Austin Murphy: Two-Timing Tigers - Sports Illustrated

Two-Timing Tigers

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LSU quarterback Matt Flynn had just thrown the last of his four touchdown passes in the BCS championship game on Monday night, a soft lob to tight end Richard Dickson, who might as well have been wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, for all the success that Ohio State had in covering him. With the Buckeyes driving -- they put up a window-dressing touchdown to cut the final score to 38-24 -- Flynn stood on the bench with less than two minutes left, leaning over to embrace teammates and taking in the scene. The normally stoic Flynn, a senior from Tyler, Texas, sighed deeply several times and blinked back tears.

"I was standing there thinking what this team had gone through, and what I'd gone through," he recalled later in the Tigers' nearly deserted locker room at the Superdome. "I mean, you can't dream it any better than that."

On his first visit to the Baton Rouge campus, when he was a star at Robert E. Lee High, Flynn arrived at night and stood outside Tiger Stadium. The grand old bowl was bathed in light, "and it gave me chills," he recalls. "I knew it was a place I wanted to be, a program on the rise."

Flynn committed to LSU before his senior season. What he didn't know was that, six months later, LSU would sign an even more highly touted quarterback. For the next four years (including a redshirt season), Flynn was a backup, playing behind one JaMarcus Russell the last three. During that time Flynn was tempted by outsiders to transfer, but he stuck it out, holding for extra points, taking snaps in garbage time, waiting "stubbornly," as he put it, for his day in the sun.

That day arrived this season, but only after Russell left early for the NFL (and became the No. 1 pick in the draft). Even then the sunshine quickly faded for Flynn. He was tearing up Virginia Tech in LSU's second game when he suffered a high right-ankle sprain that kept him out of the next game and curtailed his mobility for several weeks. Then, on a late touchdown run against Arkansas on Nov. 23, he separated his throwing shoulder. Two painkilling injections allowed him to stay in that game, a 50-48 triple overtime loss, but the bum shoulder kept him out of the SEC championship game eight days later. "I've watched a lot of games here, but the hardest thing I've ever had to do was watch that one," he said of the Tigers' 21-14 win over Tennessee.

The point being, nothing comes easy for this kid. On LSU's first possession against Ohio State, Flynn was making a check at the line when center Brett Helms snapped the ball prematurely. Flynn covered the loose ball, but the busted play lost 17 yards and the Tigers were soon punting out of their end zone. The Buckeyes took advantage of their good field position, getting a 25-yard field goal from Ryan Pretorius to increase their lead to 10-0.

By then the Tigers may have been thinking, We've got them right where we want them. After all, LSU had trailed in six of its first 11 victories this season. In a familiar 10-point hole, the Tigers, naturally, exploded for 31 unanswered points.

The game got away from Ohio State late in the second quarter, starting with Flynn's perfectly placed throw to wideout Brandon LaFell in the left corner of the end zone. That gave LSU its first lead of the night. Three plays later, under intense pressure from blitzing safety Harry Coleman, Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman was intercepted by cornerback Chevis Jackson. That set up a one-yard scoring plunge by Jacob Hester, extending LSU's lead to 24-10. The Tigers were on their way.

Two days before the title game -- speaking of dreams -- Hester, the Tigers' senior all-purpose back and devoted Elvis fan, was asked to list his top five songs by the King. Without hesitation, he said, "If I Can Dream is Number 1." That gospel-influenced, Vietnam-era plea for peace would be an odd choice for anyone but an Elvis connoisseur. Hester says he has been to Graceland about eight times and lives in a house in which the Elvis Room so overflows with objets d'Elvis that he recently palmed off on his mother, Nancy, a plaster Elvis bust and a life-sized cardboard cutout of the young singer in gold lamé. That facsimile, Nancy reports, "scared the daylights out of the man who came over to fix my ceiling fan. He thought there was an intruder."

Released as the finale of the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special, the lyrics for If I Can Dream include the promise:

As long as a manHas the strength to dream,He can redeem his soul and fly.

Those words held special meaning on Monday night not only for Hester -- a one-time noseguard who had to beg for the chance to carry the ball in high school, then rushed for 200 yards in his first start at fullback -- but also for his teammates. The Tigers' best player, for instance, havoc-dispensing senior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, spent a year as a toddler with braces on his legs to correct his severely pigeoned-toed feet. While other kids played hide-and-seek, recalls Dorsey, "I was on the porch, just watching everybody." Now, at 6' 2" and 303 pounds, Dorsey "is one of the most impressive players I've ever seen," said Ohio State right tackle Kirk Barton, who marveled at the ease with which Dorsey "rag-dolls" offensive linemen.

For ball-capped LSU coach Les Miles, a month of preparation for the national championship game was a Mediterranean cruise compared with the two weekends that preceded it. At the start of that turbulent stretch was the triple-overtime loss to Arkansas; with two such defeats on the season, LSU plummeted from No. 1 to No. 7 in the BCS rankings. The Tigers rallied to beat Tennessee the following Saturday, and they were resurrected later that night when No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma and No. 2 West Virginia was shocked at home by Pitt.

As a subplot to this drama Michigan alum Miles was projected by the media as a lock to replace the retiring Lloyd Carr as coach of the Wolverines -- a job Miles was known to covet. ESPN's report on the morning of the SEC title game that Miles was as good as gone to Ann Arbor forced him to hold a press conference two hours before kickoff. After declaring his loyalty to his employer -- "I'm the head coach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU.... I have no interest in talking to anybody else" -- Miles informed reporters that he would not take questions until after the game. "I'm busy," he said. "Have a great day."

