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October 10, 2010

Miles, LSU deliver just in time -- again

GAINESVILLE, Fla.-- Last-second victories have become old hat for Les Miles and LSU. And on a day the SEC race was thrown wide-open, the Tigers put themselves in as good a position as anybody to win the league with a 33-29 victory over Florida in The Swamp.

In the process, they set up a showdown Oct. 23 at Auburn that could end up being the SEC's game of the year.

A week ago, LSU scored on an untimed play after the clock had run out to beat Tennessee 16-14 and overcome some of the worst clock management in recent memory. This time, the Tigers won the game with six seconds left on a 3-yard pass from Jarrett Lee to Terrance Toliver.

But the biggest play came with 35 seconds left, when kicker Josh Jasper converted a fake field goal into a first down at Florida's 31. LSU was lined up to kick a 53-yard field goal when Miles called a timeout just before the play clock ran out. During the timeout, he decided to go for the fake.

The reasoning? "Certainly, [Florida coach Urban Meyer] knew I would never do this now," Miles said.

Holder Derek Helton tossed the ball over his head to Jasper, but the throw was short and bounced -- straight up to Jasper, who gained 5 yards on fourth-and-3.

"When that ball bounced, I thought ... 'certainly it will bounce up,' " Miles said.

On the next play, Lee hit Toliver for a 28-yard gain on a slant pattern. After a spike stopped the clock, Lee again threw for Toliver on a fade pattern, but Florida cornerback Jeremy Brown knocked it down.

LSU went for the same play on third down. Toliver, who is 6 feet 5, caught that one over Brown, who is 5-10. Ballgame.

LSU improved to 6-0 overall and 4-0 in the SEC. Next week, when fellow league unbeaten Auburn is playing host to Arkansas in what could be an epic offensive shootout and a Heisman showcase for two quarterbacks, the Tigers will be relaxing with a game against FCS member McNeese State.

Thus, a week after being vilified for the clock management in the win over Tennessee, Miles has his team in excellent shape to win the SEC West thanks to Alabama's loss earlier in the day at South Carolina.

When asked if Alabama's loss was mentioned in LSU's locker room before the game, Miles smiled and simply said, "Yes."

That Miles was able to smile and make jokes was a huge change from earlier in the week, when he was an object of derision and rumbling about his job security was the talk of the town in Baton Rouge because of the meltdown at the end of the Tennessee game. Miles was feisty when asked about his critics in his post-game news conference,

"I could give a rat's ass," he said.

Miles did admit, though, that he and his team had heard all the talk.

"There has been a lot of distraction on the perimeter," he said. "... It's embarrassing that the coach has to be an issue."

Also an issue going into the game was a mediocre offense, one that ranked 91st nationally. But the Tigers moved the ball when they needed to against what had been a solid Florida defense.

LSU employed a two-quarterback system, starting Jordan Jefferson, who is a good runner but lacking as a passer, and bringing in Lee, who started in 2008 but lost his job late that season and had barely played since until last week.

Jefferson threw a first-quarter interception that led to Florida's first touchdown, but he played mistake-free ball the rest of the way. he finished with 100 passing yards, his first game in triple-digits since the opener against North Carolina. Lee was 9-of-11 passing for 124 yards and two TDs, and Miles raved about Lee's maturity after the game.

Expect the two-quarterback system to continue; Miles said LSU does some things better with Jefferson and other things better with Lee. LSU is run-heavy with Jefferson, but other than a visit from Nick Saban and Alabama that promises to be Armageddon-like, the Tigers don't get another particularly good defense the rest of the way, so it may not matter.

Frankly, there are no issues with LSU's running game or with its defense. The Tigers led the league in total defense going into the game, and their performance against a struggling Gators offense -- Florida managed just 243 yards -- will keep them atop the pack.

In tackle Drake Nevis (seven tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks), linebacker Kelvin Sheppard (eight tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack) and cornerback Patrick Peterson, the Tigers have a star at every level of their defense. There's also solid depth and a ton of speed.

In junior Stevan Ridley, the Tigers have the SEC's leading rusher. By no means is he the best running back in the league, but he fits what LSU wants to do -- pound away with a physical rushing attack, then use play-action with an explosive group of receivers.

LSU can't do that with Jefferson alone because no one fears his arm. But LSU's is a rare situation where a dual-quarterback system actually makes sense.

Florida, meanwhile, used three quarterbacks Saturday night, and still doesn't seem to know what it wants to do. Six games into the season, the Gators don't have an offensive identity.

Meyer is a spread-option guy. But his best quarterback, junior John Brantley, is a thrower, not a runner. Invariably, when Florida gets inside the 10, coaches turn to backup quarterback Trey Burton. He and tight end/third-string quarterback Jordan Reed each scored on 1-yard runs Saturday. But when Burton or Reed is at quarterback, there is no mystery to the play-calling. It'll either be a quarterback keeper or a tailback dive.

Florida ran 32 times against LSU, for 116 net yards (the Gators finished with 89 total because of sacks). That's not spread-option football.

More than 20 percent of Florida's offense Saturday night came on one play, when Brantley hit wide receiver Carl Moore on a nice slant pass that Moore took for 51 yards. The second-longest gain was a 17-yard scamper by Emmanuel Moody, who fumbled at the end of the run.

"It's a team game, and obviously our offense didn't hold up their end of the bargain," Meyer said.

Florida still could end up playing South Carolina with the SEC East title on the line. This also is a team that could finish with four losses because of the problems on offense.

Next week, Mississippi State heads to Gainesville. Former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen is the Bulldogs' coach, and despite not having close to the talent that Florida possesses, Mississippi State went into the weekend ranked 31 spots higher than the Gators (53rd to 84th) in total offense. Expect that storyline to be hammered home this week in Gainesville.

That means -- as Miles would put it -- there will be a lot of distraction on the perimeter for the Gators. Miles and the Tigers, meanwhile, can start counting the minutes until the Auburn game kicks off.

"Our team feels like that there's something special in that locker room," he said.

Hey, when last-second victories become an every-week occurrence, maybe he's right.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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