Instant Analysis: Arkansas-LSU

Did Michigan's head coaching search just go in a different direction? Houston Nutt's life took a sharply positive turn. Wild celebrations began in Morgantown, Columbia and Columbus. New Orleans just assured itself of getting more tourist dollars. Amazing what one football game can do, eh?

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The reverberations from Arkansas’ 50-48 triple-overtime upset of LSU will be felt for quite some time across the United States. When Tiger quarterback Matt Flynn’s pass was intercepted on a rule-mandated two-point try at the end of the third overtime stanza, several communities and multiple coaching reputations were changed in an instant. One play at the end of a paralyzing pigskin pulse-pounder immediately reshaped the college football world as we know it. This latest and greatest upset in The Year That Sanity Forgot served to transform the national championship derby and the Michigan coaching search at the very same time. The bowl landscape and so many other aspects of the college football industry were permanently altered by this baffling bombshell in Baton Rouge.

Let’s sift through the wreckage and the resurrections caused by this contest and its outcome.

First of all, LSU finally paid the price after tempting fate yet again. A terrifically talented Tiger team that had never fully flexed its muscles in 2007 was unable to cheat death against a resilient and resourceful roster of Razorbacks that refused to fold in the face of adversity. The fourth-down mojo that had saved the Bayou Bengals so many times before was matched by the Houdini Hogs, who converted a 4th and 10 in the first overtime to keep a drive alive and eventually tie the score at 35. That one escape from defeat emboldened Arkansas’ offense, which rolled to two more overtime touchdowns behind Darren McFadden, the single most impressive specimen in all of college football, who looked and played the part of a man among boys. And when No. 5 left the field, his trusty teammate, Felix Jones, was there to convert the two-point play that ultimately made the difference.

The Hogs deserve a tremendous amount of credit in victory—and especially Nutt, an embattled coach who has survived for a decade in the cutthroat SEC and will count this triumph as one of the greatest moments in his UA career, regardless of whether his future is extended in Fayetteville. With that said, however, the larger story of this contest is not necessarily that Arkansas did what other teams didn’t; no, the truly instructive lesson to emerge from this game is that you can’t allow each and every gameday to come down to one or two plays. LSU’s dangerous dance with disaster finally led the Tigers over the cliff. In a sport where the averages even out, LSU needed to play above-average football and not allow yet another SEC slugfest to be reduced to a matter of a few minutes and a handful of snaps. Sure enough, the averages gained their revenge, and the sports gods exacted a measure of brutal justice from an LSU ballclub that consistently failed to maximize its enormous potential.

The other major development to emerge from this game (aside of its numerous BCS-busting and bowl-based implications) is also connected to LSU’s fatal Friday flirtation with Lady Fortune. Simply stated, one afternoon in Tiger Stadium created something of a tipping point with respect to Les Miles’ reputation… not necessarily as a coach, mind you, but as a student of game management and play calling.

Let’s be clear about this and confine the issue to its appropriately narrow focus: a college football coach is much more than just a manager of timeouts and a manipulator of the clock. A coach needs to be a recruiter, a motivator, a technician, a good public speaker, a representative of a university, and a person who can juggle several other responsibilities that exist in off-field contexts as well as on the gridiron. Given the job description of a college football head coach, Les Miles qualifies as a good example for his colleagues across the country. The way Miles handled this past week of questions from an aroused media corps was exemplary. The personal integrity of the man who led LSU through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is considerable. Miles is a stand-up individual who does a great job of handling a lot of the duties of a head coach. From this big-picture perspective, the man is a good coach.

However, when championships are waiting to be won and statements are waiting to be made, Friday afternoon’s Arkansas ambush made one thing perfectly and overwhelmingly clear forever and ever: Les Miles can’t strategize his way out of a paper bag. He’s a fine human being—which should count for more in the long run than one’s performance when wearing the headsets on the sideline—but for the record, this loss to Houston Nutt’s Hogs proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Les Miles is certifiably loony as a play caller, clock manager, and timeout juggler. In those three aspects of coaching (not the job description as a whole), Miles is a flunkie. Period.

In the aftermath of October’s amazing last-second win over Auburn, a firestorm erupted over the way Miles handled that late-game situation. Anyone with a few sane brain cells still crowding the cranium knew that Miles was enormously lucky to escape with that victory, clinched—as you might remember--on a touchdown catch by receiver Demetrius Byrd on a wheel route with one tick left on the clock (three ticks left if the clock had been properly reset, but that was a mere technicality). But there’s a funny thing about victory achieved in spite of bad game management and decision making: it tends to diminish criticism.

