“Keep Les,” the signs read.
“We love you, Les,” others said.
“Les 4-ever,” read another.
They chanted his name. They roared for him. They screamed for him and cheered for him.
LSU fans rallied behind Les Miles, their 11th-year coach. LSU players carried him off the field. And LSU administrators ended any speculation that he’d return as the program’s head coach.
“I want to make it very clear that Les Miles is our football coach, and he’ll continue to be our football coach,” athletic director Joe Alleva said after Saturday’s 19-7 win over Texas A&M.
Running back Leonard Fournette broke from his slumber with a 159-yard outing, and the Tigers defense proved Saturday night that it doesn’t need former defensive coordinator John Chavis to stuff the Aggies.
Fournette became LSU’s single-season rushing leader, breaking a mark set by Charles Alexander in 1977, and the Tigers (8-3, 5-3 Southeastern) snapped a three-game losing streak — the longest since 1999.
They got a fifth consecutive win over the rival Aggies (8-4, 4-4), remaining the only team in the SEC West with an undefeated mark against them since A&M joined the league in 2012.
It all came on an unseasonably warm, emotional night in Tiger Stadium. Players carried the embattled Miles off the field, and “Les Miles!” chants rung throughout the venue before the game and after. Signs in support of Miles dotted campus, and Alleva finally debunked speculation that Miles would not return as coach.
Alleva informed Miles minutes before telling reporters.
Alleva, LSU President F. King Alexander and Miles met in the coach’s private locker room at Tiger Stadium immediately following the victory. Miles said Alexander told him, “I want you to be our coach. You are our coach,” and Alleva followed with the same message.
“It’s great to be the head coach at LSU,” Miles said.
The news conference began with Alleva making the announcement on Miles’ future.
This one sure played out as if it were Miles’ final hurrah.
The coach doffed his cap to a roaring crowd during an event recognizing the seniors before the game, and a group of linemen lifted the 62-year-old coach on their shoulders after a long midfield handshake with A&M’s Kevin Sumlin.
Vadal Alexander, Christian LaCouture, Ethan Pocic, Josh Boutte and Will Clapp toted him to the student section, where Miles sang the alma mater, then pointed toward the cheering fans, thanking them before racing to the locker room.
Students roared, chanted his name and then serenaded the stadium with “You can’t fire him” — a wild scene to cap a wild two weeks.
“This was one of the longest three weeks of my life,” Fournette said. “It was hard for everybody. As a team, we prayed together, trying to find answers, why it happened like that. God does everything for a reason.”
The Tigers won in true Miles fashion. It was a low-scoring defensive battle, and the Tigers rolled up nearly 250 rushing yards.
LSU clinched the win with a drive its coach had to be proud of: a 13-play, 80-yard march that ran off 8 minutes, 3 seconds. It included one pass attempt — a big one.
Leading 13-7, the Tigers went to their star on the game’s biggest play. With about 5 minutes left, quarterback Brandon Harris hit Fournette for a 17-yard swing pass on a third-and-11 at the A&M 34-yard line.
Four players later, Fournette punched it in on third down from the 4, running over an Aggies defender at the 1-yard line for a rousing touchdown to make it 19-7.
The linemen lifted Miles not long after that.
“He was kind of heavy,” Alexander said. “I was tired; I ain’t gonna lie. That drive we had, the second-to-last drive when we scored, that took it out of me right there. By the time we got to the end of the game and carrying Coach Miles, he was pretty light, but I was tired.”
LSU’s defense stood tall, helping overcome a shaky outing from Harris (8-for-21) and three missed field goals by Trent Domingue. The Tigers forced and recovered two fumbles and picked off a pass. They held Sumlin and his flashy offense to 250 yards. In the second half, the Tigers forced three straight punts and six overall for the game.
Deion Jones had 10 tackles by the end of the third quarter, and the team rolled up four sacks, pressuring A&M’s Kyle Allen on more than half of his drop-backs.
It’s nothing new for LSU against A&M. The Aggies are averaging 13.3 points and 296.8 yards against the Tigers in their past four games.
The Tigers defense turned it up against their old boss.
Chavis watched from the visiting coach’s booth in the Tiger Stadium press box. He coached most of the Tigers’ defensive starters last year. Many of them said this week that they have not spoken to the coach since he left the program for A&M after the Music City Bowl last season — a stunning departure.
“LSU played very well on defense,” Sumlin said, “but with six minutes to go, it’s still a six-point game. They closed it out. We didn’t.”
The guy they call “Chief” walked out with an “L.” His defense couldn’t stop the tag team of freshman Derrius Guice and Fournette. They combined for 231 yards and two scores, making up for a rocky performance by Harris (7-of-21 for 83 yards).
“The guy that delivers our body blows was Leonard Fournette,” Miles said.
Guice had a 75-yard kickoff return and dashed 50 yards for a touchdown on an end-around, helping LSU deliver in an emotional performance for its beleaguered head man.
Players, like Miles, didn’t know the coach’s fate until after the game.
“Can y’all imagine it without Coach Miles? Let’s be real,” Alexander said. “The man is LSU football. He displays everything you’d want to display as a man and a coach. I love him.”
Emotion and drama were heavy at Tiger Stadium. The reports of Miles’ job instability have reached many fans, and they made sure to express their opinion on the matter: They’re behind their coach.
About 20 minutes before the game, LSU recognized its seniors with a brief ceremony. Miles walked onto the field for the event to a lengthy, prolonged roar. Public address announcer Dan Borne welcomed Miles to the field, eliciting a booming cheer from more than 80,000 at Tiger Stadium.
Miles then doffed his cap to the crowd, sending fans in fits.
He was surprised by the cheers, he said, not realizing they were for him until several seconds into the roars.
Got “my attention,” he said smiling.
Signs of support for the coach were sprinkled across tailgating scenes Saturday, and even Gov. Bobby Jindal showed his support for Miles with a message on Twitter.
Miles entered Tiger Stadium more than two hours before kickoff to a roar from a small group of students already in the stands. They chanted Miles’ name as he waved to them.
Some fans carried signs reading “Fire Alleva,” and the athletic director was booed during a taped message that played on the videoboard before kickoff.
During the first quarter, a banner hung from a suite on the east side of Tiger Stadium. It read, “Keep Les Miles. Fire Joe Alleva.” The banner was taken down after the first quarter.
Alleva was all smiles in the postgame news conference with Miles, breaking his silence and then introducing the coach. The two shook hands, and Miles — LSU’s coach — took the podium.
Later, he was asked to describe riding on his linemen’s shoulders.
“Scary,” he responded. “I know now what it’s like to ride an elephant.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.