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22 Sep 2008
by Russell Levine
Whatever one thinks of the Southeastern Conference's place atop the college football landscape, there is little doubt that the league -- and particularly LSU -- has the market cornered on drama.
Such was the case Saturday night as LSU and Auburn engaged in the kind of back-and-forth struggle that will be remembered for many years. It's also the kind of game LSU has made a habit of playing -- and winning -- the last few seasons. This game had everything a fan could want: great defense, huge hits, spectacular plays, risky calls, late lead changes.
In the end, LSU stood on top, 26-21, thanks to the latest in a series of bold decisions by coach Les Miles that have come to define his tenure in Baton Rouge. Miles opted to remain aggressive, when the book he so routinely ignores would have suggested otherwise, ultimately proving decisive for LSU in the annual Tiger tussle.
The win gave LSU an enormous leg up in the SEC West, where Alabama appears to be the only serious obstacle, and the Tigers get the Tide at home in November. Auburn will need a repeat of LSU's two losses of a year ago in order to win the division, and therefore have an opportunity to win the conference title and contend for the national title.
That is exactly what it appears LSU will do after this win. The defending Bowl Championship Series titlists were noticeably absent from the preseason national title speculation, mostly because of their quarterback situation. Once gifted but troubled Ryan Perrilloux -- last year's backup who earned MVP honors in the SEC championship game -- was dismissed from the team, it looked as if a weakness at the most important position might relegate LSU to second-tier status in the SEC.
Instead it appears LSU may have found its quarterback, by both accident and necessity, amidst the chaos at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
The plan entering the season was to have redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee share time with junior Andrew Hatch, a transfer from Harvard (yes, you read that correctly) until one -- likely Lee, given that he was heavily recruited -- seized the job outright.
Early on against Auburn, it didn't appear Lee was ready. He threw a horrendous second-quarter interception on a screen pass, gifting a touchdown and a 14-3 lead to Auburn, then took a seat on the bench. It was only when Hatch suffered a concussion on a quarterback keeper midway through the third quarter that Lee returned to the field.
When he did, he looked nothing like the skittish player that had thrown the near-crippling interception. Lee completed his first pass, a strike down the middle for 16 yards, and two plays later hung in the pocket until the last possible instant to deliver a 39-yard touchdown to Chris Mitchell to pull LSU within 14-10.
Miles followed that touchdown with a successful onside kick, but the LSU drive fizzled. LSU eventually took the lead on the final play of the third quarter with another Miles special: a halfback-option pass. Auburn seized the advantage right back at 21-20 midway through the fourth, setting the stage for another bold Miles finish.
Taking over with four minutes remaining, on the road in an impossibly loud venue, with a quarterback just two quarters removed from one of the ugliest interceptions in recent memory, Miles did what we always does: he went for the jugular. Three runs and three Lee completions had LSU comfortably in field-goal range at the Auburn 18 with just over a minute remaining. With an excellent kicker in Colt David, most coaches would bleed the clock, force Auburn to use its timeouts, and look to win the game on a field goal.
But Miles is not most coaches. On first down, he had Lee pass into the right flat. It's the kind of play that can go for a touchdown -- for either team. The call caught Auburn by surprise -- hard to imagine, given Miles's track-record of aggressiveness -- and Brandon LaFell snared Lee's pass, turned upfield and into the end zone.
Last year against Auburn, Miles opted to throw into the end zone rather than attempt a winning field goal. That play worked, too, leaving just one second on the clock and branding Miles with the reputation of riverboat gambler.
This time, the risk was more calculated. Though Miles's call left Auburn with time to come back, it also put the game into the hands of his team's strength -- its defense -- with an entire field to defend. Auburn never threatened, coming up short on a fourth-and-25 after an LSU sack.
A second straight crushing defeat of Auburn puts LSU very much in the national title picture, but the bigger news was the emergence of Lee. He began the game 0-for-5 with an interception, but finished it on an 11-for-17 tear for 183 yards and two touchdowns. If he can play close to that second-half level, the SEC may have a new favorite ahead of even the Florida-Georgia winner in the East.
Still, it's too early to assume much in the SEC, except that when LSU's involved, take the "over" on drama.
Once again, we have an obvious JLS Trophy winner this week, as West Virginia coach Bill Stewart completely mangled the end of regulation in the Mountaineers' overtime loss at Colorado Thursday. Stewart, who is quickly treading onto thin ice in Morgantown, was indecisive and confused as his team frittered away a chance to win in regulation.
With a shaky offense, Stewart was perhaps correct to take a conservative approach to his team's final possession of the fourth quarter. With the score tied, West Virginia took over at its 20-yard line with 2:03 remaining and two timeouts. Several runs and short passes brought the ball to the West Virginia 44 with still a full minute on the clock and both timeouts. At that point, Stewart needed to go for the win. What happened next was incomprehensible.
West Virginia managed just three more snaps, two runs and a Hail Mary from the Colorado 47 on fourth down. They ended the game with a timeout still in their possession. Erin Andrews, reporting from the West Virginia sideline on ESPN, described the scene as chaotic and confused. Stewart played not to lose, and predictably, he did, as West Virginia missed a field goal on its first possession of overtime.
Perhaps Ken Kendrick and other significant West Virginia boosters were correct to rail against the quick removal of Stewart's interim label after he led the Mountaineers to an impressive Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma. But I'm not here to judge Stewart's capability to continue the success that Rich Rodriguez built at West Virginia, only to assail him for the disaster in Boulder. Stewart can put his JLS Trophy next to the one from the Fiesta Bowl on his mantle when West Virginia fires him in another year.
Rankings that may require further explanation: Holding steady at the very top was USC, and Oklahoma didn't get worse during their bye weeks. LSU's win at Auburn is the most impressive of any SEC school thus far, so they get the nod over Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The SEC will sort itself out over the next six weeks or so. Wake might be a bit high, but I watched a lot of that game at Florida State and the Demon Deacons dominated. If not for turnovers and missed kicks, the score could have been much, much worse. East Carolina hangs on because of the strength of early wins (not WVA, but VaTech looks a bit better this week). The dividing line between "these teams are really good" and "aw hell, throw a blanket over the next 30 teams" falls right around No. 12 in the poll. Texas Tech, please play somebody so I can figure out if you're any good or not. Same with you Missouri. Others in contention for the "I need someone else to fill out the poll" position (that went to Colorado and Michigan State this week) include Nebraska and Oklahoma State.
Games I watched at least part of: Kansas State-Louisville, West Virginia-Colorado, Baylor-UConn, Troy-Ohio State, East Carolina-North Carolina State, Florida-Tennessee, Rutgers-Navy, Wake Forest-Florida State, LSU-Auburn, Georgia-Arizona State, Iowa State-UNLV.
Portions of this article appeared in Monday's New York Sun.
6 comments, Last at 22 Sep 2008, 11:35pm by lionsbob