There were surely tens of thousands of Tiger fans who knew Miles butchered that Auburn scenario a month ago, but still swallowed their comments or reserved judgment (or both) because the home team nevertheless managed to win. The aftermath of LSU’s narrow win over Auburn demonstrated, once again, that human beings generally lack the courage to criticize victors, and the same courage to praise losers. Les Miles’ lucky escape in that two-Tiger tilt shielded him from an onslaught of outrage, even though the facts of the situation revealed—for all the world to see—that Miles just doesn’t have a clue when it comes to late-game strategy. Many observers said that LSU defeated Auburn in spite of Miles’ best efforts to lose the game; the intoxicating feeling of sweet victory prevented a great many Tiger fans from emotionally acknowledging what they knew to be empirically true.

Well, after this Arkansas debacle, the emperor in Baton Rouge finally has no clothes… and everyone, but everyone, can see as much.

If Miles learned from his Auburn experience (and his 2005 Tennessee experience… and his 2005 Mississippi State experience… and his 2006 Auburn experience…) and in other games in which his game-management decisions left observers gasping in disbelief, you wouldn’t have guessed it on Friday afternoon at Tiger Stadium. Miles eschewed the power running game and endangered his team’s chances of winning just under the three-minute mark of regulation. A bizarre 4th and 1 call—a bubble screen off a fake quarterback sneak--that only Miles could love was snuffed out by Arkansas’ defense. As in this year’s Auburn game, however, the athleticism of an LSU player saved Miles from humiliation, as Keiland Williams barely got a first down by avoiding a Razorback defender near the sideline.

But Miles would continue to mess with his team’s fate. A confounding power run on 3rd and goal from the UA 6 (after abandoning Jacob Hester for crucial stretches of the fourth quarter), combined with some nervous timeouts, forced the Tigers into a situation where they wouldn’t have been able to get the ball back if their fourth-down play failed at the end of regulation. Instead of expanding his team’s options and maximizing his team’s percentages under pressure, Miles actually boxed his team in from numerous strategic standpoints. This was never more apparent than in the third overtime, when a timeout Miles wasted on defense sure could have come in handy before LSU’s game-tying two-point try. Instead of being able to script something special (as the Tigers and Miles—along with offensive coordinator Gary Crowton—have indeed done on many fourth downs this season, to their credit), LSU had to rush a play into the huddle, and the lack of preparation was evident. In overtime sequences, the one allotted timeout needs to be reserved for fourth downs and two-point tries; when Miles coughed up that strategic weapon on defense, he ceded crucial leverage to Arkansas.

Yes, from start to finish, Miles once again presided over an uneven, inconsistent and mistake-prone white-knuckler of a soap opera made all the more dramatic by last-minute bungling and brain cramps. If Miles ever deserved the benefit of the doubt for his late-game failures and foul-ups, the time for that bit of benign treatment has long since passed. Again, Miles handles many dimensions of a coach’s complete job description with admirable poise and professionalism; but when the matter of late-game management is up for discussion, the LSU coach is Les than merely mediocre—he’s absolutely horrible.

Michigan couldn’t afford to have Les Miles match headsets with Jim Tressel if it expects to win. The Wolverines will surely be scared by what they saw today, or at least, they ought to be. And speaking of Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes led by Mr. Sweater Vest himself just received a crucial boost in their pursuit of the BCS title game, while West Virginia sits in the catbird seat. One team's fiery flameout became a resurrection moment for number of other schools across the country. (Missouri and Kansas, of course, will have to endure a grueling two-game stretch in order to play on Jan. 7, but it’s the Bucks and Mountaineers who especially benefited from today’s events in Louisiana.)

Rarely does one regular season game provide so many commentaries on so many reputations and pigskin pursuits. But after one fateful Friday when a top-ranked Tiger team tumbled after pushing its luck a bit too far, the whole college football landscape has been shaken and stirred on so many levels. Ordinary games would enable pundits and talking heads to make Darren McFadden and Houston Nutt the lead stories from this Thanksgiving weekend throwdown; but this was no ordinary affair. The loser—for reasons that are both wrong yet undeniable—grabbed top billing by falling from the top spot in its sport.

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