LSU head coach Les Miles speaks to an official during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Bowl Monday in Atlanta. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 01, 2013 8:45 PM
ATLANTA — It would be far too easy to give Clemson credit, to tip your hat to a great a comeback with a dynamic, slippery offense and a brilliantly smoke-and-mirrored defensive game plan.
And if I had a do-over on my Heisman ballot, Johnny Heisman would have one less first-place vote and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd would have at least one.
He was that good, certainly that tough and mainly that clutch, with a covey of acrobatic receivers.
What you witnessed in the waning hours of 2012 was a great athlete seizing the moment, no matter how many times LSU slapped him around like a rag doll, still getting up, dusting himself off and making play after play after play.
So, uh, good job, Clemson. Those guys have scholarships, too.
But, of course, that would be the simple (logical?) explanation.
As we all know, Clemson didn’t really win the game. LSU lost it.
So let’s not go there.
Better yet, LSU blew it. So, any autopsy, no matter the preliminary findings, must somehow meander through the minutiae to an inevitable and obligatory conclusion, “... and THAT’S coaching.”
Maybe, it really was this time.
I’m not sure how you get outgained 445-219 and blow a game, but LSU did.
It may sound odd to get only nine first downs against 32 for Clemson and choke away a game, but the Tigers managed it.
Surely, we saw the best and worst of Les Miles & Co. on New Year’s Eve.
He gets his guys to play hard. You don’t have to worry about whether or not LSU will show up and leave it all out there.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl might be Exhibit A.
The Tigers, amid speculation they might just pout and mail this one in out of indifference to being passed over for the more marquee holiday experiences — certainly that was the fans’ reaction — played their absolute butts off from start to finish.
The defense, in particular, was flying around like crazy, punishing Clemson for every yard gained, even while forced to endure 100 plays against that crazy offense.
That’s a Les Miles team.
But, then the game came down to crunch time.
And nothing the Tigers’ did worked, most notably another awkward tussle by an offense walking that fine line between gaining yards and burning time.
It’s been the recurring theme of the season. This time presented with the game on a platter, LSU completed a first-down pass for 8 yards and inexplicably threw (incomplete) on the next two downs.
Punt — put the game on a cramping defense against an offense that suddenly has nothing to lose.
There’s the reasoning that if you’re going to complain that Miles ran the ball three straight times in a similar situation with a chance to put away Alabama, then you can’t complain that the Tigers opened up and threw it three straight times against Clemson.
It’s made for a popular postgame tweet.
But, it’s two different animals.
LSU never had second-and-TWO in those anxious moments against the Tide.
What a deal huh? After Miles shocked everybody with a first down pass for 8 yards, it was two chances to get two measly yards (and run some clock; at the least force Clemson to burn timeouts.) Doesn’t LSU pride itself on the power running game?
“We had to throw,” Miles said afterwards, mentioning the overloaded numbers Clemson was deploying to stop the run.
In Miles’ defense, the Tigers had faced three previous third-and-twos (or less) in the game, and had come up short running the ball each time.
Nevermind that on the second-down call, LSU had Jarvis Landry wide open for the first down and Zach Mettenberger simply overthrew him.
But, hindsight or not, second down, in that situation, yeah, you run it there.
OK, THAT’S coaching.
But that wasn’t really the problem. It’s not as simple as “bad” play-calling.
If LSU was waiting it on its offense to win the game, or even put it away, the season should have told them to guess again.
This was an all too familiar ending — just a different outcome — leaving a game’s outcome to the whims of football by passing up chance after chance to absolutely, positively put it away.
Mostly, LSU survived this season. But, it always seemed to come down to recovering the on-side kick at the end or holding off a mad-cap, last-minute drive by some desperate offense that suddenly had nothing to fear.
There was a lot of disjointed Miles-speak afterwards — “anticipate improvement” and “easily correctable” and “get if fixed.”
“We have to improve,” Miles said of his offense.
But, bottom line, LSU’s offense never did figure out what it wanted to be when it grew up this year.
It got better as quarterback Zach Mettenberger improved.
But, they ended the season like they began it — throwing mud at the wall and hoping something would stick.
Even while rolling up 445 yards, it wasn’t like Clemson was just having its way with LSU’s defense.
But Clemson knew what it wanted to do on offense, kept its famed “tempo” going and eventually put together a classic game-winning drive against an LSU defense that was doing about all it could.
LSU’s offense would have settled for a little rhythm.
They had some great plays — scoring easily on the first two possessions of both halves.
But they also were only 3 of 13 on third downs and — most glaring — nine of their 13 possessions were three-and-outs, including all three after taking a 24-13 lead.
It will make for a long offseason for Miles, who used to save his best for last, but now has lost three of his last four bowl games. Maybe the LSU offensive staff, blessed with a lot of talent, should spend it rethinking what they’re trying to do.
Whatever it is.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU sports. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org