Miles' unconventional genius keeps LSU afloat in SEC, BCS title hunts
Three gutsy, Les Miles-inspired calls led to LSU pulling off the Alabama upset
The Tiger players are happy to ride Miles' in-game gambles -- win or lose
The Crimson Tide have essentially been eliminated from SEC West consideration
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- He had called a fourth-down play that required his quarterback to pitch to his tailback, who in turn pitched to a tight end blazing around the corner. Three plays later, that tailback crashed into the end zone to give his team the lead in a game no one believed he could win. Naturally, he was about to go for two.
Before the snap, Les Miles reached down and scooped a few blades of Tiger Stadium grass. Then, he placed them in his mouth like a pinch of chaw.
Yes. With 92,969 watching in Tiger Stadium and millions more watching on CBS, in a critical moment of a season-making game, LSU's coach ate grass.
Miles' explanation only injected more magic into the moment. "You know what I do?" Miles said. "I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know I'm part of the field and part of the game."
We're all better off because Miles is part of the game. None of the preceding paragraphs are intended to mock the man they call the Mad Hatter. On the contrary, Miles deserves to be celebrated. He made three calls in Saturday's 24-21 win against Alabama that few of his colleagues would have had the guts to make.
Gutsy Call No. 1: Down 7-3 on the first possession of the second half, Miles called a fake punt on fourth-and-1 from his own 40-yard line. Punter Josh Jasper grabbed the snap and raced 29 yards. Asked whether the play was called in from the sideline or if Jasper read the defense and acted, Miles smiled. "When it's blocked that well," Miles said, "it's called."
Gutsy Call No. 2: Down 14-13 with 9:51 remaining in the game, LSU faced fourth-and-1 from the Alabama 26. The Tigers huddled. A 12th man tried to run in from the sideline, but tight end Tyler Edwards shooed him away. LSU called timeout. Coaches had noticed something interesting in Alabama's defense. On the bus to the game, Miles had told tight end Deangelo Peterson he would call the pitch reverse. On the sideline during the timeout, Miles looked at Peterson. "Deangelo, this is your play," Miles said. The Tigers retook the field. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson took the snap. He pitched to tailback Stevan Ridley, who pitched -- "Just backyard football," Ridley said -- to Peterson. Sprung by Jefferson's wipeout block of Alabama safety Mark Barron, Peterson roared 23 yards. He thought about diving for the goal line, but a vision of a fumble through the end zone haunted him. He figured he'd let Ridley gain the last three yards. Two plays later, Ridley blasted into the end zone and Miles reached down for a sod snack.
Gutsy Call No. 3: After Jefferson -- who finally seemed to have shaken off the struggles that have plagued him most of the season -- went out with an injury, Backup quarterback Jarrett Lee faced third-and-13 from LSU's 20-yard line. The Tigers led by three with 2:49 remaining, and Alabama had one timeout. Most coaches would have run up the middle, punted and prayed their defense would hold. Not Miles. He called a pass. Lee hit Randle for a 47-yard gain. Game over.
Miles won at Florida last month because of a fake-field-goal pitch that bounced perfectly. I'm now firmly convinced Miles sent in subs as the clock neared zero to baffle Tennessee coaches into putting 13 defensive players on the field and saving the Tigers in that game. When I wrote this last month, I was (sort of) kidding. Now, I really do believe Miles is touched by a kind of magic a simple sportswriter can't possibly comprehend.
Miles doesn't think his big, brass calls are all that special. "That's overblown. I promise you, it's not in my hat," Miles said. "I don't think I've done anything that 50 or 60 high school coaches in this state wouldn't do. I think if you like football and you've kind of got a feel for some stuff, you let it ride sometimes."
But Miles' colleagues are famously conservative creatures. LSU's players know that. That's why they love playing for Miles. They love that he asks the defense before every game if he should go for it on fourth down. They love that he keeps the faith when all hope seems lost. That's why linebacker Kelvin Sheppard presented Miles with a game ball Saturday. "How many other coaches would have gone out against Alabama -- in a big-time game like this -- and made those calls?" Sheppard said. "If you asked me, I'd say none."
Another fan of trick plays, Boise State coach Chris Petersen, should be a huge Miles fan. So too should TCU's Gary Patterson. Because of Miles, neither team will get jumped by a one-loss Alabama for a berth in the BCS title game. Now, those men and their teams will cheer for the Crimson Tide, who can open a spot in the title game for a non-AQ team by beating Auburn on Nov. 26 in the Iron Bowl.
LSU needs more help to reach its goals of winning the SEC title and clawing its way back into the national title picture. The Tigers must keep winning (against Louisiana-Monroe, Ole Miss and Arkansas), and they need Auburn -- which beat LSU, 24-17, two weeks ago at Jordan-Hare Stadium -- to lose next week to Georgia and then lose again to Alabama.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and the end of the month. Miles' darkest moment as LSU's coach came last season against Ole Miss when he completely bungled the late-game clock management. In 2007, Arkansas nearly derailed LSU's national title season by beating the Tigers in Baton Rouge. But maybe Miles is protected now. Maybe the magic has been amplified because instead of denying it or giving in to the pressure to be homogenous, Miles has married his wilder instincts with his natural ability to scheme a football game. "He's a brilliant guy," LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "It's not just pulling things out of his hat. He knows what he's doing."
As Miles waited to give his victory interview on the field to CBS reporter Tracy Wolfson, he pulled off that famous hat. Then he replaced it on his head -- just so. As he leaned in to hear Wolfson's question in his right ear, he looked left. He noticed a friend and winked.
He knew. Even if we didn't, he knew all along.
Maybe it was the grass.
"I see him do it every day," receiver Russell Shepard said. "That's Coach Miles. He eats that grass. I guess he says it has a lot of protein."
Said Miles: "I'll tell you one thing. The grass at Tiger Stadium tastes best."