DEVILLE: The Long And Short Of It
In which direction is the LSU football program heading? Tough decisions await Les Miles as he tries to figure it out.
by Matt Deville
Tiger Rag Senior Editor
(At left) Follow Me! Les Miles instructs his troops as they take the field in Little Rock last Friday. It’ll be interesting to see where Miles will lead the Tigers in the future. (Photo by Beth Bonner Deville)
Well, it has been four days since LSU lost its season finale to Arkansas.
It’s safe to say Les Miles’ honeymoon is officially over. After losing six games in three seasons, Miles has now totaled nearly that many in 2008 with a disappointing 7-5 record.
Miles had attained a high level of success over the past three seasons. Even with 34 wins, an SEC title and a BCS national crown to his credit, he wasn’t let off the hook for the six losses he accrued in the process of doing so. People still bellow about a 30-27 overtime loss to Tennessee back in 2005.
That being considered, no one could have imagined what would happen if LSU were to lose more than two games as it has done in the previous three campaigns. Heaven forbid Miles lose, say five games, like Nick Saban did in 2002.
He’d be ridden out of town on a rail.
Well, the unthinkable has happened. And it seems Tigers fans may be ready to get that rail ready.
LSU fell to an embarrassing 7-5, 3-5 in SEC play, with last Friday’s loss in Little Rock.
The Tigers loss on Friday marks:
- the most losses in the regular season since going 3-8 in 1999.
- the first losing record in conference play since going 1-7 in 1999.
- the first loss to a team that finished with a losing record since that infamous defeat to Tennessee in 2005.
- the first loss to a team with a losing record at the time of the game since a 24-16 decision at Kentucky in 1995, also known as “The Purple Pants Game.”
- the first time LSU finished worse than second in the SEC West since 1999.
- the first back-to-back losses to Arkansas since dropping consecutive games to the Hawgs in 1992 and 1993.
No need to pile on at this point; you get the picture.
Jan. 7, 2008 seems like so long ago. It’s quite staggering to think that less than 12 months ago, Miles and the Tigers were on top of the world hoisting that crystal football on the floor of the Louisiana Superdome.
National Champions… how the mighty does fall.
LSU’s five losses are the most by a reigning national champion since Georgia Tech in 1991. The Yellow Jackets were crowned the UPI champion splitting the 1990 national title with Washington. Georgia Tech had gone 11-0-1 in 1990 before floundering to an 8-5 mark the following season.
Despite losing five games in the regular season, the Ramblin’ Wreck still posted a 5-2 in the ACC and won their bowl game — defeating Stanford 18-17 in the Aloha Bowl.
It seems almost ironic the Tigers could possibly land in the Chick Fil-A Bowl paired up against none other than – Georgia Tech.
Anyway, everyone is aware of where LSU currently stands, the question now is – how in the hell did this happen?
First and foremost, a letdown was expected, to some degree that is. It has been a common trend for a reigning national champion to experience growing pains and a hangover of sorts following such a prosperous season.
Losing three All-Americans on defense, a defensive coordinator and a senior class chocked full of talent and leadership, it would be tough to duplicate that level of success.
But there was plenty of talent remaining; the cupboard was far from bare, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With a hot shot veteran quarterback returning in Ryan Perrilloux, the transition to the next chapter of LSU football was supposed to fairly smooth.
That wasn’t the case.
In May, Perrilloux finally pushed Miles too far. The beleaguered quarterbacks name appeared in the papers for the wrong reasons for the last time and Miles booted the former prep All-American all the way to Jacksonville, Ala.
Miles had been warned of Perrilloux’s knack for getting into devilment off the field prior to his arrival in Baton Rouge. But it was clearly a case of taking the good with the bad.
The good was Perrilloux leading LSU to a win in the SEC Championship Game. However, the bad outweighed anything he could do on the field and the Tigers were left with few options.
A redshirt freshman from Brenham, Texas had solid credentials. Jarrett Lee could be molded into a quality player in time. Toss in a hard-nosed brainiac from Harvard in Andrew Hatch for a change of pace and it might just be enough to get by.
Average quarterback play could be masked by a power rushing attack and a stingy defense. LSU possessed both of those components and had used that equation to perfection in 2003 and 2007 when a pair of Matt’s (Mauck and Flynn) was the perfect caretaker of the offense.
It sounded good in theory, but the loss of defensive coordinator Bo Pelini to Nebraska would throw a larger glitch into the LSU equation for success than anyone could have anticipated.
A heated debate ensued as Miles went searching for LSU’s next defensive coordinator. Former Georgia Tech defensive boss John Tenuta was available. He was actually rumored to be heading to Ann Arbor should Miles be hired by Michigan.
