NASHVILLE, Tenn. — LSU’s defenders looked as if they were distracted Tuesday during the Music City Bowl against Notre Dame.
Probably because they were.
A shadow loomed over the team even before Notre Dame upset the No. 22 Tigers 31-28 on a 32-yard field goal at the buzzer: Was defensive coordinator John Chavis leaving?
More reports surfaced minutes before kickoff and throughout the game linking Chavis to the open coordinator job at Texas A&M, after interest was reported by The Advocate more than a week ago. At least one player admitted afterward that defenders saw the news upon arriving at LP Field for the 2 p.m. kickoff.
The result: LSU allowed its third-most yards of the season (449), and the Irish (8-5) drove 71 yards on 14 plays in the final 6 minutes, ending in Kyle Brindza’s 32-yard game-winner.
The clock expired as the field goal shot through the uprights. It sent a host of LSU players scurrying into the team tunnel as Notre Dame’s sideline poured onto the field to celebrate its first win over a Southeastern Conference team in nine years.
LSU finished the year 8-5. That’s tied for the worst record in coach Les Miles’ 10 years, and the Tigers likely will finish outside of the Top 25 for the first time since the other 8-5 year in 2008.
The loss ruined another electrifying outing from the nation’s No. 1 recruit last season. Leonard Fournette finished with 143 yards on just 11 carries and returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
And what of Chavis?
As of Tuesday evening, he had not signed a three-year, $4 million contract that LSU offered to him a month ago — in part because he’s “upset” with a clause in the deal, sources said. Chavis, under contract through next December, doesn’t plan to sign the contract because of a clause that would pay him just six months of compensation if Miles is no longer head coach at LSU.
The school doesn’t plan to budge on the contract offer, sources at the school told The Advocate. Chavis currently makes $1.3 million, the third-most of any assistant in college football. LSU also offered Chavis a two-year contract extension (through 2016) that excludes the Miles clause.
A&M officials were in serious talks with the coach Monday and Tuesday, multiple sources said. The Aggies were offering a three-year, $5 million contract that is fully guaranteed and includes a fourth-year option, according to FootballScoop.com.
It’s unclear whether any other assistants would leave with Chavis, but defensive end Jermauria Rasco said he thinks defensive line coach Brick Haley would follow him to Texas A&M.
Miles and Chavis met late Tuesday night in the team’s Nashville hotel, a source said. The team is set to depart on a charter flight for Baton Rouge at 11:20 a.m. Wednesday.
Miles spoke emotionally about Chavis when asked about him after the game and said he planned to make one more “pitch” to the coach. Miles said he had only heard reports of Chavis’ possible departure from “people reading the media,” the coach said.
But Miles spoke as if Chavis would not return to LSU next season.
“John Chavis was very productive for us,” Miles said, before adding later, “I’m going to go try to pitch him again. We like Chief.”
Chavis refused to comment about the matter after the game.
“I’m here to talk about the game, and the game only,” he said.
Asked later about A&M, Chavis said, “I’ve said three or four times I wasn’t going to talk about that. I want to be nice, but at some point I can be an ugly ass, and I don’t want to be that tonight so I’m not going to be that.”
If Chavis does leave, his defense’s final outing was one of its worst of the year — a stunning development from a crew that ranked as the Southeastern Conference’s best in yards allowed.
Notre Dame, an eight-point underdog, snapped a four-game losing streak by gouging LSU with rotating quarterbacks. Malik Zaire, the backup all season who started for the Irish, and Everett Golson combined to complete 18 of 26 attempts for 186 yards, and the quick-footed Zaire ran for 96 more.
Notre Dame ran for 263 yards, the most since Auburn had 298 against the Tigers on Oct. 4.
“We felt like we would defend them better,” Miles said afterward.
The Irish, at one point, had converted 8 of 10 third downs, including three on the final drive — one of those a third-and-10 near midfield with less than 2 minutes left.
We were “not good enough,” Chavis said. “And that’s my fault. It’s probably as bad as we’ve been on third down for … the year. We didn’t get ourselves off of the field.”
LSU trailed 14-7 and 21-14 before taking the lead on Fournette’s 89-yard touchdown run, the longest rush by an LSU player in a bowl game. The run — with 6:14 left in the third quarter — gave the Tigers a 28-21 lead.
An even bigger play came just before halftime with the Tigers trailing 21-14. On fourth down from the 3-yard line, LSU faked a 19-yard field goal as holder Brad Kragthorpe ran off left tackle. He dived for the goal line, but officials ruled him short.
The call stood after a review, which Miles disagreed with afterward.
“Just before the half, they tell me with all review I could get from the field, that ball crossed the goal line,” Miles said. “The guy who carried the ball for us said he absolutely scored.”
The Irish tied the score at 28 on a 50-yard run, and then LSU kicker Trent Domingue had a 40-yard field goal blocked with 11:56 left. Domingue, a walk-on who has replaced the struggling Colby Delahoussaye, hit the ball low.
Delahoussaye and Domingue competed during bowl practice.
“Every practice, we charted every kicker. He won,” Miles said.
The defense, though, took the brunt of the blame, and its leader may be gone by Wednesday morning.
LSU players took to Twitter after the game, referring to the Chavis situation.
“He coached the number #1 defense in SEC he deserve to be paid and we should match any and everything they put up,” LSU defensive back Dwayne Thomas wrote.
“Can’t believe we saying goodbye and just letting this go down,” he tweeted later.
“Things is moving hella fast, alot to think about,” defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao wrote.
“Coach stability,” linebacker Clifton Garrett tweeted — with a frowning emoticon.