LSU QUARTERBACKMatt Flynn had just thrown the last of his four touchdown passes in the BCSchampionship game on Monday night, a soft lob to tight end Richard Dickson, whomight as well have been wearing Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, for all thesuccess that Ohio State had in covering him. With the Buckeyes driving—they putup a window-dressing touchdown to cut the final score to 38--24—Flynn stood onthe bench with less than two minutes left, leaning over to embrace teammatesand taking in the scene. The normally stoic Flynn, a senior from Tyler, Texas,sighed deeply several times and blinked back tears. ¬∂ "I was standing therethinking what this team had gone through, and what I'd gone through," herecalled 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 visitto the Baton Rouge campus, when he was a star at Robert E. Lee High, Flynnarrived at night and stood outside Tiger Stadium. The grand old bowl was bathedin light, "and it gave me chills," he recalls. "I knew it was aplace I wanted to be, a program on the rise."
Flynn committed toLSU 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 JaMarcusRussell the last three. During that time Flynn was tempted by outsiders totransfer, but he stuck it out, holding for extra points, taking snaps ingarbage time, waiting "stubbornly," as he put it, for his day in thesun.
That day arrivedthis 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 wastearing up Virginia Tech in LSU's second game when he suffered a highright-ankle sprain that kept him out of the next game and curtailed hismobility for several weeks. Then, on a late touchdown run against Arkansas onNov. 23, he separated his throwing shoulder. Two painkilling injections allowedhim to stay in that game, a 50--48 triple overtime loss, but the bum shoulderkept him out of the SEC championship game eight days later. "I've watched alot of games here, but the hardest thing I've ever had to do was watch thatone," he said of the Tigers' 21--14 win over Tennessee.
January 14, 2008
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 ballprematurely. Flynn covered the loose ball, but the busted play lost 17 yardsand the Tigers were soon punting out of their end zone. The Buckeyes tookadvantage of their good field position, getting a 25-yard field goal from RyanPretorius to increase their lead to 10--0.
By then the Tigersmay have been thinking, We've got them right where we want them. After all, LSUhad trailed in six of its first 11 victories this season. In a familiar10-point hole, the Tigers, naturally, exploded for 31 unanswered points.
The game got awayfrom Ohio State late in the second quarter, starting with Flynn's perfectlyplaced throw to wideout Brandon LaFell in the left corner of the end zone. Thatgave LSU its first lead of the night. Three plays later, under intense pressurefrom blitzing safety Harry Coleman, Ohio State quarterback Todd Boeckman wasintercepted by cornerback Chevis Jackson. That set up a one-yard scoring plungeby Jacob Hester, extending LSU's lead to 24--10. The Tigers were on theirway.
TWO DAYS beforethe title game—speaking of dreams—Hester, the Tigers' senior all-purpose backand 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." Thatgospel-influenced, Vietnam-era plea for peace would be an odd choice for anyonebut an Elvis connoisseur. Hester says he has been to Graceland about eighttimes and lives in a house in which the Elvis Room so overflows with objetsd'Elvis that he recently palmed off on his mother, Nancy, a plaster Elvis bustand a life-sized cardboard cutout of the young singer in gold lamé. Thatfacsimile, Nancy reports, "scared the daylights out of the man who cameover to fix my ceiling fan. He thought there was an intruder."
Released as thefinale of the 1968 Elvis Comeback Special, the lyrics for If I Can Dreaminclude the promise:
As long as a man
Has the strength to dream,
He can redeem his soul and fly.
Those words heldspecial meaning on Monday night not only for Hester—a one-time noseguard whohad to beg for the chance to carry the ball in high school, then rushed for 200yards in his first start at fullback—but also for his teammates. The Tigers'best player, for instance, havoc-dispensing senior defensive tackle GlennDorsey, spent a year as a toddler with braces on his legs to correct hisseverely pigeoned-toed feet. While other kids played hide-and-seek, recallsDorsey, "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 everseen," said Ohio State right tackle Kirk Barton, who marveled at the easewith which Dorsey "rag-dolls" offensive linemen.
