Commentary

Tigers survive Florida's best in SEC showdown

Updated: October 7, 2007, 3:32 AM ET
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Tyson Jackson, the LSU Tigers' fierce defensive lineman, glanced over at the big, rectangular dry erase board in the team's locker room and his eyes grew big.

The words were still written on that board 20 minutes after the Tigers had capped their frenetic second-half comeback win over defending national champion Florida. The sight of it caused Jackson to choke up for a moment.

He scanned the room and observed his teammates talking about the No. 1 Tigers' 28-24 victory, then he looked back at the board.

"FOUR QUARTERS OF MEAN, NASTY, TOUGH ASS FOOTBALL!"

To Jackson and his teammates, those words serve as their mission statement. "That is LSU," he said. "This is a four-quarters program.

"At one point, it wasn't even about football anymore. The game was about if we could prove that we had a heart the size of our bodies."

Never has that been more evident than it was Saturday night, as LSU rallied from a 24-14 third-quarter deficit to win in front of a record crowd at Tiger Stadium of 92,910. As much as Jackson raved about how hard the Tigers work every day and "push their bodies through limits that no man could endure," the message inside the winners' locker room was about the power of belief.

For much of the first half of this season, we have heard about how the Tigers are the most physically talented team in the nation. But they showed Saturday night that they could be the most mentally tough team in the country, too.

Jacob Hester
AP Photo/Alex BrandonIt was a sweet win for, Jacob Hester who found ways to put points on the board when LSU needed them.

That spirit is so strong around this LSU team that they don't see coach Les Miles' decision to go for it on fourth down five times as gambling.

"I just think of it as confidence," says Jacob Hester, the Tigers' sledgehammer of a running back who barreled his way to 106 yards.

The Tigers were a perfect five-for-five on fourth downs, which enabled them to hang on to the ball for almost 22 of the 30 minutes in the second half. LSU scored two touchdowns on fourth-down plays and scored another after a well-executed fake field goal.

"You have to understand this, we knew that it was a possession game," Miles said. "The opportunity to keep the ball was something you had to do. Their offense would give every defense in the country a difficult time. They have a quarterback that can run and make you miss, and good running backs. We knew that the opportunity to go on fourth down would be there for us. We kind of loaded the play so we could do that. We were ready."

Indeed. For most of the night, it appeared Florida's hulking sophomore QB, Tim Tebow, would have all the answers for the Tigers. In the first half, whenever LSU made a big play on defense or stuffed one of the Gators' misdirection calls, Tebow was there to make an even bigger play, hushing the boisterous LSU crowd and regaining momentum. Tebow's stats weren't sparkling (12-for-26 for 158 yards, 16 carries for 67 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT), but he did manage to allow Florida to go 6-of-9 on third downs against the nation's toughest defense. After the game, Jackson gave the Gators quarterback perhaps his biggest compliment:

"He's like a bigger Hester with a throwing arm," said Jackson, who had two of the Tigers' five QB hurries.

Hester's unrelenting, punishing runs sparked the Tigers, trumping Tebow. The 230-pounder from Shreveport even was successful in his own fake: After he bulled his way into the end zone to put LSU ahead with 1:09 remaining, he lay on the field and clutched his knee. "A little acting," Hester sheepishly admitted. "My helmet broke."

Les Miles
AP Photo/Alex BrandonLes Miles' team will retain the top spot with the win, but USC's loss leaves a hole at No. 2.

Hester explained that he had too much sand logged in his chin strap snap and wouldn't have been able to be on the field for the Tigers' extra-point attempt, so he faked the injury to buy some time. Like pretty much everything else in the second half, it worked out perfectly for LSU.

The win cements the Tigers as the clear No. 1-ranked team, especially after No. 2 Southern California lost at home to Stanford. The announcement of that result triggered one of the loudest ovations of a night filled with more raucous energy than you'll probably find in any other stadium in the country. "Obviously, that 92.5 gave us a wake-up call," Miles joked.

Said Hester: "It's still a long season. [USC] lost early. We might still play them, but I like where we're at right now."

Right now, LSU is on top of the college football world, and the view is pretty sweet from Tiger Stadium.

Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine. His new book, "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting," is on sale now.

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