LSU proves SEC championship won't be won by faint of heart
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gary Crowton looked at the clock late Saturday night and figured he could call one more pass. Sure, the LSU offensive coordinator could have kept feeding tailback Charles Scott, could have kept the ball in the middle of the field, could have kicked a nice, safe field goal and beaten a top-10 opponent in its own house. Instead, he chose to beat that top-10 opponent and post a warning sign big enough for the defensive coordinators at Georgia, Florida and Alabama to see.
With a little more than 70 seconds on the clock, Crowton ordered Jarrett Lee -- the tosser of one crippling interception already -- to look for Brandon LaFell in the flat. Auburn bunched tight, waiting for the inevitable Scott burst up the middle. It never came. Lee hit LaFell, who boogied into the end zone and ripped out Auburns' still-beating heart. Doubtless, Willie Martinez, Charlie Strong and Kevin Steele, the aforementioned coordinators, took note. "The next time we get in that situation," Crowton said with a sly grin, "they're going to have to play more defense."
Translation: In a tight clash of SEC heavyweights, be prepared for anything, because LSU is loco.
We really didn't need Saturday's 26-21 heart-attack inducer to figure that out. Last year's win against Auburn, when LSU, down one, declined a reasonable field-goal attempt for a shot at the end zone that easily could have sapped the remainder of the clock, told us all we need to know about Crowton and his boss, Les Miles. No, Saturday taught us more about the beast of a conference Crowton and Miles hope to slay. That lesson is this. The meek shall inherit the earth, but they will not win the SEC.
Saturday began with five SEC teams in The Associated Press top 10. Now that No. 6 LSU has dispatched No. 10 Auburn, that number will drop to four. Now, pull out your day planners and get ready for some viewing recommendations.
Sept. 27: Alabama at Georgia, Oct. 11: LSU at Florida, Oct. 25: Georgia at LSU, Nov. 1: Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 8: Alabama at LSU.
This is going to be an absolute bloodbath. We should expect no less from a conference that embraces the spectacle of a War Eagle flying into a stadium, landing at the 50-yard line and gobbling two live mice while 87,541 people go berserk. The SEC is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The tree- and mouse-huggers can stay over in the Pac-10.
First-year Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin should know this. He once coached at Kentucky, which occasionally played against the league's power teams. But when Auburn got the ball with a 21-20 lead and 5:32 remaining Saturday, Franklin played it safe. Auburn needed to move the ball down the field and drain the clock. If Auburn couldn't score again, it at least needed to bury LSU so deep on its own end of the field that the Bayou Bengals could hear the hiss with every shake of the blue-and-orange pom-poms Auburn fans receive at birth. Franklin called handoff, safe (albeit incomplete) pass, handoff. After a shanked punt, the defending national champs had the ball on its own 46 with four minutes to play.
Miles, whose team won a few of these games en route to the title last year, never had a doubt. "Our guys play in tight quarters," he said. "That's this league. That's how we were raised."
Lee, the redshirt freshman quarterback, was raised rooting for John Elway. Now he'll always be remembered for a Drive of his own. But before we get to that flat pass to LaFell, let's revisit the first time Lee threw into the flat Saturday. Trailing 7-3 in the second quarter on a night when it seemed the first team to double-digits would win, Lee called for the snap quickly before the defense could get set. He'd expected Auburn to unleash hell, because, well, this is the SEC and that's what SEC defenses do. Instead, most of the men in blue dropped back. Lee looked downfield, but he never saw defensive end Gabe McKenzie peel away from his blocker and retreat. Lee threw a pass that should have been slathered in orange sauce. "I guess it was just little butterflies," Lee said. "I was a little anxious." McKenzie thrust a paw into the air and speared the ball, returning it 24 yards for a touchdown and a 14-3 lead.
Starter Andrew Hatch returned immediately. LSU coaches would say later that they fully intended to bring back Lee at some point, but it didn't seem that way when the third quarter began. It looked as if LSU would pin its comeback hopes on a defense full of genetically freakish former seven-star recruits and an offense led by Hatch, a Harvard transfer whose last start on the road came against Yale. Yale's JV, that is. But Hatch didn't get the chance to make the Ivy League proud. Midway through the third, Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers rang Hatch's bell after a 5-yard run. Any comeback would have to be led by Lee. "The great thing about competitive people is that it's not about the last play," Miles said of Lee. "It's about the next play."
On Lee's next play following the interception, he fired a 16-yard dart to Richard Dickson to convert a third-and-4. Three plays later, Lee stood tall as Auburn linebacker Spencer Pybus targeted him. Lee couldn't see Pybus, but he certainly could feel the impending crunch. Still, Lee waited. Finally, a fraction of a second before Pybus tattooed him, Lee lofted a 39-yard touchdown pass to Chris Mitchell to cut the deficit to 14-10. Minutes later, Lee flicked an option pitch to back Keiland Williams, who stopped and tossed a rainbow into the waiting hands of Demetrius Byrd to give LSU a 17-14 lead.
Down 20-14, Franklin's spread offense -- which is available to high school coaches for the low, low price of $3,495 -- began to look like something worth buying. Auburn had managed to exploit LSU's aggressiveness a few times in the first three quarters, but never more than once in a possession. That finally changed midway through the fourth quarter. As quarterback Chris Todd ran for his life on the drive's first play, LSU's defensive backs relaxed, confident they'd just assisted in a coverage sack. They never saw Auburn receiver Tim Hawthorne drift beyond them until after Todd ducked a tackle and fired for a 58-yard gain. Two plays later, Todd's fade pass dropped over the shoulder of safety Danny McCray and into the hands of Robert Dunn for a 15-yard touchdown that gave Auburn a 21-20 lead with 6:40 remaining.
As Auburn fans filed out of the stadium, several complained at high volume about the chances of Franklin's offense succeeding in the SEC. They should relax a bit. The same offense that produced a whopping three points in a pitcher's duel win last week at Mississippi State scored two touchdowns and gained 320 yards Saturday against the nation's most athletic defense. That's quite a one-week improvement. "We took a major step forward," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said.
If Auburn's offense continues to get better, the Tigers could make life miserable for the rest of the teams on their schedule. In fact, by the time Auburn goes to Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl on Nov. 29, the Tigers may be back in the top 10. That's something else LSU taught us last year. Though SEC teams throw haymakers at one another, the league is not a knockout pool. One loss is not the end.
But in this series, it does leave the losing team with a considerable climb. Since 2000, the LSU-Auburn winner also has won the SEC west title six times. Want some more history? LSU's Scott, who finished Saturday with 132 yards on 21 carries, is the first LSU player to ever rush for 100 yards at Auburn. "Right now, I'm thinking it was the hardest 100 yards of my life," Scott said. "They have a great defense."
Any rational coordinator would, out of respect for that defense, have told Scott to keep running the ball between the hash marks. But this is LSU, and Crowton would have drawn the ire of an entire team had he played it safe. On the sideline during that final offensive possession, LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson watched and waited. Asked later if he'd hoped his team would just kick the field goal and hand the defense the lead, Jackson was emphatic. "No way," he said. Jackson wanted Crowton to go for the jugular. And so, with an eye toward a future that he hopes will include a shot at a second consecutive national title, Crowton told Lee to look for LaFell in the flat.
"It was just pitch-and-catch from there," Lee said.