FOR BALL-CAPPEDLSU coach Les Miles, a month of preparation for the national championship gamewas a Mediterranean cruise compared with the two weekends that preceded it. Atthe 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 theBCS rankings. The Tigers rallied to beat Tennessee the following Saturday, andthey were resurrected later that night when No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma andNo. 2 West Virginia was shocked at home by Pitt.
As a subplot tothis drama Michigan alum Miles was projected by the media as a lock to replacethe retiring Lloyd Carr as coach of the Wolverines—a job Miles was known tocovet. ESPN's report on the morning of the SEC title game that Miles was asgood as gone to Ann Arbor forced him to hold a press conference two hoursbefore kickoff. After declaring his loyalty to his employer—"I'm the headcoach at LSU. I will be the head coach at LSU.... I have no interest in talkingto anybody else"—Miles informed reporters that he would not take questionsuntil after the game. "I'm busy," he said. "Have a greatday."
It was an edgyperformance by a man who raised unpredictability to an art form in 2007. Therewas that f bomb he dropped, in reference to Alabama, at a recruiting gatheringfor LSU alumni and boosters last February, not long after the Tide had hiredformer 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 washis 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 goingto play real knock-down, drag-outs with UCLA and Washington, Cal-Berkeley,Stanford—some real juggernauts."
On the sidelineMiles often looked like a candidate for Gamblers Anonymous: He green-lightedtwo fake field goals and a fake punt. (Each call paid off.) He rolled the diceon fourth down 15 times, and the Tigers converted 12, including all five in acomeback victory over Florida. Sir Thomas More might have been the Man for AllSeasons, but Miles was the man for this looney one.
"If there's away 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 daysbefore the title game. Then, citing the Buckeyes' disciplined play andconservative style, he predicted there would be "few opportunities" totrick them.
IN THE END theTigers didn't need deception to dominate Ohio State. Miles believed going inthat if his defense could bottle up the Ohio State ground game without bringingan extra defender into the box, LSU would be home free. "If we can stop[tailback Chris] Wells with seven guys," Miles said, "the game'sover." Wells was averaging 121.9 yards a game and 5.8 yards a carry andfigured to do equally well against a Tigers unit that had allowed a total of613 rushing yards in the last two regular-season games. "There were timeswhere we were bendin' and breakin'," said linebacker Ali Highsmith.
LSU did both ofthose 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 CraigSteltz to the end zone for a 65-yard touchdown.
But as the gamewore on, Dorsey and the rest of the Tigers' front four gradually took controlof the line of scrimmage. Wells rushed for 119 yards in the first half, mostlyrunning away from Dorsey, but in the second half he gained only 27 yards on 10carries. Able to tee off on Boeckman, LSU sacked him four times in the secondhalf and forced a pair of fumbles.
Some LSU playersattributed their team's ragged start to the long layoff. But the 37 daysbetween the SEC title game and the BCS final provided several banged-up Tigersthe time they needed to heal. Yes, they allowed in the days leading up to thegame, their defense looked ordinary in the second half of the season. But witheveryone back at full speed—in particular Dorsey, who earned consensusAll-America honors despite playing at well under 100% in his last fivegames—they would be hell on wheels.
Providing anunexpected preview of LSU's vaunted team speed were four Tigers seen sprintingout of Scores, a strip club on Bourbon Street, at 11:51 last Friday night. Theyhad nine minutes to cover the five blocks to the team hotel and however manyfloors to get to their rooms before a midnight curfew. The way they hightailedit toward Canal Street, the players made bed check with plenty of time tospare.
