Against All Odds

Coach Les Miles gambled—and won—five times on fourth down as LSU rallied over Florida, while the Tigers' West Coast rivals went belly up
October 14, 2007

THE REBRANDINGtook place before our very eyes. Going into his team's gutsy 28-24 comebackvictory over a talented, desperate Florida squad last Saturday night, LSU coachLes Miles was seen, truth be told, as a highly paid caretaker. He was betterthan competent—witness the 5--0 start in 2007; examine his identical 11--2records in '05 and '06. But Miles was also fortunate, as South Carolina coachSteve Spurrier recently reminded the world, to have had so much talentbequeathed to him by his predecessor, Nick Saban. ¬∂ Even as Miles delivered top10 finishes in his first two seasons in Baton Rouge, the Tigers' faithful couldnot bring themselves to forgive him for the big ones that got away: acome-from-ahead overtime loss to Tennessee in 2005 and a loss to Florida lastyear, in which a freshman named Tim Tebow, in a supporting role, outshinedJaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the '07 NFL draft.

Now Miles will beknown for his nerve—although that wasn't the noun of choice on Saturday nightat Tiger Stadium. Tigers running back Jacob Hester put it this way: "He'sdefinitely got some serious, you know...." As one admiring blogger put it,Miles has "huge onions." For the game's most remarkable statisticwasn't Florida's 156 rushing yards against the nation's top-ranked defense,which had yielded 195 yards on the ground all season. It was LSU's going for iton fourth down five times—and making it on all five.

When it was over,Miles sounded like someone who'd had a good night at the casino. Explaining whyhe felt compelled to roll the dice on all those fourth downs—twice on theteam's game-winning touchdown drive—Miles spoke of "a feeling" and"a hankering" that his serial gambles would pay off. Hester wouldconvert two of those fourth downs, finishing with 106 yards on 23 carries andthe winning score. At least someone was representing the Evangel ChristianAcademy in Shreveport, La., on Saturday night.

THAT'S WHEREHester played his high school ball—where he took handoffs and caught passesfrom his friend John David Booty. While Hester was softening up Florida's frontseven, Booty was two time zones away at the L.A. Coliseum, turning in the worstgame of his USC career. After throwing two interceptions in a narrow escape atWashington on Sept. 29, he uncorked four more picks in dragging his team to amind-boggling, 24--23 loss to Stanford.

True, the Trojanscould still contend for the national title (although they will most likely beunderdogs at No. 2 Cal on Nov. 10). For now USC must cope with the lingeringbitterness of an upset that ranks with Appalachian State over Michigan. Havingbeen outscored 141--51 in its previous three Pac-10 games, the Cardinal was a41-point underdog, playing without its injured starting quarterback, facing theNo. 1 team in the coaches' poll, going into the stadium where USC had won 35straight, doing battle with a juggernaut whose coach was disinclined to showmercy. That's because Pete Carroll judged Jim Harbaugh, Stanford's first-yearcoach, impertinent last March when he offered that Carroll would soon return tothe NFL, and later said that the Trojans might be the most talented squad inthe history of college football.

Even beforeSaturday's catastrophe USC had fallen far short of Harbaugh's assessment. Asbecame apparent during lackluster wins over Idaho and Washington, the Trojanshad major issues. Yes, they had suffered a plague of injuries, but so have manyprograms. Wideout Patrick Turner, who has been the opposite of sure-handed thisseason, dropped another three balls on Saturday. Booty, once a Heismancandidate, has regressed. The senior fractured a finger in his throwing handduring the Stanford game; Carroll left him in the fray. While backup MarkSanchez may not have dissected the visitors, it's unlikely he would have handedthem the game.

The Trojans areout of sync, undisciplined (16 penalties at Washington) and far from special onspecial teams: A missed extra point proved costly beyond measure against theCardinal. The program that two seasons ago came within 19 seconds of clinchinga third straight AP national crown has now dropped three of its last seven inthe Pac-10. This Southern California team is far less than the sum of itsfive-star parts. And that comes back to coaching.

The fall of Troyconsolidated LSU's claim to college football's top spot. (While the Tigers hadleapfrogged USC in the AP poll a week earlier, they had remained No. 2 in thecoaches' poll; they now rule both.) It also delighted Tigers fans still rankledat being forced to share the 2003 national title with the Trojans. (LSUfinished first in the coaches' poll; USC topped the AP poll). Tiger Nation hastaken pleasure, ever since, in USC's pain. Call it SChadenfreude.

