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Instant Analysis: Florida-LSU

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 7, 2007

Two years ago, Les Miles went for and made fourth down after fourth down at home against Florida, winning by four points. This year, history repeated itself... but the stakes were so much higher, the level of play so much better, the opponent from Gainesville so much more formidable.

LSU effectively dethroned the defending national champions by four points on Saturday night in Baton Rouge, prevailing in a gut-spilling, spine-chilling, pride-filling donnybrook that had a season's worth of memorable moments. The difference in this football fistfight--after the tumult and the shouting--came down to a coach's guts and a running back's will.

Les Miles made the kinds of gambles that ordinary coaches don't make. One could say that Miles made the kinds of ballsy decisions Urban Meyer would make. All of those decisions paid off, and it was Jacob Hester who made sure his coach came out a winner. Against Florida's defensive front, Hester--by sheer force of will (and his two very strong legs)--pushed the pile forward to get just enough inches to move the sticks midway through the fourth quarter. Several plays later, it would be Hester who pounded out another fourth down conversion by the smallest of margins at the Gator 6. Shortly thereafter, it would be--wanna guess?--Hester who would plow into the end zone with 69 seconds remaining in the contest. After producing the winning points for his team, Hester was the last man to emerge from the pile, the last body to rise from the turf near the end of a gridiron gut-check of epic proportions. It was only after he emptied his tank and spent his last ounce of energy that Jacob Hester finally allowed his body to collapse. As long as his teammates needed him, however, No. 18 would not be denied. Joe Haden and the rest of Florida's superb defense would hit him many times, but Jacob Hester--bruised but never beaten--would have the last yard... and the last laugh. With that kind of warrior in the backfield, no wonder Les Miles was so fearless in chasing fourth-down glory instead of field goals and punts.

LSU needed its coach to be gutsy and its running back to be gritty, because the Tigers received a phenomenal effort from the defending champs, who gave up their crown grudgingly and with the pride of a true champion. Though young and inconsistent--and though beset by an inability to protect the ball when up by ten points in the fourth quarter, which let LSU off the hook and set up the frantic finish--the Gators displayed far more physicality than in any other game this season. Florida's offensive front made LSU superstar Glenn Dorsey a quiet and shadowy background figure. Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison saw their defense dish out stacks of huge hits. Tim Tebow dominated the tempo and flow of the contest for the first three quarters. These and other snapshots were part of a huge bounce-back performance after a stunning home loss to Auburn the week before. If there was ever a way to unsuccessfully mount a noble last-gasp defense of a national title, the Gators did the deed against LSU, winning ample admiration but failing to win on the scoreboard. The pronounced emotional contrasts at the end--the victorious Tigers going nuts, the defeated Gators with heads buried in hands--revealed the true measure of this game's quality, its effort level, and its collective impact on all the participants involved.

And then consider this: Saturday's showdown was so engrossing and enthralling that a re-enactment of the "Earthquake Game" (when LSU scored a late touchdown to beat Auburn on October 9, 1988) became a very small part of the night's larger narrative. The deafening roar following the announcement of USC's titanic loss to Stanford was an unforgettable moment in its own right, but by the end of this slugfest, the exploits of Jacob Hester and Les Miles overshadowed that story. It was that kind of a night on the Bayou, when a bunch of young men played in a game they'll be honored to remember for the rest of their lives.

The kids from LSU will remember this night more fondly than the Gators--especially since the national title is now in the Tigers' hands--but this was the kind of college football experience that transcends the scoreboard result and the emotions that currently dominate the winning and losing teams. Decades from now, these Tigers and Gators, in their 50s and 60s, will tell their children and grandchildren about October 6, 2007, a night when everything right about college football spilled out in full flower before an enraptured crowd in the sport's best nighttime setting.

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