Momentum, Big Mo, had made her choice, and she was building a split-level condo on the Florida sideline.
The Gators were feeling it. They’d survived a 28-point LSU second quarter, roared back to tie the game 28-28 and had just thrown Colin Jeter for a 5-yard loss to the Florida 16, forcing the Tigers to settle for a 33-yard field goal attempt as the clock swept under 11 minutes to play.
A field goal for LSU would leave the Tigers vulnerable to yet another Florida touchdown march. Maybe that’s as good a reason as any for what happened next.
LSU calls the play “Lion.” Holder Brad Kragthorpe sold the fake long enough for kicker Trent Domingue to slip outside containment to the left, bobble and bobble and catch a well-thrown lateral and race 16 yards with what proved to be the winning touchdown and some measure of LSU football immortality.
Back on the Gators’ sideline, where Big Mo was packing her things, Florida coach Jim McElwain was clapping encouragingly to his team as the breathless Domingue powered a line-driving extra point through the uprights for a 35-28 LSU lead.
The Gators still had 10:40 to rally, but they were done, all the oxygen having been sucked out of their bench. Florida had three drives left, but the closest it could come to scoring was Treon Harris’ last-gasp pass that drifted harmlessly out of bounds as time expired.
“That was awesome,” McElwain had to admit of LSU’s daring gamble, which brings us to the coach on the other sideline, the man who rolled the dice and collected the chips: Les Miles.
Miles’ fakeroo was more than just a mere trick play. It was the ultimate expression of the contradiction that is Miles, who to many seems to bumble and stumble his way from one game to the next, though even his detractors must grudgingly admit by now has come up on the winning side 79 percent of the time in his 10-plus seasons at LSU. That, by the way, is the best winning percentage of any LSU coach in the Southeastern Conference era.
Who else would call such a play in that situation? A field goal by Domingue, who is 7-for-7 this season, could have well won the game for LSU 31-28. Who else would call for such a play after directing his offense to go conservative in the second half? LSU threw only 24 percent of the time in the final 30 minutes — seven pass plays to 22 runs.
The Mad Hatter, that’s who.
“They gave him the name ‘Mad Hatter’ for a reason,” Domingue said. “He should wear a top hat. I think it was awesome.
“It was the perfect point on the field to do it.”
Asked Monday to explain his thought process behind the decision to go with such an audacious gamble, Miles cryptically said only, “It’s all about the percentages.”
Maybe Miles doesn’t understand it himself. Maybe it’s just hunches. Maybe he is as lucky as everyone says.
Coming down for postgame interviews in one of Tiger Stadium’s west side elevators after LSU’s impromptu 45-24 win over South Carolina two Saturday’s ago, I was in the company of three slightly toasted Tigers fans heading for the parking lot.
“I guess any win is a good win,” one of the celebrants announced, his plastic cup holding the remnants of some adult beverage, “considering who our coach is.”
There were mistakes made in the South Carolina and Florida games, and for the fan some mighty unsatisfying aspects. LSU allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown to the Gamecocks and a punt return to the Gators — two glaring examples of the “red alert” crisis currently enveloping LSU’s typically impressive special teams. The secondary in both games got rung up for some big gains, though the run defense remains rocky ground for the opposition and the Tigers are allowing fewer yards per game now (297.2) than they did when they led the Southeastern Conference in total defense last year (316.8).
Nonetheless, a little gratitude could seem to be due Miles in the midst of yet another strong start. There’s still a difficult November ahead after Saturday night’s Western Kentucky game, but after three straight years of declining SEC winning — 8-0 in conference in 2011 to 6-2 to 5-3 to 4-4 last year — everyone figured Miles’ seat was starting to get a little warm.
He looks pretty cool on game days in that purple windbreaker he wears no matter the weather. Aside from clamping down a little more than usual on player access for interviews, Miles hasn’t showed many signs of a guy pressured by a career crossroads.
Instead, his program, this team, is thriving. It’s less than perfect in some key areas, but it finds ways to win. And Miles’ conservative nature, forged in the now rusting steel mills of his native Midwest, hasn’t hindered the Tigers’ ability to be the last unbeaten SEC team standing.
Consider this: If LSU beats Western Kentucky to head into its annual pre-Alabama open date 7-0, the Tigers could well find themselves in the top four of the first College Football Playoff standings when they’re released Nov. 3.
Miles’ run-centric team is second in the SEC in scoring offense (37.3 points per game) and total offense (460.8 yards per game), ahead of everyone except Ole Miss, which put up some video game numbers in the pre-conference schedule.
Miles’ run-first, let-the-defense-help-win-it formula continues to pay dividends. Often the scores tighten up, uncomfortably so, but Miles’ Tigers are 85-8 when holding a halftime lead and 88-6 when leading going into the fourth. That includes 19 straight wins in such situations dating back to that loss to Clemson in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Trying to figure out the Miles method is perhaps a trip into madness, or at least a trip requiring a detour to a drive-thru daiquiri shop.
Perhaps it’s just best for LSU fans to enjoy the wins and the unpredictable, quirky way in which they’re added to the LSU column without trying to find an explanation. Because as we saw last Saturday night, sometimes Miles and the Tigers defy conventional wisdom — and win anyway.