Ohio State was allbusiness when it arrived in the Big Easy five days before the game. Prior tofacing Florida in last year's national title game, the team was lodged at aposh Scottsdale resort for part of its 12-day trip, and many Buckeyes remainconvinced that their stay there softened them up for the Gators. This time theywere billeted at a hotel whose best feature, according to Barton, was itsfitness center (which he used between practices).
"The onlyplace I've been," cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said last Friday, "isWalgreens."
"If there's atime to have fun down there," All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis saidof Bourbon Street, "it's Monday night—after the game."
The Buckeyes whodid make their way to Bourbon Street following the game had no reason tocelebrate. Seeking redemption for their 41--14 humiliation at the hands ofFlorida, they suffered more disappointment. Celebrating, instead, was Flynn—atlast.
Standing on thedais after he was named the game's offensive MVP, the quarterback wound up inpossession of the football-shaped crystal trophy awarded to the BCS champion.While Miles addressed LSU fans, virtually all of whom had stuck around for theceremony, Flynn stood behind his coach striking a series of poses with thecrystal, to the delight of teammates.
BUT THE victorymay have been sweetest for Miles, who hadn't won over Tiger Nation despitegoing 11--2 in each of his first two seasons. With national-title-calibertalent, rabid LSU fans argued, he didn't win so much as a conferencechampionship until this, his third year.
Those complaintsand any lingering suspicion over his unconsummated affair with Michigan wereswept 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!" Thecoach was feeling the love then, just as he would feel it several hours laterwhile standing on a Bourbon Street balcony and holding the trophy above araucous, adoring throng.
Last Saturday,outside his temporary office in the team hotel, Miles had talked about thetemptation 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 toarrange an opportunity to talk [later]."
He could havelobbied more forcefully for the job but held off while his squad remained inthe national title chase. Not even the Mad Hatter, as he came to be known thisseason, is that crazy. "The thing about Bo," he said of Schembechler,for whom he played and coached at Michigan, "was that there was never anyquestion about his commitment to the team."
Nor was there anyquestion about the commitment of Flynn, whose parents, Alvin and Ruth, keptmaking the 333-mile drive from Tyler to Baton Rouge for four years, only towatch their son hold for extra points and field goals most of the time.
"To behonest," Flynn said after pulling off his shoulder pads for the final timeas a Tiger, "this isn't how I would have scripted my career, coming out ofhigh school. But I wouldn't give up this one year for four years startinganywhere else. It's been tough, but right now it's so, so sweet."
The Tigers didn't need deception to dominate OhioState. As the game wore on, the LSU front four took control of the line ofscrimmage.
"This isn't how I would have scripted mycareer," said Flynn. "But I wouldn't give up this one year for fouryears starting anywhere else."
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A Bowl Season to Remember
Stealing the show were a coach who went out in style bywinning the best game of them all, a longtime assistant who earned a covetedpromotion and a quartet of record-setting running backs
WITH A record 32 games played over 19 days andbroadcast on six networks, the bowl season was anything but easy to navigate.Here's what you might have missed from games involving the 62 schools that didnot play for the national championship, plus an early forecast on which teamswill be on the rise or on the decline in 2008.
Best and Worst
Given the interim job after coach Rich Rodriguez bolted for Michigan, longtimeassistant Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a 48--28 win over Oklahoma in theFiesta Bowl. Pat White (below) ran for 150 yards and threw for two touchdowns.Early the next morning Stewart was rewarded with a five-year contract. Otherinterim coaches were 0--4 in bowl games.
In a joint pep rally two nights before the Alamo Bowl, a yell leader TexasA&M proclaimed, "Joe Paterno's on his death bed. And someone needs tofind him a casket." The 81-year-old Paterno, coaching in his 500th game,chuckled at the comment—and Penn State had the last laugh, rallying for a24--17 victory.
Sergeant Disappointed by his team's play in a loss to rival Texas A&M inthe regular-season finale, Mack Brown of Texas instituted boot-camp measures inpreparation for the Holiday Bowl. The Longhorns responded with 21 first-quarterpoints en route to a 52--34 victory over Arizona State.