BEFORE LSU couldrule both polls, there remained the small matter of beating the defendingnational champions, who played close to a perfect game for the first 30minutes. Coming off a sloppy, 20--17 loss to unranked Auburn, the Gators hadpromised a return to the discipline and focus upon which coach Urban Meyer hadbuilt his program since he arrived in 2005. This focus would be evident, Tebowsaid early last week, "in everything we do, on the field and off thefield.... We're going to be the team that does everything right, givingeverything for one another."

Florida came outaggressively on offense with a quick-passing game. Fully aware that his guysdidn't match up well against a line anchored by Glenn Dorsey, LSU's maraudingAll-America defensive tackle, Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen spreadthe Tigers out, lining up with five wideouts on 75% of their plays. The result:Against a unit giving up 174.6 yards and 6.4 points per game, Tebow led theGators to 172 yards and 17 points in the first half, which, frankly, heowned.

Tebow's breakoutgame had come against the Tigers a year ago: He accounted for all three ofFlorida's touchdowns in a 23--10 victory in the Swamp. The most memorable ofthose scores was a jump pass to tight end Tate Casey, a retro throw that wasungainly and beautiful all at once. Tebow's touchdown pass on Saturday was alsomost distinctive. Rolling left from the LSU two-yard line with linebacker AliHighsmith bearing down on him, Tebow scanned the end zone before tucking theball to run. At the last instant, when linebacker Darry Beckwith charged towardhim, Tebow flicked the ball to tailback Kestahn Moore, who was standing in thearea Beckwith had just occupied. So quick was Tebow's release that he lookedlike a man throwing a dart in a pub.

In the LSU lockerroom at halftime, with his team trailing 17--7, an angry Highsmith reminded histeammates that the Gators had gathered before the game and jumped up and downon LSU's logo. In Highsmith's version of events—embellished slightly to provokemaximum outrage—the Gators also spit on the Tigers' eye.

With Floridadriving late in the third quarter, Highsmith tore the ball from Moore's grasp.But Colt David missed his second field goal of the game, a 37-yarder,preserving Florida's 24--14 lead, and explaining, in part, why Miles had so fewqualms about going for it so often on fourth down.

The Tigers gotthe ball back on a freak interception: A Tebow bullet doinked off the helmet oftight end Cornelius Ingram, into the hands of defensive end Kirston Pittman.LSU's drive stalled at the Florida four-yard line. This was a no-brainer,right? LSU was down 10 points, and there were still 10-plus minutes left. Youtake the sure three, right?

Not Miles. Not onthis night. Tigers quarterback Matt Flynn rolled right, looking for wideoutDemetrius Byrd, who was covered. "I was ready to run it," said Flynn,who as the holder had already rushed for a first down on a fake field goal.When linebacker Brandon Spikes, who'd been covering Byrd, stepped up to playthe run, Flynn flicked a scoring pass to Byrd. The Death Valley crowd was infull throat.

Its lead whittledto 24--21, Florida badly needed a long, clock-eating drive. Instead, the Tigersdefense forced just its second three-and-out of the game. During the TV timeoutbefore the offense took the field, Miles told the Tigers, "You're not goingto see the kicker on this drive."

Four plays laterLSU was facing a fourth-and-one at its 49-yard line with 7:07 left. "Theyknew where we were going to run, Hester said. "It was just mano amano." Jolted behind the line of scrimmage, the 6-foot, 232-pound Hestermoved the chains with a supreme second effort. Four snaps later he ran throughthe tackle of freshman safety Major Wright on a 19-yard run. As he was gettingup, he says that a Florida player told him, "You still ain't nothin',Vanilla Ice."

Hester has aflair for the dramatic: He proposed to his wife, Katie, outside War MemorialStadium in Little Rock last season. He plays a lot of tailback, some fullbackand is on the kick-coverage teams. A fine blocker and a dangerous receiver,Hester also happens to be white, a subject that arises, every so often, on thefield. Earlier in his career, Hester recalls, a Tennessee player asked him,"Shouldn't you be playing at Air Force?" Seven plays after beingcompared with the composer of Ice, Ice Baby, on third-and-goal from the three,Hester torpedoed under Spikes and got the nose of the ball over the goalline.

"I'm proud ofhim," said Flynn, who helped direct the 15-play drive. "I'm proud ofall these guys. I feel blessed to be a part of this team."