Miles opted to promote from within when it was said and done — selecting defensive backs coach Doug Mallory and linebackers coach Bradley Dale Peveto to serve as co-defensive coordinators. Tenuta ended up in South Bend as Notre Dame’s linebackers coach.
Two coaches who had served under Pelini for the previous three seasons, a stockpile of talent; you can’t screw this up right?
Well, yes actually.
In three seasons under Pelini, LSU’s defense ranked No. 3 in the nation in total defense. The Tigers were as dominant as they had been, maybe more so, than the previous five seasons under Nick Saban.
In 2008, however, LSU finished ninth in the SEC in total defense giving up 326 yards per game. The Tigers were last in the league against the pass (220 yards per game) an 11th overall in the SEC in scoring defense. LSU gave up an average of 25.9 points per game and surrendered more than 50 points twice. The Tigers gave up 31 points in each of their last three games, in which they lost two of them.
One might argue that the players are to blame. Some say the so-called talent on the defensive side of the ball was vastly overrated.
That might be true to some degree. But it didn’t take the most knowledgeable football fan to recognize constant miscommunication on the defensive side of the ball, especially in the secondary.
LSU’s defensive backs were constantly out of position, throwing their hands into the air screaming at one another and looking to sideline for guidance – all the while being gouged for big plays by some of the worst offensive teams in the SEC.
And it wasn’t just the secondary. LSU’s front seven, renowned for its’ NFL caliber defensive lineman, was as porous as the secondary. The Tigers ranked fifth in the SEC against the run giving up 105 yards per game, but teams enjoyed much more success throwing the ball against LSU’s secondary that the rushing numbers may be a bit skewed.
At any rate, the defense was bad. Period.
There’s no need to cite too many example. The fact Auburn, a team that finished 100th in the nation and dead last in the SEC, threw for 250 yards versus LSU says it all.
So considering the problems on defense, the need for superior play on that side of the ball to bail out inexperienced quarterbacks spelled impending doom for LSU.
It looked as if Lee could be the man after rallying the troops for a rousing 26-21 come from behind win at Auburn. Lee seemed to come into his own in the second half putting the team on his back in leading LSU to the win.
But while Tiger fans basked in the glow of LSU’s first victory at Auburn since 1998, an interception Lee threw for a second quarter touchdown went somewhat overlooked. Unfortunately for the young signal caller, it wouldn’t be the last time. Six more interceptions for opposing touchdowns would come, four in the biggest of games.
Minus interceptions alone and the Tigers theoretically would have won both the Georgia and Alabama games.
But with Hatch nursing an injury and true freshman Jordan Jefferson still awfully wet behind the ears, Miles had little choice. Or did he?
Fans booed Lee at will, showing no remorse as the rookie quarterback seemed to regress week by week. Even after four interceptions in the Alabama game, Miles opted to stay with Lee.
It took an ankle injury in the Ole Miss game to send Lee to the bench. Jefferson got the call and had flashes of brilliance. But his inexperience and limited knowledge of the playbook hampered him from enjoying much success.
In Friday’s loss to Arkansas, Jefferson got the starting nod and threw two touchdown passes, while not throwing a single interception. The mobile freshman also led the team in rushing.
Hind sight is 20-20, but one must wonder what could have happened if Jefferson had gotten a couple of meaningful reps when Lee started throwing interceptions by the minute.
A few more completions by Jefferson coupled by an interception or two less by Lee and the outcome of the Alabama game might have been different.
And that could have made all the difference in the world really.
Anyone with a brain could see after the Tigers dropped the 27-21 overtime heartbreaker to No. 1 Alabama that season was over.
LSU all but phoned it in the remaining three games, in which the Tigers nearly lost to a Sun Belt conference team – at home.
There wasn’t much fight in LSU once Ole Miss got to Tiger Stadium. The Tigers had owned the Rebels for half a dozen years, but this time Ole Miss embarrassed LSU, handing the Tigers their third straight home loss.
While LSU had had its issues throwing the ball as well as stopping opposing offenses, the Tigers had relied on its rushing attack, powered by a massive offensive line and the bruising tailback tandem of Charles Scott and Keiland Williams.
A total of 37 yards on 29 carries in the loss to Ole Miss showed even that well had dried up. The Tigers did run for 161 yards against Arkansas, but 50 of those yards were gained by Jefferson. Scott and Williams combined for 74 yards total, that coming against the league’s worst rushing defense in Arkansas.
The Arkansas game was a perfect summation of what the 2008 season has been for LSU.
At times, the Tigers showed signs of dominance.
Even with a true freshman under center, LSU marched up and down the field on offense and rallied from a 14-3 deficit to take a 30-14 advantage in the third quarter.
Like in many games this season, the Tigers defense started slow, but rose to the occasion snuffing out any chance of the Hawgs finding the end zone.
