NEW ORLEANS -- After four years of back and forth between Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, the pair of senior quarterbacks saw their college eligibility expire when the final seconds ticked off the clock on Monday night.
For Jefferson, it ended badly.
Back in his hometown, Jefferson finished the game 11-of-17 passing for 53 yards and an interception. His legs didn’t bring much more than his arm, netting 36 yards and no scores on 14 carries.
For Lee, it simply ended.
Standing on the sidelines with his jersey as clean as when he put it on hours earlier, Lee saw all four quarters roll by without getting a chance to spark the offense he once captained.
In the locker room following the loss, a number of Tigers spoke up about the coaching staff’s decision to stick with Jefferson.
The only disclaimer came from senior offensive lineman Will Blackwell.
“That’s not why we lost the game,” Blackwell said. “To put the blame on one person or one thing is unfair. I hope nobody does that.”
There was no passing blame, but Lee’s teammates weren’t hesitant to air out their thoughts on the quarterback shuffle that defined a 13-1 season.
For the most part, everyone – Lee included – expected No. 12 to get into the mix on Monday night, regardless of how good or bad Jefferson was playing.
“I thought I might get a couple snaps tonight,” Lee said. “It was in the game plan and I felt confident about it.”
Junior wide receiver Rueben Randle added: “I was kind of surprised (Lee didn’t play). I thought going in both quarterbacks were going to play. I guess coach felt comfortable with Jordan, and that’s what he stuck with.”
Blackwell, who signed on in the same class as Lee and has blocked for both quarterbacks during his time in Baton Rouge, said he was caught off guard when Miles and first-year offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa stuck with Jefferson, especially when there was chatter during bowl preparations that Lee was going to get meaningful reps in the rematch.
“Unfortunately I don’t have a say in the game plan or personnel,” Blackwell said. “Jarrett didn’t get his shot, and I felt like maybe he should have, but he didn’t.”
The receiving corps, which tried to capitalize on short and intermediate routes instead of home run balls, combined for just 53 yards on 11 catches.
“We could have taken more shots or done something to get the offense moving,” freshman receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “It could have been different.”
The confusion on why Miles stuck with Jefferson came when the Tigers fell behind in the second half, when it became evident that LSU was going to have to sit back and pass to win the game.
“I felt like Jarrett could have come in and helped us a lot,” Randle said. “But it’s up to coach.”
Blackwell, emotional from the loss but seemingly crystal clear on his outlook, pointed to the identity and efficiency of the offense when Jefferson was suspended and Lee was the starter.
“Jarrett won nine games and we did very well in those nine games,” Blackwell said. “I feel like he throws the ball a little bit better than Jordan, but on the other hand Jordan runs it a little better than Jarrett. It’s kind of a pick your poison deal.
“Unfortunately tonight we picked the wrong one.”
After Lee started the first nine games of the year, and passed for over 133 yards in all but one outing, things went the opposite direction in a hurry.
When Lee suffered a two-interception night against Alabama in November, he was quickly relegated to garbage duty for the remainder of the season.
“They just kept going with (Jefferson),” Beckham said. “It is what it is. I honestly couldn’t tell you.”
For Lee, there was a time in the third quarter - with LSU trailing 12-0 – that he sensed his time was near.
So, he grabbed his helmet and began stretching.
“I wasn’t real sure if I would go in or not,” Lee said. “I was just trying to be ready. I put my helmet on and tried to stay loose, stretch a little bit and throw the ball around so I was ready if my time did come.”
Asked to reflect on his time in Baton Rouge, Lee – who was benched long ago and could have transferred during two different offseasons – still wouldn’t manage to let a negative thought slip out of his mouth.
“It has been a wild ride, but it’s made me a better player and a better person, so I don’t regret any of it,” he said. “Obviously this wasn’t what I imagined coming out of high school and how I thought it would play out, but I went to a National Championship in 2007 and have been to a National Championship here.
“I know a lot of it didn’t work out, but it’s been a fun ride. I love this program and love these guys I have been with.”
In the end, with the team’s star receiver and the most decorated offensive lineman stepping up and singing his praises, the love for Lee shined through for a final time.
“They are very supportive teammates,” Lee said. “I love those guys. I have been proud to play with them.”
When asked what he would cherish most about his days in purple and gold, Lee didn’t hesitate in choosing the opening stretch of the 2011 season – when he helped LSU navigate a treacherous schedule to the tune of 8-0.
“That was a blast,” Lee said, smiling. “Those first seven or eight games of this year, being around this team and getting a chance to make some plays, was very special. It’s something I will never forget.”