Chance at Redemption

The 2008 season is one that many Tiger fans would like to forget. Let's take a trip down memory lane for a quick refresher as TigerSportsDigest.com begins its fall preview for the 2009 season.

Note: This is part one of an ongoing series that will take you all the way up to the start of fall camp.

 

Expectations were high at LSU heading into the 2008 campaign, and after winning two BCS national championships in the previous five years – 2003 and 2007 – they should have been.

 

The Tigers were all jacked up to defend their national title and there was a solid nucleus returning with 14 players who had significant starts in the previous season. Sure, the Tigers had to replace Matt Flynn under center, but they had Ryan Perrilloux ready to take the reigns. Or so they thought.

 

Perrilloux, who was a former five-star signal caller and who was the MVP of the ‘07 SEC Championship game, had a career that was littered with disciplinary problems and one final violation of team rules led to his dismissal. The vast majority of the LSU fan base hated to see him go, but at the same time, the overwhelming consensus was that it was a good decision by head coach Les Miles.

 

No player is bigger than the team. It’s a privilege to be awarded an athletic scholarship at LSU, and any other college for that matter, but some players just don’t get it.

 

While the defending national champions had suffered a tremendous blow, most fans believed that LSU still had the talent and the experience to make another run at a conference title. However, the dismissal of Perrilloux put the entire squad behind the proverbial 8-ball – not one quarterback on the roster had taken a meaningful snap in a college football game.

 

As a result of Perrilloux’s ill-advised behavior, Andrew Hatch, a former walk-on, and redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee were thrust into the spotlight. Together, they both had unique skills, but respectfully, neither had the athletic ability or experience of Perrilloux. The bullseye was now placed squarely on their back.

 

It started out well for the Tigers.

 

Against Appalachian State and North Texas, the Tigers rolled. The talent disparity between LSU and their opponents was clear. As for the quarterbacks, both showed promise heading into the Auburn game as the two combined to go 33 for 59 for 402 yards and three scores with two interceptions. The results weren’t overwhelming, but both field generals performed competently under center. 

 

A stronger and meaner opponent, however, awaited both the next week at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

 

At Auburn, it didn’t take long for the Tigers to find adversity. Hatch took a knee to the head and was knocked out of the game with a concussion in the first half. Lee threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the final seconds of the first stanza and the Tigers headed to the locker room facing an 11 point deficit, 14-3.

 

Tiger fans collectively held their breath as they awaited the start of the second half. Rather than fold in their first road game of the year, the Bayou Bengals responded like you’d expect the defending national champions to. Lee, specifically, stepped up and threw a beautiful 39-yard touchdown pass to Chris Mitchell, while taking a tremendous hit on LSU's first drive of the second half. Later he led LSU on a last minute drive, completing an 18-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell with only 1:03 left on the clock, to give LSU a dramatic, 26-21, victory.

 


Brandon LaFell eludes a Bulldog defender

Miles wasted no time reminding the country that he was not a “by the book” coach. A field goal would have been sufficient to take the lead and possibly salt the game away, but the riverboat gambler went for the decisive score. It had to be motivating for players and fans alike.

 

At the time, it seemed like a great win, but Auburn’s performance throughout the season would tarnish this particular road triumph.

 

Most felt that the Tigers had found their new quarterback when Lee finished 11 for 22 for 182 yards with two touchdown passes and one interception. While not an overwhelming game statistically, the Brenham, Texas-native and the Tigers had passed their first big test of a young season.

 

Next up for LSU was Mississippi State and the Tigers handled the Bulldogs, 34-24. Charles Scott finished the game with 27 carries for 142 yards and two touchdowns, while Lee tossed a couple of touchdown passes along with one interception.

 

The Tigers then headed to the Swamp – undefeated and ranked No. 5 in the country – and with every reason to believe they could beat the Gators. The Swamp, however, is one of the toughest venues in all of college football, and LSU ran into a perfect storm that night.

 

On the Gators first possession, a motivated and enthusiastic Tiger defense had Florida right where they wanted, facing a third and 12, when a Tim Tebow pass that was deflected by Danny McCray fell softly into the hands of Percy Harvin. Harvin accepted the gift from above and bolted 70 yards for the game’s first touchdown.

 

It was an omen of things to come. Before you knew it the Tigers were facing a 21-0 deficit.

