NCAA FB

Whaddaya know? Miles can coach

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Thayer Evans

Senior College Football writer Thayer Evans previously wrote for The New York Times and Houston Chronicle, as well as contributed to The Economist, USA Today, The Washington Post and more. Follow him on Twitter.

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala.

Les Miles was his usual eccentric self Saturday night.

When the LSU coach first stepped on the field of Bryant-Denny Stadium about 90 minutes before the start of his top-ranked team’s gutty 9-6 overtime victory against second-ranked Alabama in a classic SEC clash that lived up to the hype, he jovially saluted and waved to the Crimson Tide’s student section, which booed him in return.

As Miles ran onto the field with his team just minutes before kickoff, he got tangled up with some cheerleaders and fell to the ground, causing his trademark white LSU ball cap to come off and leaving grass stains on his khaki-colored pants.

And when Saturday night’s game was its tensest during overtime, Miles simply bent down on his left knee and picked some grass from the field to chew on later.

Yet, as unconventional as The Mad Hatter is, his team won Saturday night with the conventional — a smash-mouth offense, stingy defense and sound special teams — in a rare throwback game, especially in this era of wide-open offenses, that didn’t feature a single touchdown. And, unlike his wild reputation, he did it without even being tricky or lucky and without a consistent quarterback.

It turns out Miles can indeed coach, despite what the rest of college football thinks. Maybe just enough to win another national championship this season even with all of his team’s off-the-field problems.

“He’s the best coach in college football,” LSU running back Michael Ford said. “This definitely makes a statement. I wouldn’t trade him for the world.”

And after talk that Miles’ job might be in jeopardy entering last season, just three years after winning a national championship, neither would LSU. Since then his record is 20-2, with one of those losses coming at undefeated and eventual national champion Auburn in 2010.

He’s now also 3-2 against Saban, the hallowed master tactician and his predecessor at LSU, whom he simply outcoached. And this time, he simply beat him the way Saban’s teams used to win: with preparation, poise and big plays.

Before Miles’ players even stepped onto the field Saturday night, they sensed something different in their coach’s preparation for this game the past two weeks. He wasn’t his usual wise-cracking self with the jokes and words that don’t exist.

“You could tell he was a lot more serious,” LSU guard Will Blackwell said.

Yet even when LSU was being outplayed by Alabama for much of the first half, Miles’ poise was evident. He never even flinched when the Crimson Tide lined up four times for field goals and missed three of them.

Instead, that all looked to be part of Miles’ grand plan because, when his team ran off the field at halftime, it was tied with Alabama 3-3, despite being outgained, having more penalty yards and committing the half’s only turnover.

“We just keep fighting and find a way,” Miles said.

That’s what we have come to expect out of Miles’ teams. He’s fearless, and his players feed off it.

Starting quarterback Jarrett Lee threw two interceptions that were similar to those during his disastrous 2008 season. Miles didn’t sweat it and had backup Jordan Jefferson finish the game.

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When LSU was struggling to score in the third quarter, Miles didn’t panic and cornerback Morris Claiborne intercepted a pass to set up a field goal that tied the game 6-6.

Miles’ confidence gives his players the swagger with which safety Eric Reid played Saturday night. Often in the shadow of cornerback Tyrann “The Honey Badger” Mathieu, Reid was all over the field.

His biggest play came with the game tied 6-6 early in the fourth quarter when he made a crucial interception of Alabama wide receiver Marquis Maze’s lofted pass out of the wildcat formation at the LSU 1-yard line. On the play, Reid caught up with Alabama tight end Michael Williams and wrestled the ball away from him.

“You played your ass off,” Miles told Reid after the game.

“We knew it was going to come down to a couple of plays,” Reid said.

When it did in overtime, there was a relaxed Miles picking blades of grass during Alabama’s possession in the extra period.

“In overtime, your mettle is tested most,” Miles said.

But Miles never let on to the pressure. While Saban scowled across the field, Miles grinned several times.

And after the Crimson Tide missed its 52-yard field goal attempt on the first possession of overtime, Miles was his coolest on the play that made the difference.

A couple of plays before LSU kicker Drew Alleman booted his 25-yard game-winner, Tigers special-teams coach Thomas McGaughey asked punter/holder Brad Wing if the pair was ready.

“We’re good, Coach,” Wing replied. “Whatever you want.”

Unlike Saban, Miles never had any doubt in his kicker. During an Alabama timeout before Alleman’s kick, Miles nudged him while smiling and whispered words of encouragement.

“He doesn’t get enough credit,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said of Miles. “People listen a little too much to what he actually says and not watch what he does. At times, he has those phrases that make you wonder what he’s talking about, but he performs on the field.”

When Miles ran off the field for the last time Saturday night, LSU fan Amber Gayle Whatley was holding a sign bearing the message, “CAME to BEAT SABAN.” Miles pointed at the sign and, before disappearing inside a door, said something about it.

“I came to do that,” Miles yelled to Whatley.

Just don’t forget Miles did it in a traditional way. Now that might have been the zaniest thing he did all night.

Tagged: Alabama, LSU, Eric Reid

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