It was an edgy performance by a man who raised unpredictability to an art form in 2007. There was that f bomb he dropped, in reference to Alabama, at a recruiting gathering for LSU alumni and boosters last February, not long after the Tide had hired former LSU coach Nick Saban. ("We're looking forward to playing Florida. We're looking forward to playing Auburn. But we have a new rival in f------ Alabama," Miles told the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation.)

In July there was his unprompted swipe at the Pac-10 in general and USC in particular, saying, "I can tell you this: They have a much easier road to travel. They're going to play real knock-down, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley, Stanford -- some real juggernauts."

On the sideline Miles often looked like a candidate for Gamblers Anonymous: He green-lighted two fake field goals and a fake punt. (Each call paid off.) He rolled the dice on fourth down 15 times, and the Tigers converted 12, including all five in a comeback victory over Florida. Sir Thomas More might have been the Man for All Seasons, but Miles was the man for this looney one.

"If there's a way to steal a possession, I'm certainly going to invest in that thought," Miles said, while being driven from the Superdome to the team hotel two days before the title game. Then, citing the Buckeyes' disciplined play and conservative style, he predicted there would be "few opportunities" to trick them.

In the end the Tigers didn't need deception to dominate Ohio State. Miles believed going in that if his defense could bottle up the Ohio State ground game without bringing an extra defender into the box, LSU would be home free. "If we can stop [tailback Chris] Wells with seven guys," Miles said, "the game's over." Wells was averaging 121.9 yards a game and 5.8 yards a carry and figured to do equally well against a Tigers unit that had allowed a total of 613 rushing yards in the last two regular-season games. "There were times where we were bendin' and breakin'," said linebacker Ali Highsmith.

LSU did both of those things on the fourth play from scrimmage. Taking a handoff up the middle, Wells cut back, found a huge channel of daylight, then outsprinted safety Craig Steltz to the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown.

But as the game wore on, Dorsey and the rest of the Tigers' front four gradually took control of the line of scrimmage. Wells rushed for 119 yards in the first half, mostly running away from Dorsey, but in the second half he gained only 27 yards on 10 carries. Able to tee off on Boeckman, LSU sacked him four times in the second half and forced a pair of fumbles.

Some LSU players attributed their team's ragged start to the long layoff. But the 37 days between the SEC title game and the BCS final provided several banged-up Tigers the time they needed to heal. Yes, they allowed in the days leading up to the game, their defense looked ordinary in the second half of the season. But with everyone back at full speed -- in particular Dorsey, who earned consensus All-America honors despite playing at well under 100% in his last five games -- they would be hell on wheels.

Providing an unexpected preview of LSU's vaunted team speed were four Tigers seen sprinting out of Scores, a strip club on Bourbon Street, at 11:51 last Friday night. They had nine minutes to cover the five blocks to the team hotel and however many floors to get to their rooms before a midnight curfew. The way they hightailed it toward Canal Street, the players made bed check with plenty of time to spare.

Ohio State was all business when it arrived in the Big Easy five days before the game. Prior to facing Florida in last year's national title game, the team was lodged at a posh Scottsdale resort for part of its 12-day trip, and many Buckeyes remain convinced that their stay there softened them up for the Gators. This time they were billeted at a hotel whose best feature, according to Barton, was its fitness center (which he used between practices).

"The only place I've been," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said last Friday, "is Walgreens."

"If there's a time to have fun down there," All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis said of Bourbon Street, "it's Monday night -- after the game."

The Buckeyes who did make their way to Bourbon Street following the game had no reason to celebrate. Seeking redemption for their 41-14 humiliation at the hands of Florida, they suffered more disappointment. Celebrating, instead, was Flynn -- at last.

Standing on the dais after he was named the game's offensive MVP, the quarterback wound up in possession of the football-shaped crystal trophy awarded to the BCS champion. While Miles addressed LSU fans, virtually all of whom had stuck around for the ceremony, Flynn stood behind his coach striking a series of poses with the crystal, to the delight of teammates.

But the victory may have been sweetest for Miles, who hadn't won over Tiger Nation despite going 11-2 in each of his first two seasons. With national-title-caliber talent, rabid LSU fans argued, he didn't win so much as a conference championship until this, his third year.

Those complaints and any lingering suspicion over his unconsummated affair with Michigan were swept away in the tumult at the Superdome. With two minutes left in the game, the crowd had taken up a thunderous chant, "Les Miles! Les Miles!" The coach was feeling the love then, just as he would feel it several hours later while standing on a Bourbon Street balcony and holding the trophy above a raucous, adoring throng.

Last Saturday, outside his temporary office in the team hotel, Miles had talked about the temptation of the Michigan job. "I've got to be real honest with you," he said. "Michigan didn't communicate with me. I did everything I could to arrange an opportunity to talk [later]."

He could have lobbied more forcefully for the job but held off while his squad remained in the national title chase. Not even the Mad Hatter, as he came to be known this season, is that crazy. "The thing about Bo," he said of Schembechler, for whom he played and coached at Michigan, "was that there was never any question about his commitment to the team."

Nor was there any question about the commitment of Flynn, whose parents, Alvin and Ruth, kept making the 333-mile drive from Tyler to Baton Rouge for four years, only to watch their son hold for extra points and field goals most of the time.

"To be honest," Flynn said after pulling off his shoulder pads for the final time as a Tiger, "this isn't how I would have scripted my career, coming out of high school. But I wouldn't give up this one year for four years starting anywhere else. It's been tough, but right now it's so, so sweet."