 

Lee and the Tigers fought valiantly and early in the second half had cut the score to 21-14. However, that was as close as they’d get. Florida went on to win the game, 51-21, and left no doubt who the better team was that night. Lee struggled throwing two interceptions with the last one returned for a touchdown. This would begin a disturbing trend for the young signal caller.

 

Next up was a road date at South Carolina, where Keiland Williams had a strong performance with 15 carries for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Much like the State game, the Tigers were more talented and pulled out a quality win on the road. At times it looked as if LSU was going to lose two SEC contests for the first time since 2001. But give Les Miles credit for having his players prepared for another tough road game in a sold out Williams-Brice Stadium.

 

The following week, LSU welcomed the No. 9-ranked Georgia Bulldogs to Tiger Stadium with hopes of getting back on track against a highly ranked opponent. Trindon Holliday fielded the opening kickoff and returned it 23 yards to give the Tigers good field position at their on 37 yard line.

 

Surprisingly, LSU opened the game with five wide receivers and Lee in the shotgun. Lee took the snap, turned to his left, and locked in on LaFell, forcing a pass in his direction. If the Tigers were trying to catch the Bulldogs off-guard, they didn’t. Georgia linebacker Darryl Gamble jumped the route and returned it 40 yards for a pick-six.

 

LSU fans everywhere must’ve been wondering about the decision to open up in a spread formation. After all, other than the Florida game, the Tigers had controlled the line of scrimmage in every other contest to date. Plus, Lee seemed to be struggling a bit at recognizing defenders in the middle of the field. After one offensive play, the Tigers found themselves in a 7-0 hole.

 

Not to be deterred, LSU once again responded with championship heart. Lee and the Tigers marched down the field on the very next possession and evened the score.

 

If you just looked at the statistics from the game, you might think that the Tigers had won. They had seven more first downs and outgained Georgia 497-443 in total yards. They ran nine more plays than the Bulldogs, but the turnovers combined with a great game by Knowshon Moreno equaled another LSU loss – 52-38.

 


Charles Scott breaks through the line against Georgia

This loss was much harder for the fans to accept than the Florida game. It seemed as if LSU had as good, if not, a better team than Georgia. Things, though, were beginning to unravel as the once vaunted Tiger defense yielded 50 points or more twice in a season for the first time in school history.

 

Some Tiger fans were beginning to worry about the maturation of Lee. His play was sporadic. He threw three touchdowns against the Bulldogs, but also threw three picks. A player will never admit such a thing, but his confidence had to be shaken.

 

What LSU desperately needed after a tough home loss was an inferior opponent and low and behold next up on the schedule was – you guessed it – Tulane. Once again, when faced with a team with less overall talent, LSU rolled by a 35-10 count. It’s always a good sign when a team can put away a less talented opponent, but later in the year it wouldn’t be the case.

 

LSU was sitting at 6-2 and ranked No. 15 in the country heading into week 9. Undoubtedly, this was a game fans and players alike had circled on their calendar since Nick Saban decided to return to college football on Jan. 3, 2007.

 

Alabama has always been one of LSU’s biggest rivals and now with Saban scowling up and down the sideline it’s gotten even more intense for Tiger fans. A win against an undefeated and No. 1 Alabama team was just what the Tigers needed for their season, and for their psyche.

 

It was a game LSU desperately wanted, and the Tigers played their best game of the season in a crushing overtime loss, 27-21.

 

Lee struggled again, this time throwing four interceptions with two of them being returned for touchdowns and one in overtime that wiped out any chance of a field goal. Considering the final score, and the fact that the offense was responsible for 14 of Alabama’s 27 points, Tiger fans had to wonder what the answer was at quarterback.

 

Still reeling from the heartbreaking loss to Alabama, LSU didn’t show up for two and a half quarters when the Troy Trojans invaded Death Valley the next week. To the casual observer, LSU must have seemed like a boxer out on his feet. They were lethargic and unresponsive for most of the game. However, the Tigers stormed back and won a game they clearly should’ve lost.

 

There were plenty of storylines from this one, such as the 37 points that LSU scored in the final 19:44 for the biggest comeback in LSU history.

 

As exciting as that was, though, fans also got another glimpse of true freshman quarterback Jordan Jefferson. While Jefferson struggled throwing the football – completing only 1 of 6 passes – he did seem to spark the team.

