Dominant Tiger defense bends – finally breaks

ORLANDO, Fla. – For five years in Baton Rouge, outgoing LSU head coach Nick Saban preached his personal mantra of playing the game for sixty minutes, often sounding like a stuck record repeating his message over and over again.

Don't give up.

 

Don't quit.

 

Play until the final whistle sounds.

 

Against Iowa in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla., in Saban's final game at the helm of the Tigers, the purple and gold lined up against the co-Big Ten champion Hawkeyes and fought back, as they had done five times previously in 2004, to come from behind and take the lead with under a minute to play.

 

The only problem was, in Saban's swansong, the last collegiate game the 2003 National Coach of the Year would lead LSU into before departing for the Miami Dolphins in the National Football League, the "sixty minutes" message ended there.

 

One minute short.

 

Well, forty-six seconds, to be precise – but who's counting?

 

The Tigers trailed by as many as eight points in the first half before clawing their way back to head to the locker room at halftime trailing by only two points, 14-12. Iowa tacked on ten more points to open up a 24-12 lead in the fourth quarter, and appeared to have the game all but sewn up, before third-string quarterback JaMarcus Russell threw a pair of touchdown passes to Skyler Green, including a three-yarder with 46 seconds left, to give LSU a 25-24 lead with the clock hurriedly heading towards zero.

 

In any other game, in any other season, a one-point lead with a Nick Saban defense taking the field to defend it for fewer than sixty seconds would be a bet as sure as the inevitability of death and taxes. But on this date, with Saban's illustrious LSU career all too quickly drawing to an end, the vaunted Tiger defense, a unit that had held the Hawkeyes to –1 yards rushing and only three first downs in the entire first half, came unraveled at the worst possible moment.

 

The scoring play itself unfurled in front of the raucous Iowa fans in what appeared to be super-slow motion, a moment to be cherished as surely as LSU fans cherish the memory of Donnie Jones ending the 2004 Sugar Bowl with a punt deep into Oklahoma territory to wind the final seconds off the clock, gifting the Tigers a 21-14 victory and with it the title of BCS national champions. But for LSU this time around, the moment unfurled itself in a much more sickening slow motion, the kind that makes the pit of your stomach churn with the dreaded realization that your final shot at glory was little more than a pipe dream.

 

Tiger kicker Chris Jackson boomed the restart 62 yards to the Iowa three-yard line, where the ball was fielded by return man Walner Belleus, who returned it 26 yards to the Iowa 29-yard line. Hawkeye quarterback Drew Tate, unknowingly 46 seconds away from cementing himself as the Most Valuable Player of the game, took the first snap of the drive and fired an 11-yard completion to wideout Ed Hinkel.

 

First-and-ten, Iowa 40-yard line.

 

Tate took the next snap and calmly tossed the ball nine yards downfield to receiver Warren Holloway.

 

Second-and-nine, Iowa 49-yard line.

 

Tate lined up behind center again, but a flag and a whistle called the play dead: false start, Hawkeyes.

 

Second-and-six, Iowa 44-yard line.

 

Undaunted, Tate stepped back under center, took the snap, dropped back to pass, and hit a wide open Holloway deep downfield who raced 56 yards into the end zone as time expired to seal a wild 30-25 win for the Hawkeyes.

 

"It ripped my heart out a whole lot, it's a hard feeling to swallow," said LSU free safety LaRon Landry. "I thought we were in the game but we had a miscommunication on the last play of the game and they made a good throw, a good catch.  We were supposed to play man coverage and we didn't communicate, it was a quick snap, so we really didn't get the call in, and the guy was wide open."

 

Open was the operative word. With Landry coming on the blitz, Ronnie Prude was assigned to keep an eye on Holloway. Instead, Prude picked up a different receiver, resulting in double coverage for the wrong Hawkeye, and leaving Holloway free to score the winning touchdown for Iowa.

 

"It makes you sick, you feel like you put yourself and your team in a position to win the game and to come after them and it just doesn't work out," said junior defensive tackle Kyle Williams.

 

The end result, and the final play, said Saban after the game, should not detract from the dominance the Tiger defense displayed for the first 59 minutes.

 

Linebacker Kenny Hollis had two sacks and five solo tackles, as well as forcing a fumble. Defensive end Melvin Oliver displayed moves a soccer goalkeeper would be proud of when he thrust his right arm out and picked off a pass by Tate in the first quarter before rumbling 27 yards downfield with a series of moves that definitely resembled a charging elephant more than a graceful gazelle. No, the graceful moves were reserved for Landry, who had the second of LSU's two interceptions while also adding a pass breakup and five solo tackles.

 

In fact, the LSU defense was so dominant that for a while it looked as if the Iowa offense would not be able to make anything resembling forward progress. By the time the first half ended, Tate had already been intercepted twice, and the Hawkeyes' leading rusher had picked up eight yards on four carries. Punter David Bradley had been called upon to punt more often than the Iowa offense had been able to pick up first downs.

 

In fact, by the time the clock read zero, LSU had three more first downs, 71 more yards rushing, three more passes completed, ten more offensive plays, twelve more total yards, and one more interception.

 

If only the game was 59 minutes long.

 

"I feel like the disappointing thing here is the last 14 seconds tarnishes what these senior players have been able to accomplish in their career here in terms of the number of games they have won and the number of bowl games they have been to: the two SEC championships they have won and the national championship," said Saban. "I can honestly say that I am proud of our players and what they have been able to accomplish."

 

If only.


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