22 Oct 2007
by Russell Levine
College football national titles are rarely won without the benefit of at least one upset-avoiding play that is forever etched in the memories of the championship team's fans.
The list of such plays is long and storied. Just last season, Florida needed a last-second blocked field goal to survive against South Carolina. In 1990, Colorado won a game at Missouri on a fifth-down play. In 1997, Nebraska won a game -- also against Missouri -- when a receiver kicked a thrown pass to a teammate. Ohio State's 2002 championship would not have happened without a miracle touchdown pass on a fourth-down play against Purdue.
If LSU, which has somehow endured its most recent three games with a 2-1 record despite being in second-half trouble in all three contests, goes on to win the title this year, the Tigers' game-winning touchdown against Auburn will surely join -- if not top -- that list.
With his team trailing by one, but in comfortable field-goal range and still in possession of a timeout, LSU coach Les Miles opted not to stop the clock, and instead had quarterback Matt Flynn throw for a touchdown. When Demetrius Byrd gathered in the 22-yard pass and crashed to the yellow-painted end zone turf with just one second remaining, the Tiger Stadium crowd did not erupt as it had in the famous "earthquake" game in 1988. In that contest, a last-minute, game-winning touchdown pass -- also against Auburn -- elicited such a reaction from the LSU faithful that it registered on a local seismograph.
The earth did not move Saturday night. When the rowdiest crowd in college football sits largely in stunned silence at one of the most memorable finishes in college football -- and one that could end up having a distinct impact on the national-championship picture -- you know you have just witnessed something truly bizarre.
Miles' perfectly illogical call served as a metaphor for a college football season that has made a mockery of every script and blown up nearly all preconceived notions of those who follow the sport.
Had Flynn been chased from the pocket, or had the Auburn defender draped all over Byrd gotten a finger on the ball and caused a deflection, the clock would have expired and LSU fans would have been lining up to pay Miles' buyout and pave the way for him to return to Michigan, his alma mater.
But LSU made the play, and is now just a Boston College loss away from being back in position to reach the national title game, so the fact that Miles seemed completely oblivious to his team's clock peril will likely be lost to history. Immediately following the game, Miles seemed to indicate to ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe that he thought he had plenty of time to kick a field goal if the pass was incomplete. He appeared to overlook the not insignificant detail that the clock was running at the snap of the play, nearly committing the type of gaffe that typically gets named after the perpetrator.
No matter what happens to LSU the rest of the way, no matter if Miles ends up leaving for Ann Arbor following the year as has been rumored, to laud Miles for his guts is to miss the bigger picture. This was not a gutsy call, it was a reckless one. LSU just got away with the equivalent of driving the wrong way down the freeway at rush hour. At night. Without headlights.
LSU could easily have taken its shot at the end zone and still left itself with a comfortable margin for error. The winning pass came on third down, so a spike to stop the clock was not an option, as it would have forced a fourth-down field goal attempt. But LSU could have hurried to the line and snapped the ball with another seven or eight more seconds on the clock and still had their timeout remaining to set up the field goal if anyone was tackled in bounds.
It's not like Miles was choosing between a game-winning touchdown and a game-tying field goal. He risked his entire season -- and perhaps his coaching reputation -- on the likelihood of completing a 22-yard pass vs. kicking a 39-yard field goal.
Then again, in a year in which Appalachian State wins at Michigan and Stanford at USC, in which Notre Dame starts 1-7 and South Florida plays itself into the national championship discussion, maybe logic need not apply for the title contenders, of which LSU is -- again -- most certainly one.
The new BCS standings, released Sunday evening, showed LSU in third place, narrowly behind Boston College for second. The Eagles face their toughest game of the season this week as they visit Virginia Tech. Ohio State is No. 1 for a second straight week.
Few teams have ever welcomed a bye as much as LSU this week. After surviving a visit from Florida, falling at Kentucky in triple-overtime, and edging Auburn, the Tigers can rest up before visiting Alabama November 3 in a contest that will all but decide the SEC West.
Waiting for Miles and LSU in Tuscaloosa is a familiar name: former coach Nick Saban. Whereas Saban was cool and calculating in leading LSU to a shared national title in 2003, if Miles wins one this year it will be because he cashed in on some of the biggest gambles this sport has seen.
Miles has never been one to play it close to the vest. And this particular Tiger appears he will never change his stripes.
If you read the first 1,000 words above, you know this week's winner is Les Miles. But it's too easy to quit there, so let's look at a couple other dubious coaching decisions from the weekend.
Had Miles just opted to kick the game-winning field goal, the obvious winner would have been his Auburn counterpart, Tommy Tuberville. After Auburn scored to take the lead, 24-23, with 3:21 left, Tuberville opted for a squib kick. This despite leading by less than a field goal and with an eternity still to play. Yes, LSU has a dangerous kick return unit, but the squib kick should only be used if one of the following two conditions exists:
Since neither condition existed for Auburn, Tuberville's decision was a poor one, and he ended up giving LSU the ball at its own 42-yard line.
Another JLS-worthy call came from the Michigan-Illinois game. Michigan trailed, 14-10, in the final four minutes of the first half and was lined up to punt on fourth-and-27 from its own 13-yard line.
At that point, Illinois had to figure the worst-case scenario would be getting the ball back at around its own 40 with plenty of time to extend its lead before half. In a situation like that, a team should never put the punt block on -- the risk of a penalty is too great.
However, Ron Zook opted to rush the punter. Joe Morgan hit Zoltan Mesko's extended leg, bringing a (correct) personal-foul call and giving Michigan a first down. The rest is predictable. Given new life, the Wolverines went 72 yards in nine plays for the go-ahead score and a huge momentum shift in the game.
Much like Miles's call, Zook's decision was a misguided evaluation of risk/reward. Why risk a first down for the opponent when the worst-case scenario is going to give you good field position?
Rankings that may require further explanation: LSU is certainly more battle-tested, but I'm not positive that makes them better than Ohio State. They've certainly shown some defensive liabilities the last three weeks. On a neutral field today, I give OSU the slight edge. But we'll learn more about Ohio State this week than we have all season as the Buckeyes visit Penn State in their first real test.
South Florida doesn't drop all that far because I don't think a narrow loss at Rutgers is that bad a loss. The fact that USF won at an Auburn team that beat Florida and gave LSU all it can handle speaks to the Bulls' quality.
Speaking of Auburn, I wanted to keep them in with three losses, I really did. But that Mississippi State loss is looking worse each week.
Overall, I think the SEC is the best conference, and certainly the deepest. Therefore the two-loss SEC teams Florida and Kentucky are still high. But I think the gap between the SEC and everyone else is much less than it was a year ago. I mean would anyone be that stunned if LSU lost to, say, Boston College?
Yes, Michigan makes a big leap this week. The Wolverines have really made defensive strides, and if they get Hart and Henne healthy in time for the final three games (at Michigan State and Wisconsin, home vs. Ohio State) they will be a threat to win the conference. USC also rockets upwards. Not because bombing Notre Dame is so impressive, but because they finally played like the Southern Cal we've all come to know.
Boston College and Arizona State, you're on the clock this week. Look bad in your first games vs. real stiff competition and you will tumble.
Got a gripe? Post it in the comments, please.
Games I watched at least part of: South Florida-Rutgers, Louisville-Connecticut, Penn State-Indiana, Florida-Kentucky, Michigan-Illinois, Auburn-LSU.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
101 comments, Last at 27 Oct 2007, 12:19am by NF