 

The home finale of the 2008 season brought a revived Ole Miss team to town under the leadership of first-year head coach Houston Nutt.  Sportswriters across the country will tell you that Tiger Stadium is one of the best venues in all of sports. It’s not an easy trip for visitors. There’s a mystique associated with it, and rightfully so.

 

In a humbling, 31-13, defeat, LSU showed weary legs and for the first time in years a lack of desire when it came to defending their home turf. 

 

Jefferson got his first substantial playing time of the season after Lee hurt his ankle. The coaches were very conservative with Jefferson at the helm, and the conservative play calling was never more evident than on a third and long situation with the Tigers trailing. Jefferson was in the shotgun when he received the snap, but it was clear that the play was a designed scramble and he failed to pick up the first down.

 

It’s easy to say that he should’ve been allowed to throw more. It’s easy to say that he should’ve had more snaps at that point in the season. It’s a tightrope between letting a young player get his feet wet, and throwing him to the dogs. The last thing you want is for him to lose his confidence and Lee is the perfect example. Lee never stopped fighting and working, but it just seemed like he was in quicksand. The more he struggled, the worse it got.

 

Either way, when Lee got hurt, Jefferson wasn’t ready. He played well, but the Tigers got embarrassed. LSU can’t afford to lose games in that lopsided a manner at home.


LSU will look to Richard Dickson in 2009

The regular season finale was a trip to Arkansas and LSU played well, but mental mistakes, and again conservative play calling, led to the Tigers’ downfall. Jefferson was 21-0 as a starter in high school and was well on his way to being 1-0 as a starter in college. Early in the third quarter, he connected with LaFell for a 32-yard touchdown that put the Tigers ahead, 30-14.

 

It was at this point that it seemed the coaches tried to take the air out of the ball and run out the clock. It was a decision that cost LSU dearly as the Razorbacks stormed back to win, 31-30.

 

The season was over and the defending national champs were 7-5. They’d lost three out of their last four games, and Tiger fans everywhere were in shock.

 

Moreover, LSU wasn‘t fighting like they had earlier in the year.

 

The Tigers received an invitation to face Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, so there was one more chance at redemption.

 

Georgia Tech had beaten the Georgia Bulldogs in their regular season finale, and brought a 9-3 record to the contest. Furthermore, they were basically handed a home game against the visiting Tigers as the game was being played in the Georgia Dome. You would’ve been hard pressed to find anyone outside of the Bayou State picking LSU to win this game.

 

The LSU defense had struggled late in the year, specifically with assignment football. Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense had just clobbered the Bulldogs, racking up an impressive 428 yards of total offense, with 409 of those yards on the ground. On paper, it was a huge mismatch.

 

LSU limped into the New Year’s Eve battle with a bruised ego, and a lot to prove. It was up to Miles to rally and prepare his team for the formidable Yellow Jackets.

 

You won’t find Miles on a list of the top coaches in the country when polls are conducted. Heck, you won’t even find him on a list of the top coaches in the SEC when those same polls are administered. He’s often referred to as “the mad hatter”, or “crazy Les”, or sometimes just “the hat”.

 

I doubt he cares, but his record speaks for itself. LSU has not lost a non-conference game in his tenure as head coach. LSU has dominated each and every bowl game they’ve participated in since he’s taken over. While he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, give him a month to prepare his team, and the results are staggering.

 

Miles and the Tigers showed up and destroyed the Yellow Jackets, 38-3. Jefferson started and played the whole game completing 16 passes in 25 attempts for 142 yards and one touchdown. He also rushed 10 times for 41 yards en route to his Offensive MVP performance.

 

It was a dominating showing on both sides of the ball for the Tigers, and it gave many fans reason to believe that in 2009, the Tigers once again would be back in the mix for a national championship.

 

Miles made several changes following the disappointing 2008 season, namely on the defensive side of the ball. He went out and hired former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis to run his defense. Out were co-defensive coordinators Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory, but that wasn’t it.

 

Miles also brought in former Chicago Bears defensive line coach Brick Haley in place of Earl Lane, and he stole Ron Cooper from Steve Spurrier to run his secondary. The other change on the staff was Don Yanowsky, who replaced Josh Henson as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, when Henson left for Missouri.

 

Those wholesale changes seemed to revive the Tigers during the spring and before you know it they will be put to the test. It’s a test that Tiger fans are anxious to get results on and one that they hope leads them back to the front of the pack in the Southeastern Conference.

 

Time will tell if that will happen, and that time is quickly approaching.


Tiger Blitz Top Stories