BATON ROUGE --- Les Miles outcoached Nick Saban.
How many would have figured that would be the lead line on Sunday morning?
But when fans recall Saban-Miles IV, that’s the story that will be told.
This time Miles was the Mad Hatter of old, and his plan of action was apparent from the start.
On LSU’s third snap of the game, Miles called for the halfback pass – the same play that the Tigers struck with against Auburn two weeks ago. The coverage was tight, and running back Stevan Ridley pulled the ball down and ran out of bounds for a loss.
Nonetheless, message sent.
“We had a lot of wrinkles in there; I’m not going to lie,” Ridley said. “We planned to throw the whole thing at them. Every trick play we had.”
When the opening drive resulted in a punt, the possessions that followed appeared to be trending towards the typical for the Tigers. The first quarter possessions resulted in just one first down, and the next three series went punt-punt-end of half.
Alabama took a 7-3 lead into the locker room, having outgained LSU in yards and holding a time of possession advantage of 7 minutes and 38 seconds. While the Tide had the half’s only turnover, quarterback Greg McElroy’s interception in Alabama territory resulted in only a field goal.
“We talked at halftime about coming out with more intensity, and we wanted to leave it all on the table,” said quarterback Jordan Jefferson. “So we came out swinging.”
Miles, not having to dig too far into his hat of tricks, decided on a fake punt when LSU’s first series of the third quarter stalled.
With LSU snapping from their own territory, Alabama planned to send everyone and crash the middle. Josh Jasper, in to punt on the play, said that the run was called long before Saturday afternoon.
“We saw they were very vulnerable on film,” he said. “We knew we’d be able to pick up the first down.”
The drive resulted in a missed field goal by Jasper, but Miles was only getting started.
After the defense forced an Alabama punt, Miles sent Jordan Jefferson out to begin a drive that started at LSU’s six-yard line.
Riding Jefferson – not Lee – in the shadows of their own goalpost, LSU came out passing.
Then came the bigger surprise.
Two passes in, LSU had retaken the lead.
In his first touchdown pass since North Carolina, Jefferson sent his best toss of the season into the path of a sprinting Rueben Randle, who outraced Mark Barron 75 yards to put the Tigers out front 10-7.
Alabama answered with a 10-play, 73-yard drive, recapturing the lead with two minutes to play in the third quarter.
Another key punch in what LSU linebacker Ryan Baker called a heavyweight fight, LSU countered with a 41-yard pickup on a sweep play to Russell Shepard. Barron couldn’t catch Randle before, but the Thorpe Award semifinalist was able to reel in Shepard before he took it the distance.
The drive resulted in a field goal, pulling LSU within one point as the fourth quarter rolled in.
When the defense managed a three-and-out, the run game - with a surprise cameo – carried the Tigers 77 yards on 11 plays for the go-ahead touchdown with just over eight minutes to play.
Ridley, who finished the night with 92 yards on 24 carries, carried the load with 47 yards and his only score, a punch-in on third and goal from one yard out.
Somewhere in between, Miles dialed in the call of the year.
On 4th-and-1 from the Alabama 26-yard line, LSU called a timeout. Instead of sending Jasper on for a field goal within range, Miles wanted more.
The play was designed as a handoff to Ridley, who would then give it to tight end Deangelo Peterson on a reverse. If Alabama sent everyone inside, there should be plenty of room on the edge.
It worked flawlessly, and Peterson – with lead blocking from Jefferson – dashed 23 yards to set up the score.
“We have been working on that play for the last two weeks, and we knew that it was going to work,” Jefferson said. “I thought (Peterson) was going to score. There was nobody.”
The two-point conversion from Jefferson to Randle moved the score to 21-14, a lead that LSU would never give up.
The next Alabama possession resulted in a Drake Nevis sack and forced fumble, which fellow senior Kelvin Sheppard picked up at the Tide’s 28-yard line. Jefferson handed the ball to Ridley three times – taking 2:04 off the clock – and LSU settled on a field goal to go up by double-digits.
With their shot a National Championship repeat ticking away, McElroy bounced back. He completed 6-of-8 passes, including the nine-yard touchdown strike to Julio Jones, to move the offense 74 yards in 2:10.
Up 24-21, Miles sent Jefferson – who had been red-hot to that point - in for LSU’s final series. When Jefferson came up hobbling on a first-down hit, Jarrett Lee was called to duty.
LSU ran the ball again on second down to continue moving the clock.
The bigger question came with third down. Would LSU run the ball in hopes of continuing to take time off the clock, or would they pass in hopes of moving the chains?
Given the script thus far, was there ever doubt?
Lee – in what goes down as one of the biggest snaps of his career – stepped back, looked cool and collected, and fired a dart to Randle for a gain of 47 yards.
From there LSU drained the clock to 18 seconds, and the Tide’s final possession – which began from their own 15-yard line – never made Miles sweat.
Then again, does anything?