- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- He’s been called the "Mad Hatter," and "Lucky Les," even a little loony at times.
After all, the guy eats grass.
The cameras caught LSU coach Les Miles in the fourth quarter Saturday bending over, plucking a blade of grass from the turf at Tiger Stadium and then chomping on it.
Turns out that is not uncommon.
“He says there’s a lot of protein in it,” LSU receiver Russell Shepard quipped.
Miles, as only he can, offered a much more complex explanation.
“I have a little tradition that lets me know that I’m part of the field and part of the game,” Miles said. “I’ll tell you one thing. The grass at Tiger Stadium tastes better.”
It also tastes better when you take down Alabama and Nick Saban, effectively ending the Crimson Tide’s quest for a second straight national championship and putting the Tigers in an interesting position. Who knows what might be possible if the right teams lose in the next few weeks?
But more than anything, LSU’s 24-21 victory over Alabama punctuates yet again that maybe there’s a method to Miles’ perceived football madness.
Yes, he has mismanaged the end of a few games -- most notably the Ole Miss debacle a year ago and the near-debacle against Tennessee earlier this season -- but he’s also 59-16 at LSU, with a national championship and the kind of cold-blooded fearlessness that makes him different than any other coach in the country.
“Coach Miles has taken a lot of grief, but the players know what he’s about,” LSU senior linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said. “Look at what all he’s accomplished. Look at the way he’s held this team together. It was just a matter of time before we put it all together.”
Sheppard and several other LSU upperclassmen presented Miles with the game ball Saturday as the Tiger Stadium crowd still roared outside.
This wasn’t just a victory against No. 6 Alabama. This was Saban, the coaching icon who rebuilt the LSU program into a powerhouse, only to leave for the NFL and then resurface a few years later back in the SEC at Alabama.
“For a lot of people, this was personal,” said LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who played his most efficient game of the season. “Everybody knows around here what it means to beat Nick Saban.”
The Crimson Tide (7-2, 4-2) came into the game as the one-loss team nationally most likely to move up the BCS standings and get a shot at a second straight national championship.
And while Alabama led 7-3 at the half, it was LSU that looked like the national championship contender when it counted most.
“LSU was hungry for it,” Alabama safety Robert Lester said. “They came out and played like it. We played like we didn’t really want it, and it showed.”
The Tigers (8-1, 5-1) had been dreadful on offense for most of this season. They entered the game ranked 101st nationally in total offense.
Their first-half performance against Alabama was a carbon copy of the way it’s been all season. They managed just 95 total yards.
But something happened in the second half, as they erupted for 338 yards.
“We took risks. We opened up the playbook, especially in the second half,” said Jefferson, who was 10 of 13 for 141 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle in the third quarter that awakened the Tigers from their slumber.
“We saw their weaknesses and were just kind of grinding in the first half. But the second half is where we got it going tonight.”
Miles made sure of it.
You name it, and he called it.
The Tigers ran a fake punt. They threw long, and they went for it on fourth down.
Not only did they go for it, but they ran a two-pitch reverse to tight end Deangelo Peterson that popped wide open on a fourth-and-1 play from the Alabama 26 in the fourth quarter.
Trailing 14-13, LSU could have taken the lead with a field goal.
Miles had other ideas.
“The Hat,” chortled LSU star cornerback Patrick Peterson, shaking his head admiringly. “He pulled all the tricks out of his hat tonight.”
Deangelo Peterson’s 23-yard run set up Stevan Ridley’s 1-yard touchdown plunge, and the Tigers also converted the two-point conversion to go up 21-14 with 3:57 to play.
“As soon as I heard what the play was going to be on that fourth down, I went and sat down because I knew it was going to be a big gain,” Patrick Peterson said. “Usually coach Miles will ask the defense if it’s OK to go for it on fourth down. He didn’t even ask tonight.”
The Tigers’ lead grew to 24-14 after defensive tackle Drake Nevis forced Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy to fumble, setting up a Josh Jasper field goal. But the Crimson Tide came storming back to make it a three-point game with a little more than three minutes remaining.
Alabama, with a timeout remaining, seemed to be back in business when LSU was facing third-and-13 and backed up on its own 20.
But instead of running the ball and kicking it back to the Crimson Tide, Miles had Jarrett Lee uncork a deep ball, and Randle was wide open after racing past Alabama freshman cornerback DeMarcus Milliner.
That 47-yard gain did in Alabama for good and jump-started a party on the Bayou that will be going strong well into Sunday morning.
Miles downplayed his whole "Mad Hatter" image. Deep down, though, he almost seems to enjoy it.
“I think that’s overblown,” Miles said. “I promise you that it’s not in my hat. I don’t think I’ve done anything that 50 or 60 high school coaches in this state wouldn’t do. I think if you like football and have a feel for some stuff, you let it ride sometimes.”
Or a lot of times.
“When he calls something, there’s a good percentage that play is going to be there,” said LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose unit held Alabama to 325 total yards. “He knows. He studies. He’s worked it.
“I’ll be honest with you. The guy’s a brilliant guy when it comes to strategy in football games.”
Brilliant enough this season that the Tigers are hovering in the shadows of the national championship race. They will need some help, no doubt.
But as we’ve seen in the past with Miles and the Tigers, they’re at their best when you count them out.
“To think that anybody would minimize this football team in its own stadium is a mistake,” said Miles, scolding all those people who were talking only about what the Crimson Tide potentially had in front of them coming into this game.
“Oh my God. Imagine LSU being underdogs in Tiger Stadium. Come on.”
18hSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf