War Memorial Stadium erupted after the extra point was made, giving the Razorbacks their first lead with only 0:09 to play.

Arkansas won its second SEC West division title that season, ending a six-year absence from the conference championship game. The Razorbacks lost 38-3 to Georgia in Atlanta. After the season, the Razorbacks accepted an invite to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn., against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers won the game, 29-14.

LSU went to the Cotton Bowl after the regular season for a game against the Texas Longhorns. The final score was 35-20 in favor of the Longhorns.

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