It really shouldn't be a surprise to us at this point that Les Miles would have his own ideas on how to manage a football game. But there are points at which even Les Miles, whom I have generally defended against most of his detractors, has to be called out for an egregious example of coaching malpractice. And make no mistake about it -- when it comes to the outcome of the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl, Miles and his staff lost the game.
In fact, it might have been the worst job Les Miles has ever done of managing a game. And anyone who's followed the LSU coach's career knows that's a lofty honor.
That's not to take away from Tajh Boyd and Clemson; Boyd, in particularly, performed well in a game where he was facing almost constant pressure from the LSU defense. It's not enough to say that the other team lost the game; you still have to be good enough to put it away, and Clemson might have won even had it not been for the LSU coaches' mistakes.
But I still cannot tell you for the life of me what anyone on the LSU sideline, at least on the offensive side of the ball, was thinking. (John Chavis' defense did a valiant job through most of the night, and there's only so long you can hold out when the other team runs 94 plays.) In a game in which LSU took the lead in the 13-minute mark of the second quarter and didn't give it back until the last play, the Bayou Bengals ran 19 times when sacks are taken out.
Instead of putting the second-most important game of its season in the hands of the SEC's fifth-ranked rushing attack, LSU turned to the 12th most efficient passer in the conference. Even viewed in isolation of the results (dismal) and a particular strategic bumble that we'll get to in a moment, that's an astonishingly bad game plan. At times, it looked as if the already offensively-challenged LSU was trying to avoid the one thing it has that most closely resembles an offensive strength.
It was easy to overlook all that until LSU's final drive of the night brought it clearly into focus. After Clemson failed to tie the game on a two-point conversion, LSU took over with 2:47 left in the fourth quarter and the 24-22 lead. Zach Mettenberger quickly hit an eight-yard pass to Kadron Boone, which goes down as a smart play call because Clemson wasn't expecting it. But then, things got strange. On second-and-2, Mettenberger tried another pass -- incomplete. On third-and-2, with Mettenberger's passer rating now at 111.16 on the night, LSU called for another pass, which also landed incomplete and forced LSU to punt the ball back to Clemson having burned just 1:08 off the clock.
LSU then graciously helped Clemson melt down the remaining clock on its game-winning drive. Instead of calling either of his two timeouts to try to stop the clock once Clemson was obviously in field goal range and trying to milk the clock, Miles sat on them. He did finally use one of the timeouts to ice the kicker, which worked brilliantly, as the FG sailed through the uprights. The other one went unused.
In the end, LSU would run the ball once (aside from a sack) and gain a single yard in the entire fourth quarter, despite having the lead for the entire fourth quarter, sans the Clemson field goal. That's dumb luck unless you plan it, and LSU looked for all the world like it planned it that way.
Yes, Les Miles remains one of the best coaches in the nation when it comes to his ability to build and lead a program. But when it comes to his ability to plan for a high-profile game, his coaching skills are sorely lacking. Until now, it's often been a reason for amusement among most of us, given that Miles consistently wins 11 games a year anyway. But on Monday night, it was the reason LSU lost.