LSU focuses on journey and destination
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Moments after No. 1 LSU defeated No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime in the most anticipated game of the season Saturday night, Tigers coach Les Miles stood on a chair in his team's cramped locker room at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Holding a football in one hand and a baseball bat in the other, he commanded the attention of his celebrating team.
"Pay attention!" he shouted, not once but twice. His players gathered around him, some standing, some taking a knee.
"On this team, character stood up and kicked their ass," Miles told his players, who responded with a thunderous roar.
"You brought the wood all night," Miles said. "You earned this."
A smaller wooden bat was left in each player's locker as a souvenir from a victory that put LSU in the driver's seat in the BCS national championship race.
With three regular-season games to play, the Tigers are No. 1 in the latest BCS standings for the fourth consecutive week. LSU will host Western Kentucky at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, then close the regular season with SEC games at Ole Miss on Nov. 19 and at home against No. 8 Arkansas on Nov. 25.
"We're a team of destination," Miles told his players. "This is a helluva team in here. We know where we're headed. It's all about one, two, three, four more games. We've got to play better. We probably just played the best defense we'll play besides our own."
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If the Tigers win their last two SEC games, they'll play in the Dec. 3 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. A victory over the SEC East champion would send them to the Jan. 9 Allstate BCS National Championship Game in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
"That is the whole deal," Miles said while eating dinner in a lounge outside his office Sunday night after returning to Baton Rouge. "This football team realizes there is no chance to do anything unless they improve this week against Western Kentucky and then next week against Ole Miss. If you don't prepare every week, you're just wasting your time. Your speculation is groundless."
That's the biggest reason that Miles will keep reminding his players to "bring the wood" every week.
LSU director of athletic training Jack Marucci helped manufacture the bats for LSU's players. Marucci started milling wooden bats as a hobby several years ago, and it has blossomed into a successful business. Major league players like St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and New York Mets third baseman David Wright use Marucci's wooden bats.
"We kind of described their responsibilities like a hitter's at the plate," Miles said. "A hitter has poise and masters the timing of when to swing and when not and when to take a ball. We're kind of tied into wanting to treat all of our opponents the same way. We look at what we do and what our roles are within the scheme of the team. Whether it's a punter receiving the ball or a running back carrying the ball or a defensive back deciding whether to break on the ball, there is a point in the game when you have a responsibility to bring the wood and play hard. Certainly, you can hit a home run."
The Tigers certainly hit a home run at Alabama, winning a black-and-blue defensive struggle on kicker Drew Alleman's 25-yard field goal in overtime. The Crimson Tide missed four field goals, including a 52-yard attempt in overtime, and lost at home for only the second time in their past 27 games.
"Every play just seemed to count," Miles said. "Every play meant something, and 2-yard gains were really key. Generally speaking, that's usually not enough. But gaining 2 yards off our goal line was a big, big play."
LSU's defense brought the wood, holding Alabama's offense to 295 yards and forcing two turnovers. It was the second-lowest scoring total in a game involving Nos. 1 and 2 teams; No. 1 Army tied No. 2 Notre Dame 0-0 at Yankee Stadium in 1946.
"I've never been in a game like that before," LSU safety Brandon Taylor said Sunday. "Everybody is sore and beat up."
After meeting with his players in their locker room, Miles was rushed away to College GameDay's set on the Alabama campus. During the short walk outside Bryant-Denny Stadium, LSU fans cheered Miles the entire way. When Miles walked onto the set with ESPN analysts Chris Fowler, David Pollack and Urban Meyer, LSU fans chanted: "Fear the Hat! Fear the Hat!"
Often affectionately called the "Mad Hatter" for his willingness to take chances and use trick plays to win games, Miles played it close to the vest against the Crimson Tide. In fact, Alabama might have taken more chances to win. With the score tied at 6 early in the fourth quarter, Alabama drove to the LSU 28. Crimson Tide receiver Marquis Maze lined up in a Wildcat formation and tried to surprise the Tigers with a pass to tight end Michael Williams. But LSU safety Eric Reid anticipated the play and intercepted the ball at the Tigers' 1.
LSU took over, and Miles relied on his defense and kicking game the rest of the way to win the game.
We're a team of destination. This is a helluva team in here. We know where we're headed. It's all about one, two, three, four more games. We've got to play better. We probably just played the best defense we'll play besides our own.
--LSU coach Les Miles
"You think to yourself, 'Where's your opportunity for victory?'" Miles said. "Frankly, I like our defense, our special teams and our offense. As long as we don't feel like we have to do something, we're pretty difficult to stop and pretty difficult to move. That was a big-time struggle, and it was one that really questioned your character and who you are. Those kind of games are always going to be won at the end, and it's always going to be about the guy who finds a way to win one more play."
The Tigers didn't get much of an opportunity to celebrate their victory in college football's latest "Game of the Century." They didn't return to Baton Rouge until after 3 a.m. Sunday. Their charter plane sat on an airport runway for more than an hour, as more than 40 private planes took off before them.
"Everybody was pretty excited on the plane, but we were tired and sore," Taylor said. "It really quieted down, and everybody slept on the plane."
Miles went straight home after returning to Baton Rouge. He admitted to losing a lot of sleep while preparing for the Crimson Tide last week. He went to church with his family at the LSU Chapel on Sunday and was back in his office at 11:30 a.m. preparing for the Tigers' next game.
"We understand we control our destiny, but that begins with our team preparing for the next game," Miles said.
Around 5 p.m. Sunday, LSU's players began to make their way back to the Charles McClendon Practice Facility for stretching and light running. Miles wouldn't address his team again until Monday.
"People are really excited," Taylor said. "It's going to be pretty hard to stay focused, but I think the coaches are going to snap us back into focus and let us know it's not over."
LSU receiver Russell Shepard said the Tigers didn't realize what they had accomplished at Alabama until Sunday morning.
"It's been pretty crazy," Shepard said Sunday. "I think everybody finally calmed down and realized what we did. Last night was about excitement and disbelief. To go beat that kind of team in their place was unbelievable. Baton Rouge went pretty crazy last night. People were running out of restaurants and stores going pretty crazy. It was a big night for the state."
The next four weeks figure to get even bigger for LSU.
"We know it wasn't the last game," Shepard said. "We know we've got to continue playing hard to get to our goal -- the national championship game."
It's exactly what Miles was referring to Saturday night when he called the Tigers "a team with some special destinations."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.