But right when you thought the dagger had been thrust and the stadium was about the empty, that other team showed up. Penalties, mental lapses, missed assignments and conservative play calling resulted in Arkansas’ ability to come roaring back.
LSU showed an extreme lack of discipline in garnering a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that kept a 17-play, 90-yard drive alive for the Razorbacks.
Conservative play calling?
The rumors are swirling once again about Miles getting involved in the offensive play calling. The rumors are unsubstantiated and there’s no way of knowing for sure. But the fact LSU was outgained 222-20 in the final 28:06 of the game, a six-drive period in which the Tigers managed only one first down, something was happening for sure.
You could feel it coming. It was almost as if you wanted to pinch yourself and say, surely not. But when Casey Dick hooked up with London Crawford for a 24-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 21 seconds remaining in the game, no one in War Memorial Stadium seemed surprised.
LSU had a chance to get into position to win the game. Two Jefferson passes fell incomplete and the Tigers attempted a last-second field goal (from 63 yards away, into the wind and on a wet field… What?)
Of course the kick fell way short.
The Hawgs celebrated what could be viewed as a bowl game-type victory for Bobby Petrino’s team.
Miles and the Tigers slinked away, trudging up a tunnel in the southeast corner of the stadium. Heads down, muttering to themselves, snapping at one another – a far cry from the team that sat atop the football world just 11 months ago.
Miles was angry afterwards professing this kind of play would not longer be tolerated. The problems would be fixed.
The real issue is the fact these problems have been reoccurring ones spanning a 12-game period at this point.
While the inconsistent play on the field has been troubling, the lack of discipline is equally disconcerting.
The LSU community has been split on Miles and the way he has ran things since his arrival.
The nay-sayers accused him of winning with Saban’s players. Miles’ critics downplayed his success saying his time would come.
While the winning with Saban’s players theory holds little validity considering the fact, while Saban recruited them, it was Miles who coached them to a national title.
But on the flip side of the debate, has questionable decision making and difficulty maintaining discipline catching up with the fourth-year coach.
In all fairness, say what you want, but had the quarterback situation been different, this team (and season for that matter) would have been different. The entire psyche of the team would be different.
LSU’s inability to move the ball consistently on offense put the team at a constant disadvantage. When you begin factoring in the mistakes, interceptions and bad field position, the limitations at that position begins to filter down to other aspects of the team.
While Perrilloux wouldn’t have been a world beater by any means, had he been able to keep his nose clean, LSU would have been – at worst 9-3. And, the Tigers would have likely beaten Alabama, which would have gone a long way considering the current state of the program.
What’s next for the Tigers?
Miles has some important (and difficult) decisions to make in the offseason. Sure there is a bowl game to be played (and yet to be determined), but the future of the Tiger football program rides heavily on Miles’ decisions over the course of the next few weeks (and months).
First and foremost, Miles needs to rectify the issues on the defensive side of the ball by hiring a top notch defensive coordinator.
It will be interesting process considering Miles brought Mallory with him from Oklahoma State as part of his original LSU staff. Will Miles pull the trigger on Mallory? Could Mallory handle being demoted?
As for Peveto, it looks as if this might work itself out for Miles. Peveto is being rumored to replace Scott Stoker as the head coach at Northwestern State.
At any rate, some changes need to be made on that side of the ball.
Tenuta might be available as early as next week should Charlie Weis get the ax at Notre Dame. Longtime Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis is available and is being heavily rumored as a strong possibility.
A hard-nosed approach on that side of the ball could shore up some discipline issues and turn things around in a hurry. The talent is definitely there.
On offense, the quarterback situation remains somewhat the same. However, it seems Jefferson can lead the LSU offense utilizing his arm and legs to move the Tigers up and down the field.
Prep quarterback phenom Russell Shepard, the nation’s No. 1 rated prospect, will report to campus in January along with strong-armed Mississippi signal caller Chris Garrett. Both will go through spring drills and could be competing for the starting job come August.
As for Lee, it’s sad to say but he could get squeezed out of the mix. Lee proved to have a nice arm, but his mechanics weren’t ideal and his decision making was worse. Andrew Hatch could find himself in the same situation.
Miles has assembled one of the nation’s top recruiting classes full of the best prep talent in the country. LSU still has the ability to attract top-notch talent.
The program is at a crossroads indeed. Miles did a great job sustaining the level of success when he arrived in Baton Rouge. Three straight seasons with 10 or more wins was a record. He produced the school’s third national title and kept the Tigers listed among the elite teams in college football.
Another big question is can he stabilize a situation that could quickly get out of hand? The program is on shaky ground as it is. Loyalty among the fan base is wavering. Players definitely don’t seem happy.
Can Miles soothe the situation, make the necessary changes and be ready to return to the top of the SEC?
No doubt, it should make for an interesting few months.
Matt Deville is the editor of Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.