DEVILLE: Tigers get down and dirty

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – It was down and dirty, but at the same time it was fun.

Nick Saban sent a message to his team during practice last week, a message of not worrying about the results, but just go out and have fun. On Saturday, the Tigers got to do both enjoying the outcome of a 24-21 last-second win over the Florida Gators, and in the process, they had fun doing so.

By no means was Saturday's win pretty, but the Tigers may have taken that step to the next level they have been searching for throughout the early weeks of the season. Saban said for the first time this season his team looked "grounded" as they prepared for this game – they possessed a different look, a different mentality.

They needed to adjust something.

Saban used the word "humiliated" after Saturday's game and the fifth-year head coach was right-on with his assessment of the Tigers' loss at Georgia a week earlier. LSU, defending national champions, had been made a goat on national television. The Tigers limped back to Baton Rouge with their tails tucked between their legs.

But in similar fashion, those same Tigers acted I the way they have so many times before under Saban's tutelage. Backed in a corner, LSU came out swinging and did so as if their life depended on it. Maybe not their lives, but definitely their pride, their dignity.

This isn't the first time a Saban-coached team looked adversity in the eye and beat it. Think back a couple of years.

In Saban's rookie season at LSU, the Tigers were beaten at home by UAB 13-10. Doom and gloom abound, things looked bleak with nationally-ranked Tennessee coming to town. But a gutty performance by Rohan Davey and the Tigers bounced back with a 38-31 win, a victory that laid the cornerstone of the Saban era.

A year later, LSU had been highly underwhelming through the first seven games of the 2001 season and after a loss to Ole Miss, the Tigers stood 4-3 and lacked any sort of identity or chemistry whatsoever. Then Davey and Josh Reed made believers of everyone on a record-setting day at Alabama, sparking a six-game winning streak and an SEC title.

In last year's run to a national title, the Tigers owned several dominating victories over lesser competition and an upset of highly-touted Georgia. But that team lacked what it took to be a championship caliber squad until the Florida Gators came to Baton Rouge and burst LSU's bubble beating the Tigers 19-7. It was that lost which lit a fire under the LSU offense and sparked a seven-game winning streak resulting in a national title.

Was Saturday's emotional accomplishment the jolt this team needed to get headed back in the right direction?

Maybe.

However, while Saban and Co. will feed off the Florida win, there remain a plethora of questions surrounding this team.

While Marcus Randall put forth his best (and most inspiring) performance as a Tiger, you can believe there are still issues surrounding the quarterback position. JaMarcus Russell did throw a pair of costly first quarter interceptions, but played well at other times before leaving the game with a high-ankle sprain. The debate may be put on ice for the time being, but one can imagine if Randall was to falter at some time, Russell will be on standby.

And one can't ignore the fact LSU quarterbacks threw three interceptions, two of which were deep in Tiger territory.

The LSU running game enjoyed its best effort in some time rolling up 210 yards straight through the heart of the Florida defense. Joseph Addai ran like a bull in the latter stages of the game and Shyrone Carey provided a nice compliment with his shiftiness. And enough can't be said about Randall and the designed quarterback draws. The offensive line played its best game of the season as the ground game seemed to find itself. But the LSU rushing attack found itself, but did so without sophomore Justin Vincent. It can now be called a sophomore slump folks, Vincent totaled no yardage on one carry.

The defensive front seven had its best outing of the young season making better tackles and the Tigers got pressure on Florida quarterback Chris Leak with just the front four rushing – limited blitzing. This was due in a large part to Claude Wroten moving to defensive end where he split time with Melvin Oliver.

The secondary had its moments breaking up a number of potential big plays via the Florida aerial attack. Limiting Leak to just 142 yards on 14-of-33 passing is an accomplishment in itself, especially after David Greene torched the LSU defensive backfield at Georgia. And LSU did all of this with all-American cornerback Corey Webster on the bench. He did not play in the game.

And finally the special teams.

In what has become almost a rhetorical question, the LSU special teams continues to be a comedy of one blunder after another. For the first time in five games, the Tigers did not miss an extra point in the game. Ryan Gaudet was a perfect 3-for-3 on PATs, but on the other hand, Chris Jackson was 1-for-3 on field goals missing a 48-yarder in the first quarter. He had a 35-yard attempt blocked in the fourth.

Xavier Carter again was shaky on kickoff returns, fielding several returns deep in the end zone and hesitating badly before taking a knee. Skyler Green, the nation's premiere punt returner a year ago, managed to bring back two punts for just 12 yards.

Oh by the way, Jackson also had a kickoff go out of bounds.

All of this taken into consideration though, LSU is now finished with the grueling part of the schedule. The fearsome threesome (Auburn, Georgia, Florida) is complete with LSU finishing the dreaded stretch 1-2. After a 45-16 loss in Athens, many had already conceded the Florida game (including this writer) and looked for a sweep of the remainder of the schedule and shoot for the Peach Bowl.

With this win, LSU is back in the mix. While the Tigers would need a complete meltdown by Auburn and a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season to have any shot at a return trip to Atlanta, stranger things have happened.

But at this point in time, LSU is in a good position to make some noise down the stretch run. The Florida win is a victory that makes the difference between a second-tier bowl game (Music City, Peach, Independence) and a New Year's Day contest (Cotton, Outback, Capital One).

In the wacky world of the SEC, nothing is written in stone as displayed by Georgia's loss to Tennessee and LSU's inspiring victory in the Swamp. As always, the race for Atlanta continues to heat up and for now, the Tigers are back in the race.

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