From cool to gutsy, five plays stand out
The veracity of one of sport's central clichés -- that it's a long season -- is revealed in its unpacking: LSU's football team has been involved in 1,837 plays this season.
Coaches coast to coast also will claim each one of those was significant. But that commonplace cliché is undermined by another, one echoing through every team's locker room after the game, that one side or the other "made plays."
Hacking through the weeds of the sport's vernacular, one finds the proverbial hinge play exists, one that defines a game, shifts momentum, perhaps even seals victory or defeat. This play is not always the highlight, not always one recognizable at the time as key.
And so, culled from the mammoth total, here are five plays -- some spectacular, some seemingly mundane, all critical -- that impacted the Tigers' run to the national championship game in New Orleans on Jan. 7.
"We knew it was cool," LSU quarterback Matt Flynn said with a smile.
Was it ever. The undeniable flair of a fake field goal against South Carolina defined the swashbuckling style that marked LSU's first two months even before the Tigers made going for it on fourth down a staple of their offense.
On Sept. 22 in Tiger Stadium, LSU's fourth game, the Tigers fell behind for the first time this season when South Carolina running back Mike Davis scored on a 1-yard plunge. LSU tied the score on a 33-yard run by wide receiver Trindon Holliday and jumped ahead 14-7 when Flynn tossed a 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Richard Dickson.
But the game was very much in play in the second quarter when the Gamecocks defense found its spine, forcing a 32-yard field-goal attempt by Colt David.
David didn't try the kick. LSU was about to unwrap a gift that delighted college football, on which it had toiled laboriously, and which would become the Tigers' signature for the season.
"I figured it had better work, since I'd been practicing it for three years," Matt Flynn said about the play known as "Roxy."
Prior to earning the starting job this season, the fifth-year senior was the holder on kicks. LSU Coach Les Miles had introduced a wrinkle in the Tigers' playbook that Flynn and former kicker Chris Jackson worked on but had not been used in a game. The play had to be green-lighted with an alert from the coaches and then called as an audible by Matt Flynn on the field if the opposing setup looked right.
The alert came as David trotted out on the field, and Matt Flynn made the final call after surveying the Gamecocks' alignment.
Flynn grabbed the snap and whipped the ball to the ground, a key move that sold the fake and which, because it's a kicking situation, does not create a dead ball even though the holder's knee is on the ground. Seeing nothing amiss, the South Carolina defenders, quickly shedding the soft blocks on the right side of the Tigers' line, bolted toward Flynn.
David, meanwhile, bolted hard to his right, right past Flynn and into no-man's land. Flynn flipped the ball over his left shoulder -- and it was this, more than anything else, that made the play so memorable -- without ever moving his eyes from the ground. The flip was spot-on, and David caught the ball in stride and went into the end zone, leaving Tiger Stadium enthralled and winning a bemused smile from South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier.
"Roxy," which had once burned LSU when employed by Auburn, earned its spot on ESPN, where Matt Flynn and David discussed the play.
"That's something that will probably never happen again. I'll never forget that," David said, calling it the most amazing thing he's ever been associated with in football. "Just seeing that yellow end zone, it was a rush I'll never forget. It was unique, it was amazing how a little touchdown like that . . . you never expected it to be that big a deal."
Jackson, David allowed, has confessed to some jealousy that after he worked on the play at practice, his number was never called. The rest of the country simply gave LSU props.
"Oh, yeah, yeah," Ohio State linebacker Larry Grant said with a laugh. "When we saw that play we were all amazed, probably because we never realized a kicker could run that fast. But that showed so much style. We gave them a lot of style points for that. That was cool."
Third and long Before the season began, the college football world knew that LSU's battle against Florida at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 6 was going to be a good one. No one could predict, however, what a scintillating game it would prove to be. And after LSU went for it twice on fourth down in the fourth quarter, almost no one remembered it was a third-down play by Flynn that might have been the difference.
LSU trailed after three quarters and used an interception by defensive end Kirston Pittman to pull within three, 24-21. After the defense forced Florida to a three-and-out, LSU got the ball again at its 40-yard line with 9:20 remaining.
A 7-yard run, a pass interference call against the Tigers and a 2-yard run, though, left LSU facing a third-and-16 from its 34.
"I remember talking with the coaches in the booth after second down and saying, 'if Flynn goes for it here, he'd better get us close,' " Miles recalled. "Because if Matt throws an incomplete pass there, or if he pulls it down and only gets a few yards, or even 10 yards, then it's not a go."
Flynn's task was doubly complicated by the obvious passing situation. He took the shotgun snap and looked to both sides as orange helmets pushed against yellow, shrinking his pocket. To buy time he drifted to his right, and though a receiver had broken free down the Florida sideline, Flynn did not see him. He spotted a dump-off option, he said, but knew that flick would never be enough.
So off he went, swiveling his head from side to side and getting a bit wide-eyed, he confessed, as Florida linebackers closed in. The big hit, and the pain that goes with it, was unavoidable, Flynn said, and he simply gritted his teeth and dived near the Tiger eye painted at midfield.
He got to the 49-yard line -- a yard short. But that was close enough for Miles and the Tigers.
"Of course," offensive tackle Ciron Black said. "Not a doubt in my mind."
They went for it on fourth down, senior tailback Jacob Hester got the first, and The Drive -- a 15-play, 60-yard march that consumed 8:11 and arguably comprised one of the grittiest performances LSU has produced in many years -- was well on its way.
The way the ball bounced Sports fans everywhere groan at the maxim, "it depends on which way the ball bounces." But when LSU, having just attained the No. 1 ranking in the regular season for the first time since 1959, lost to Kentucky in triple-overtime at Commonwealth Stadium, the old saw came true.
