In midst of chaos, LSU makes statement
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tumult and trouble don't touch The Hat. They bounce off him, like he has some sort of invisible force field protecting him.
You can take away LSU coach Les Miles' starting quarterback after a bar brawl. You can take away one of his most dangerous playmakers after an NCAA violation. You can take away his offensive coordinator after being stricken by Parkinson's. You can take away three defensive players chosen in the first 87 picks of the 2011 NFL draft.
It won't matter. The madcap Miles will make sense of the chaos.
He will emerge victorious, then spout nonsense about the "wonderful room" at Cowboys Stadium, where he did his press conference after the Tigers walloped Oregon, 40-27. He will misspell "geaux" -- the Cajun word LSU fans love to use -- as "guaux," and nobody will mind because his fourth-ranked boys just beat the tar out of the nation's No. 3 team.
"For every rainy day, there's a sunny day afterward," said stellar LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. "Today was that sunny day for us."
When the sun shines too long, that's the time to worry about Les. When storm clouds are gathering -- Jordan Jefferson arrested on a felony battery charge, receiver Russell Shepard suspended by the NCAA, assistant Steve Kragthorpe relinquishing play-calling duties, Oregon's up-tempo offense looming -- that's when he's at his best.
"We asked them to put to the perimeter all those things that could be distractions " Miles said. "We suggested that that's not going to play any part in this game."
What was going to play the biggest part in this clash of top-five teams was the LSU defense. Still fast, still physical. Still more than the Ducks could handle.
Under Chip Kelly, Oregon has gained acclaim and won a lot of games with speed. Fast players and fast plays. The Ducks can frazzle and fatigue a defense, then just flat run away from it.
Unless it's an elite SEC defense. Then Oregon is in trouble.
Its last two games have come against SEC teams -- Auburn in January in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game and LSU Saturday night. In those two games, Oregon has rushed the football 60 times for 170 yards. Most telling, it has not broken a run of longer than 14 yards.
A spread offense predicated on explosive running plays has imploded against those SEC defenses.
"When you play a team like this that runs this well, I don't think you're going to have a lot of long runs," Kelly said. "A lot of people don't have long runs against this team."
A Heisman Trophy finalist last season, LaMichael James has been ordinary against the two Tigers, running for a total of 103 harmless yards. Saturday he seemed hesitant and heavy-legged.
Problem is Oregon doesn't have the passing attack to compensate for a shutdown on the ground. If you make quarterback Darron Thomas throw it all game, that plays away from the Ducks' strength.
They threw it a season-high 41 times in January against Auburn while scoring just 19 points. Saturday they threw it 54 times on the way to just 27 points.
And Oregon didn't have a single completion longer than 18 yards. The Ducks could never separate from LSU's defenders -- but LSU's defenders separated the Ducks from the football four times. Three of those turnovers led directly to Tigers touchdowns.
"That defense, playing like that, can win a lot of games," Miles said. "We'll be in every game with a defense that plays like that."
To get that defense ready for Oregon, Miles put the unit through a "tempo drill" in almost every practice, dating back to spring ball. He ran two separate offensive units at the defense on successive plays, one after the other, simulating the speed with which the Ducks line up and rattle off snaps.
"We challenged them to be ready," Miles said.
Being ready for a no-huddle offense is one thing. Being ready for a season opener after the program was engulfed in controversy in late August is another.
When Jefferson was charged with battery after allegedly kicking a man in the face during a brawl outside Shady's in Baton Rouge, it seemed to be a catastrophic blow heading into a promising season. Not because Jefferson is great, but because his backup scares LSU fans to death.
Jarrett Lee has played a lot of football for the Tigers over the years, with checkered results. He came into this game with 17 career touchdown passes and 18 interceptions, with so many of those errant throws returned for TDs that he was derisively labeled "Pick Six" by some LSU backers.
Against an opportunistic Oregon defense that forced 37 turnovers last year, Miles' mantra to his quarterback was simple: "Run the play that's called. Do what you're capable of doing."
Lee did exactly that. His numbers were uninspiring (10-of-22 for 98 yards), but he threw a nice, back-shoulder touchdown pass to Rueben Randle and didn't make any significant errors.
Mathieu, probably the best player on the field Saturday, told Lee before the game, "Whatever happens tonight, we've got your back." The Tigers reinforced their faith in Lee several days ago by voting him a team captain.
"I thought he had to be captain tonight," Mathieu said. "With everything that happened, he had to lead us."
Said Lee of his unlikely captaincy: "That was huge. We had a lot happen, and I just tried to rally the team."
While LSU camouflaged its personnel losses impressively, Oregon was partially undone by its missing player. Cornerback and kick returner Cliff Harris is suspended after being busted driving someone else's rental car 118 mph last spring, and he was missed in this game.
The Ducks' defensive backs were flagged a couple of times for crucial interference penalties, and backup punt returner Kenjon Barner gave away six points on a fumble.
The Barner fumble seemed to illustrate the difficulty Oregon has experienced against SEC speed. He dangerously fielded a punt inside his 10-yard line, then brazenly turned his back to the onrushing LSU coverage men. The implied message was that Barner simply thought he was too fast to be run down.
Mathieu ran him down. He jarred the ball loose, recovered it and waltzed in with his first college touchdown.
"I was the contain player," Mathieu said. "I wasn't going to let him get outside of me."
Les Miles is the contain coach. He's not going to let tumult or trouble get to his team.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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