Playing its last game under Lloyd Carr (above), inspired Michigan upset Florida41--35 in the Capital One Bowl. Winless in their three previous bowl trips,quarterback Chad Henne and running back Mike Hart led a Wolverines attack thatamassed 524 yards of total offense. Gators quarterback Tim Tebow became thesixth Heisman winner in the past eight seasons to lose his bowl game.
Oklahoma State junior quarterback Bobby Reid, whose honor coach Mike Gundyvociferously defended in a September press conference, didn't take a snap asZac Robinson torched Indiana with five touchdowns (three passing, two rushing)in a 49--33 Insight Bowl win. Four days later, amid a report that Reid wasleaving school, Gundy acknowledged that Reid's career at Oklahoma State isprobably over.
Best Comeback, Part II
A year after rallying from a 31-point second-half deficit to beat Minnesota inthe Insight Bowl, Texas Tech scored 17 points in the final 3:31 to edgeVirginia 31--28 in the Gator Bowl.
• Paul Smith set an NCAA record with his 14thconsecutive 300-yard passing game and threw for five touchdowns as Tulsa routedBowling Green 63--7 in the GMAC Bowl. The 56-point margin was the largest inNCAA bowl history.
• Playing in his hometown of Charlotte, Kenneth Mooreset the ACC single-season record for receptions, getting 11 for 112 yards asWake Forest beat Connecticut 24--10 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Moorefinished with 98 receptions this year.
• Ben Mauk of Cincinnati was named MVP of thePapajohns.com Bowl after throwing for 334 yards and four touchdowns in a 31--21win over Southern Miss.
For the Records
• Tony Temple (below) broke Dicky Maegle's 54-year-oldCotton Bowl rushing record, gaining 281 yards on 24 carries as Missouri routedArkansas 38--7. During a postgame news conference Temple, who also ran for arecord four touchdowns, turned to coach Gary Pinkel and asked, "Who's DickyMaegle?"
• Ray Rice became the 14th player in Division I-Ahistory to run for more than 2,000 yards in a season, after he carried 35 timesfor an International Bowl--record 280 yards and four TDs as Rutgers whippedBall State 52--30. Rice, a junior, finished with 2,012 yards.
• Jonathan Stewart rushed for a Sun Bowl--record 253yards on 23 attempts in leading Oregon to a 56--21 win over South Florida.
• In a 41--38 win over Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl,Chris Johnson of East Carolina set the NCAA record for all-purpose yards in abowl, with 408. Johnson ran for 223 yards and a TD, had 32 receiving yards anda score, and returned six kickoffs for 153 yards.
• Though its defense was much maligned during theseason, Tennessee held Wisconsin to a field goal in the second half of a 21--17victory in the Outback Bowl. Subbing for academic casualty Ricardo Kemp, safetyAntonio Wardlow sealed the win with a last-minute interception.
• Oregon State and its second-ranked rushing defenseheld Maryland to two yards on the ground through three quarters, and 19overall, in a 21--14 Emerald Bowl win.
• Hawaii entered its Sugar Bowl matchup with Georgia asthe only undefeated team in the country, but the Warriors showed they weren'tready for the big time. Pressuring quarterback Colt Brennan (above) repeatedly,Georgia had eight sacks and forced six turnovers in a 41--10 victory.
• Rose Bowl officials wanted their traditional matchupbetween the Big Ten and the Pac-10, so three-loss Illinois made its first tripto Pasadena since 1984. The Illini were 49--17 losers to USC, which finishedwith a record 633 yards of total offense and matched the Rose Bowl high forpoints. The defense, led by linebackers Keith Rivers (right, 55) and ReyMaualuga (58), had five sacks, forced six fumbles and intercepted two passes.It was the game's most lopsided finish since the Illini were pounded 45--9 byUCLA—in 1984.
