Les Miles rarely gets straight to the point – if he gets there at all.
He’s verbally evasive, the oral equivalent of Aaron Rogers in the pocket – never hurried, always calculated, cool under pressure, and impossible to get a read on.
Want to get something out of Miles? Better come equipped with specifics. Any question can be danced around, but some are less easily sidestepped and sashayed than others.
On Saturday night, however, the sting of a second straight 17-point loss to Arkansas still fresh, Miles was anything but elusive. With his opening statement, before any reporter had even ventured so much as a suggestion, Miles promptly, and without prompting, fell on his sword, all the answers spilling out.
Beginning, of course, with the foremost question on the mind of any sports fan whose team loses in back-to-back weeks: who’s fault is it?
Who’s to blame for LSU’s sudden collapse, a two-week freefall from No. 2 in the country and squarely in the national championship picture to mathematically eliminated from contention in the SEC West?
If you ask Les – and, on Saturday, you didn’t have to – it starts and ends with him.
“I’ll take the discredit here,” Miles said in his opening remarks. “I make the plan. I plan it all. We have to be better, and that’s me.”
“This was mine,” he offered moments later, still yet to face a question. “This was absolutely my fault. I promise you we will be better. I thought the kids played their hearts out. We just didn’t give them the right stuff.”
What Miles didn’t address was exactly what that right stuff is. For years under LSU’s current head coach, the right stuff has been a combination of smashmouth play in the trenches, dominant defense at all three levels, and pristine performances on special teams. That recipe has won Miles two SEC titles, three Western crowns, and one national championship, with another national runner-up tossed in, as well.
Lately, however, that stuff has been far from right. The only mouths being smashed on LSU’s offense the last two weeks are their own. The defense has been vulnerable to the big play, and the special teams have simply been vulnerable.
The most damning fact facing Miles – who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, by the way, thanks to a contract that still has four-plus years on it and a buyout that sits at $15 million through Dec. 31 of this year and $12.9 million through Dec. 31, 2016 – isn’t that he’s losing games he needs to win. It’s when and, more importantly, how he’s losing them that renders LSU’s future prospects bleakest.
First, the when: LSU is 1-4 in its last five November games, and 3-5 in its last eight. In a month where champs and chumps are separated, the Tigers have fallen into the latter category more often than not.
Second, and most critically, is the how. In a day where college football is becoming more about finesse and less about power, Miles is losing at his own brand of Midwestern, trench warfare football.
All of those four losses have come against teams and coaches that play a power brand of football: two apiece to Nick Saban’s Alabama and Bret Bielema’s Arkansas.
In the case of the former, there’s little shame in losing to the Tide. Most teams do. If not for Saban’s prior affiliation with LSU, Miles’ inability of late to overcome Alabama would be little more than an irrtant.
But when it comes to Bielema, LSU fans have to be concerned. Arkansas’ third-year coach has just six career SEC wins to his name, and a third of those have come at Miles’ expense.
Bielema hasn’t just beaten Miles, though. He’s beaten him at his own game.
It starts off the field. No longer is Miles the quirkiest, quote-iest coach in the league, as he once was. That honor falls to Bielema, the scale-tipping screwball who once called a bowl win “borderline erotic” and told reporters earlier this season he was “looking forward to hopping on the wife” after beating Ole Miss in overtime.
It carries over on the field. Bielema has two straight 17-point conquests over Miles in which the Tigers managed a combined 95 yards rushing on 62 carries. Bielema, the former Iowa nose guard, has figured out how to stifle the running attack of the ex-Michigan lineman. He’s even taken Miles’ penchant for the trick play, using the same reverse LSU famously ran against Alabama in 2010 with DeAngelo Peterson to spring Louisiana native Jared Cornelius for the decisive 69-yard touchdown Saturday night.
In their last two meetings, Bielema has out-Milesed Miles. Les is no longer the king of power football in the SEC, the last league in which such a style seems to be in vogue. Saban, despite his adoption of some spread principles offensive, has held that position firmly since Jan. 9, 2012, and Bielema, not Miles, is now the man hot on his trail, even without the advantage of Louisiana’s talent-rich high school pipeline.
Perhaps Miles can figure out a way to reestablish LSU as the beacon of the Midwestern football ideals Bo Schembechler planted deep in his pupil’s heart. Perhaps Miles can find the answers he’s looking for.
If not, he’ll have plenty of questions to answer, no matter how many he addresses in his opening statements.