BATON ROUGE, La. — The Tiger Stadium clock having just struck zero, his LSU football team on the short end of a 14-10 score to Tennessee, Les Miles walked toward “center field” (his words) to congratulate Volunteers coach Derek Dooley.
“I was miserable,” Miles said later. “I was thinking, ‘That heart attack’s going to happen.’ They had just called that other team the winner. Then, wait a minute — no, my team’s the winner.”
It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. Miles wasn’t about to shake Dooley’s hand when the referees just decided to give the Tigers a victory.
First, they had to throw a penalty flag for the Vols having too many men on the field, which, thankfully, replays showed to be the truth.
Then both teams had to return to the goal line to run what referees termed “an untimed play,” since the game can’t end on a defensive penalty.
Then LSU still had to cross the goal line, which it did when superb running back Stevan Ridley ran over a stunned Big Orange defense to make the Tigers 16-14 winners in a game that soon caused Dooley to admit, “I have never hurt like this before.”
And it’s going to hurt these Vols for a long time. Because they probably deserved to win it, if only because LSU richly deserved to lose it.
You really couldn’t try harder to lose a game on your home field against an opponent that was a 16-and-a-half-point underdog than LSU did against UT.
After all, the Tigers doubled the Vols in yardage, 434 to 217. They sacked Matt Simms five times. They had eight more first downs and averaged 3.5 more yards per rush than the Vols.
But Miles, the Mad Hatter of college football, watched his team self-destruct time after time, turning the ball over four times to none for the Vols. Beyond that, the play-calling was something only the Vols could love.
Death-row inmates have made better choices than LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton. The Vols never stopping the Tigers when they ran left, he repeatedly had them run right at crucial moments. Or he called for passes that were thrown wildly. Or he watched LSU suffer a penalty because they apparently couldn’t decide which bad play to run.
The Tigers are a team with top-10 talent and bottom-10 football intelligence. In the first half alone, they piled up four penalties to one for the Vols. They let a physically inferior West Virginia team hang around a week ago and a suspension-ravaged North Carolina squad nearly rally from a 30-10 deficit in the fourth quarter of their opener.
Some teams play over their heads. LSU plays under its skills. The Tigers are the Phil Mickelson of college football, able to dazzle or frazzle equally.
And because of this certain uncertainty, a solid squad such as this Tennessee can stay in a game against the Tigers far longer than they should, hanging on because LSU allows them to hang in.
Consider this: LSU scored on the first play of the game from 83 yards out and on the last play of the game — or the first play after the last play, depending on how you look at it — and pretty much made a lot of noise signifying nothing the rest of the afternoon.
This time they got away with it. And they may keep getting away with it until it comes time to play Alabama, because other than the Crimson Tide, the Tigers may have the most athletically gifted team in the SEC.
But they play like a team that could be 0-5 instead of 5-0. In Miles’ own words, “We’re not a very smart football team right now.”
UT, of course, was smart almost every moment except the final moment they needed to be smart. Or as CBSsports.com columnist Gary Parish noted Saturday night of the Vols’ too many men on the field, “The last time Tennessee had that many players in the wrong place, they were at Bruce Pearl’s house.”
And because of that, the Vols are once more on the wrong end of a painful, painful loss to LSU. Just like the 2001 SEC title game. And the 2007 SEC title game.
“When the win is stripped from you, or it feels like it was stripped from us, it is worse than losing,” said Tennessee linebacker LaMarcus Thompson. “Ten times worse.”
Especially when the other guys were also just as sure you’d won.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...