On offense first in the second overtime, LSU went ahead on a 38-yard field goal by David. When the Wildcats got their chance, a blitz from junior linebacker Darry Beckwith caused quarterback Andre Woodson to throw incomplete. On second down, the snap sailed high and caromed off the left hand of Woodson.
The ball, and Woodson, went to the left. LSU defenders surged toward him, and it appeared a major break would go the Tigers' way. At best for Kentucky it seemed Woodson would be able to fall on the ball, and a loss that looked to measure at least 5 yards and probably more would put Kentucky in a serious hole.
Instead, the ball tumbled once or twice along the turf and then, as if Woodson had dribbled it, bounced softly up into his hands.
Woodson threw the ball away to maintain Kentucky's field position. After another incomplete pass, Wildcats kicker Lones Seiber nailed a 43-yarder to send the game to a third overtime, where LSU fell short for its first loss of the season.
"The way that game went, things didn't go our way," Beckwith said. "We didn't play to our potential, and they did."
Flying like a Byrd
When fans talk about the 2007 connections between Flynn and junior college transfer receiver Demetrius Byrd, the conversation tends to focus on the 22-yard touchdown pass that beat Auburn.
No doubt it was a thrilling play. With only seconds remaining and LSU trailing by a point, Flynn's toss to the corner of the end zone in front of the LSU student section, on which Byrd made a tremendous move underneath the Auburn cornerback to snag the ball, completed a 17-point fourth-quarter comeback for LSU that kept its championship hopes alive.
But as Miles, Flynn and Byrd were all at pains to point out last week to the national media that asked about the play, LSU should have had plenty of time remaining to kick a winning field goal. Flynn took too long to snap the ball, which ate more clock than the coaches intended, and the clock keeper allowed at least two more seconds to tick off after Byrd made the catch. In other words, dramatic as that play was, it didn't have to signal a life-or-death completion.
Though more time remained, another touchdown between the two at Alabama on Nov. 3 might have been equally significant. LSU dominated the Tide in the first half, but after Hester made a 1-yard scoring plunge on the first play of the second quarter, things went awry for the Tigers.
Flynn threw three interceptions in the first half, Alabama seized control, and at halftime LSU was losing a game the team -- and the LSU faithful -- desperately wanted to win so as to beat Nick Saban.
LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini said after the game he scratched his head looking at the stat sheet at halftime.
"I couldn't remember a time where I felt we had dominated a team so thoroughly and yet weren't winning," Pelini said. "The momentum just went away from us there, and it took us a long time to get it back."
In fact, it took until the next-to-last play of the third quarter. LSU had gone nearly half the game without scoring.
"It was that long? Oh, man," Byrd said. "That was another exciting catch.
"It was a simple out route, but I changed it into a go route because the cornerback came up and pressed me, and I figured I'm not going to run an out route there. Matt just saw my hand go up, and he laid it up, and that's it."
Flynn's throw was perfect, perhaps the prettiest pass he threw all season. It hit Byrd in stride and resulted in a 61-yard touchdown that swung the momentum back to LSU.
"You can tell when the ball leaves your hand if it's on, and that one felt just right when I let it go," Flynn said.
Both Flynn and Byrd said it is hard, when plays happen before the closing minutes of a game, to realize their importance.
"When you're on the sideline, you can feel or you can know that a play was a big one and mattered, but usually you can't really say how important it was until later," Flynn said.
Still, Byrd said that pass looms large now.
"It probably did change the momentum; it got my team hyped and ready," Byrd said. "To go out there and let them know we're here to play football."
The difference on defense
Championship teams almost invariably rely on their defense to win at least one game for them each season. Leaving aside the two early blowouts of Mississippi State and Virginia Tech, in which LSU was absolutely smothering on defense, the Tigers' defense won at least two games outright, and one of them was the Southeastern Conference championship game against Tennessee.
The first was Alabama. A win would not have been possible had not senior wide receiver Early Doucet turned yet another fourth-down cliffhanger into a 32-yard touchdown with 2:49 remaining. But it also would not have happened had not freshman safety Chad Jones stripped Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson of the ball on a blitz that led to Hester's 1-yard victory touchdown leap over a goal-line pile with 1:26 left.
As at Alabama, so against Tennessee. Once again LSU dominated the first half only to find itself trailing. Against the Volunteers, however, the offense struggled in the second half, too, going virtually the entire time without a first down. But the Tigers' defense not only held, it scored the winning points and sealed victory with interceptions.
Senior cornerback Jonathan Zenon had been victimized repeatedly by Woodson at Kentucky and had been picked on by other quarterbacks. Just inside the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, though, Zenon made a play that made his season.
Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge dropped back inside his own 15-yard line, looking to his right. But Ainge made a bad read, missing an open slot receiver on a square-in, and instead slung the ball toward the far sideline. In one fluid motion, Zenon stepped in front of the Volunteers receiver without touching him, caught the ball cleanly and darted 18 yards into the end zone.
The score rejuvenated a dormant LSU team, stunned Tennessee and wound up being the difference in a 21-14 victory. But Zenon said the play was made in practice long before the dramatic moment in the spotlight.
"I had seen those type of routes maybe like four or five times throughout the week," Zenon said. "Our coach gave us great preparation. They gave us great schemes. Basically, when I saw the formation, I knew exactly what they were going to run, and I had an opportunity to jump in front of the ball."
Afterward, Miles urged other teams to make the same gamble Ainge did.
"I would request that they keep trying to pick on Jonathan Zenon," he said.
Then on the Volunteers' final drive, Beckwith intercepted Ainge on a short pass over the middle at the LSU 7-yard line.
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