It would be hard to say anything about Florida's 2010 season without discussing the most improbable loss of the entire season. Not improbable because of the opponent -- that would be Mississippi State -- but improbable because of the way they lost -- to LSU.
The common theme of the story has been that Les Miles made a dumb call and lucked out because of the nearly-impossible bounce that the ball took. The common theme is wrong. Les Miles' call was certainly bold and incredibly gutsy -- but the bounce did not save a bad call by Les Miles. The bounce saved a bad pitch by Derek Helton. And that's the difference in the latest installment in the ongoing debate over whether the LSU head coach is a riverboat gambler or a buffoon. (A debate I've weighed in on here, in response to another often-misunderstood call by Miles.)
First, a look at the play we're talking about. Situation: Late fourth quarter, LSU needing a field goal to tie the game.
It's important to realize that this play is nothing new to Miles' repertoire. In fact, he's used it before -- more than once, but we'll get there in a moment. The most celebrated example, and the one most of our readers will be familiar with, is against South Carolina in 2007. The Gamecocks were en route to the Top 10, followed by the heartbreak of the end of the 2007, and briefly seemed to be threatening an upset, or at least a hard fought game, in Baton Rouge. One play changed the game into a relatively easy LSU win. This play:
At this point, the play was relatively new to SEC fans. Wait -- didn't the holder's knee touch the ground, and doesn't that mean it's a dead ball? (No, the ball is live as long as the holder's knee remains on the ground.) All the questions can eventually be knocked down by a close review of the rule book. It's a touchdown against South Carolina, and a touchdown three years later against Florida.
But the play was not new to Miles. It wasn't something he dropped into his playbook after coming to LSU. And it wasn't something he had never tried before. In fact, Miles had used the same play four years before he ever faced South Carolina and before he was even head coach in Baton Rouge. Like the Florida game, Miles used it at Oklahoma State when he needed a first down.
Now, if you review the plays above -- or if you were paying close attention to them the first time through -- you'll notice the crucial difference between the fake field goal against Florida and the fake field goals against South Carolina and Oklahoma State: the pitch.
In the plays that everyone applauded as bold and brilliant, the pitch is perfect. The holder tosses the ball over his shoulder, the field goal kicker catches it in stride, and the play goes for a big gain. In the Florida play, things change. The holder tosses the ball over his shoulder, but it bounces on the ground and into the waiting hands of the kicker. The kicker then runs the ball for a big gain, the same effect even if the execution is flawed.
Which is where some critics miss the key point. Yes, Miles was lucky that the ball bounced into the hands of Josh Jasper -- but he would have unlucky if it had bounced and Jasper hadn't caught it. The play calls for the pitch to hit Jasper in stride, not for him to have to pick it up off the bounce. It would have been bad luck of Miles' own making, sure. But that's part of the risk you take when you make a bold call -- there's a solid chance that things could blow up in your face.
Which is a chance Miles was willing to take, and something we should encourage in the normally risk-averse business of coaching big-time college or NFL football. Coaches are generally a conservative lot who don't like taking bold chances. But Miles repeatedly shows that they can pay off -- even if it does take a little extra bit of luck.