From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, October 15, 2007
THE REBRANDING TOOK PLACE BEFORE OUR VERY EYES. Going into his team's gutsy 28-24 comeback victory over a talented, desperate Florida squad on Oct. 6, LSU coach Les Miles was seen, truth be told, as a highly paid caretaker. Now he will be known for his nerve. For the game's most remarkable statistic wasn't the Gators' 156 rushing yards against the nation's top-ranked defense. It was LSU's going for it on fourth down five times—and making it on all five. Running back Jacob Hester would convert two of those fourth downs, finishing with 106 yards on 23 carries and the winning score.
USC's loss to Stanford consolidated the Tigers' claim to college football's top spot. Before LSU could rule the polls, however, there remained the small matter of beating the defending national champions, who played close to a perfect game for the first 30 minutes. In the Tigers' locker room at halftime, with his team trailing 17-7, an angry Ali Highsmith reminded his teammates that the Gators had gathered before the game and jumped up and down on LSU's logo. In the linebacker's version of events—embellished slightly—the Gators also spit on the tiger's eye.
With Florida driving late in the third quarter, Highsmith tore the ball from running back Kestahn Moore's grasp. But Colt David missed his second field goal of the game, a 37-yarder, preserving Florida's 24-14 lead.
LSU got the ball back on a freak interception: A Tim Tebow bullet doinked off the helmet of tight end Cornelius Ingram, into the hands of defensive end Kirston Pittman. The Tigers' drive stalled at the Gators' four-yard line. This was a no-brainer, right? LSU was down 10 points, and there were still 10-plus minutes left. You take the sure three, right?
Not Miles. Tigers quarterback Matt Flynn rolled right, looking for wideout Demetrius Byrd, who was covered. "I was ready to run it," said Flynn, who as the holder had already rushed for a first down on a fake field goal. When linebacker Brandon Spikes, who'd been covering Byrd, stepped up to play the run, Flynn flicked a scoring pass to Byrd. The Death Valley crowd was in full throat.
Its lead whittled to 24-21, Florida badly needed a long, clock-eating drive. Instead, the Tigers' defense forced just its second three-and-out of the game. Four plays later LSU was facing a fourth-and-one at its 49-yard line with 7:07 left. "They knew where we were going to run," Hester said. "It was just mano a mano." Jolted behind the line of scrimmage, Hester moved the chains with a supreme second effort. Four snaps after that he ran through the tackle of safety Major Wright on a 19-yard run. On third-and-goal from the three, Hester torpedoed under Spikes and got the nose of the ball over the goal line.
It was, in the end, the kind of gut-check victory that championship squads like to reflect on, to say, That was the night we grew up. Hester, of course, was having none of it. "If it was Week 12, this would be the best feeling in the world," he said. "But it's Week 7." His point is well taken. If the 2007 season has taught us anything, it is this: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
OCTOBER 6 at Baton Rouge