It was, in theend, the kind of gut-check victory that championship squads like to reflect on,to say, That was the night we grew up. Hester, of course, was having none ofit. "If it was Week 12, this would be the best feeling in the world,"he said. "But it's Week 7."

His point is welltaken. This week the Tigers travel to suddenly dangerous Kentucky. Beyond theWildcats lurk, among others, Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas. Just because theTigers look like the most complete team in the country doesn't mean they areremotely safe. If the 2007 season has taught us anything, it is this:

Uneasy lies thehead that wears the crown.

Or, in Miles'scase, the ever-present stiff-brimmed LSU ball cap, which, as far as anyoneknows, he wears to bed. Asked late on Saturday if he'd ever, in his six-plusyears as a head coach, rolled the dice so recklessly, he allowed that he hadnot, and added, "Nor would I care to again."

But here's therub. If the Tigers and the Gators win out, they'll probably meet again in theSEC title game. Miles might not have a choice.

While Hester was softening up Florida, his former highschool teammate Booty was turning in his WORST GAME at USC.

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Perfect Science

Here are the undefeated teams through six weeks, alongwith their most meaningful wins, biggest obstacles and chances of remainingunblemished

NO. 1 LSU, 6--0
Up next: at Kentucky.
Marquee wins: Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida.
Outlook: After the trip to Lexington, the Tigers' toughest tests are at home(Auburn and Arkansas), though Alabama coach Nick Saban would love to playspoiler against his old team.
Likelihood of a perfect season (out of a possible four bowl blazers): 3½

No. 2 CAL, 5--0
Up next: Oregon State.
Marquee wins: Tennessee, at Oregon.
Outlook: The Bears are pointing to their Nov. 10 game with USC, but they'dbetter not overlook their Oct. 27 trip to Arizona State.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 2½ blazers

NO. 3 OHIO STATE, 6--0
Up next: Kent State.
Marquee wins: at Washington, at Purdue.
Outlook: No reason the Buckeyes shouldn't be 11-0 heading into their Nov. 17game at Michigan.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 3 1/2 blazers

NO. 4 BOSTON COLLEGE, 6--0
Up next: at Notre Dame.
Marquee wins: Wake Forest, at Georgia Tech.
Outlook: A Thursday night affair at Virginia Tech will be no picnic, nor willthe trip to Death Valley to face Clemson.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 3 blazers

NO. 5 SOUTH FLORIDA, 5--0
Up next: Central Florida.
Marquee wins: at Auburn, West Virginia.
Outlook: If the Bulls can win at Rutgers on Oct. 18, watch out.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 3 blazers

NO. 11 MISSOURI, 5--0
Up next: at Oklahoma.
Marquee wins: Illinois, Nebraska.
Outlook: The Tigers can make a statement in Norman, and pivotal road games comelater against Colorado and Kansas State.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 1 blazer

NO. 14 ARIZONA STATE, 6--0
Up next: Washington.
Marquee win: Colorado.
Outlook: Now comes the hard part—games against Cal, Oregon and USC.
Likelihood of a perfect season: ½ blazer

NO. 15 CINCINNATI, 6--0
Up next: Louisville.
Marquee win: at Rutgers.
Outlook: The Nov. 3 game at South Florida could be for the Big East title.Honest!
Likelihood of a perfect season: 1 blazer

NO. 16 HAWAII, 6--0
Up next: at San Jose State.
Marquee wins: None.
Outlook: The Warriors close with home games against Boise State andWashington.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 1½ blazers

NO. 20 KANSAS, 5--0
Up next: Baylor.
Marquee win: at Kansas State.
Outlook: Think the Jayhawks regret the decision to move the Nov. 24 game withMissouri to a neutral site (Kansas City, Mo.)?
Likelihood of a perfect season: 1 blazer

CONNECTICUT, 5--0
Up next: at Virginia.
Marquee wins: None.
Outlook: With games against Louisville, South Florida, Rutgers, Cincinnati andWest Virginia, not good.
Likelihood of a perfect season: 1/8 blazer (roughly one sleeve)

 

PHOTOBOB ROSATOGO FOR IT Miles (above) told his offense he wouldn't attempt a field goal, and Hester responded with the game-winning TD. PHOTOPhotograph by Bob Rosato[See caption above] PHOTOSIMON BRUTYTHE CLOSERS Tebow led the Gators to 17 first-half points, but Dorsey & Co. pitched a shutout in the fourth quarter. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOSPOTLIGHT QB Chase Daniel leads unbeaten Missouri against Oklahoma in this Saturday's marquee matchup.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)