• All-America cornerback Aqib Talib returned aninterception 60 yards for a touchdown as Kansas, making its first Orange Bowlappearance since 1969, held off Virginia Tech 24--21. It was the eighthconsecutive loss for an ACC team in a BCS game.
• Fresno State piled up 571 yards against the nation's11th-ranked defense in a 40--28 victory over Georgia Tech in the HumanitarianBowl. The Bulldogs improved to 3--0 in bowls against ACC teams.
First and Long
• New Mexico blanked Nevada 23--0 in the New MexicoBowl, winning its first postseason game since the 1961 Aviation Bowl andshutting out the Wolfpack for the first time in 329 games, dating to 1980.
• Winning a bowl in consecutive seasons for the firsttime since 1951 and '52, Kentucky held off Florida State 35--28 in the MusicCity Bowl. It was Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden's first loss in nine Decemberbowls.
• By virtue of its 24--21 victory over Michigan Statein the Champs Sports Bowl, Boston College won 11 games for the first time since1940. The Eagles also extended the nation's longest active bowl winning streakto eight.
• With its 44--27 triumph over Memphis in the NewOrleans Bowl, Florida Atlantic, a seventh-year program making its firstpostseason appearance, was the only one of five Florida schools to win itsbowl.
• TCU beat Houston 20--13 in the Texas Bowl, winningits third consecutive bowl game for the first time since the late 1930s.
• Playing for the first time since Oct. 13, when hisclock-management mistake against Oregon State cost Cal a shot at the No. 1ranking, Kevin Riley was 16 of 19 for 269 yards and three touchdowns and ranfor a score as the Bears rallied over Air Force 42--36 in the Armed ForcesBowl.
• Making an early bid for the 2008 starting quarterbackjob, Kodi Burns scored on a seven-yard run in overtime as Auburn defeatedClemson 23--20 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Alternating with senior Brandon Cox,Burns carried 13 times for 69 yards.
• Defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna blocked a28-yard field goal attempt on the final play to preserve a 17--16 victory forBYU over UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.
7 Consecutive postseason wins for Utah, which knockedoff Navy 35--32 in the Poinsettia Bowl.
31 NCAA-record bowl victories for Alabama, the latest a30--24 win over Colorado in the Independence Bowl. With the victory the CrimsonTide avoided consecutive losing seasons for the first time in 50 years.
62 Yards that Kevin Smith of Central Florida fell shortin his attempt to break the Division I-A single-season rushing record (2,628,by Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State in 1988). Smith (right) ran for 119 yards inthe Knights' 10--3 Liberty Bowl loss to Mississippi State.
546 Passing yards for Curtis Painter of Purdue in a51--48 victory over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl, the fourth-highesttotal in NCAA bowl history.
2008 Top 10
SI.com senior writer Stewart Mandel ranks the eliteteams for next fall
QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno are among 17 starters expected backon a team that closed with seven strong wins.
2. OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes lose only two senior starters, though LB James Laurinaitis andothers could declare for the NFL draft.
While the Sooners have almost their entire offense returning, their Fiesta Bowlshowing raises questions about the defense.
The Trojans are loaded with young talent, and Mark Sanchez and Mitch Mustainwill battle for the quarterback job.
Heisman finalist Chase Daniel and all-purpose burner Jeremy Maclin lead a12-win team with 16 returning starters.
6. WEST VIRGINIA
QB Pat White and RB Noel Devine ensure another explosive attack, but new coachBill Stewart is a wild card.
USC transfer RB Emmanuel Moody joins Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin in thebackfield, but the defense must improve.
The 12--1 Orange Bowl champs are no flash in the pan—nearly the whole defensereturns, as does savvy QB Todd Reesing.
Eleven senior starters must be replaced, but the Tigers are set at quarterbackwith Ryan Perrilloux running the attack.
A program that won 21 games over the past two seasons brings back 18 startersfrom a team that finished 9--4.