LSU vs.Tennessee - Where Victory is Pyrrhic, not Moral

There's no need for me to go into detail on the end of that game, as everybody who cares already has all of the final seconds seared indelibly onto their gray matter.  The ending sequence, in conjunction with the rest of the game, does give us some tremendous insight into two teams moving in very different directions.

On the one hand, you have an LSU Tigers team that was enjoying as much advantage as any team in the nation.  They were playing at home in a place with a terrific home-field advantage with a fully-stocked team that is loaded with talent.  Undefeated coming into the game, LSU had every right to believe that they have a shot at the SEC title and should play accordingly.  Going back to the 2007 through 2010 recruiting classes, LSU ranked #4, #11, #2, and #6 while Tennessee ranked #3, #35, #10, and #9 respectively.  And given that Tennessee's 2007 class has been among the biggest disappointments of any class for any team, the advantage in talent, depth, and experience was exceedingly in favor of the Bayou Bengals.

In the other corner was the Tennessee Volunteer squad who had fully half of their road squad taking their first road trip ever.  The offensive line was composed of freshmen and sophomores, and the defensive line was using ends as tackles just to have bodies on the field.  Three weeks ago, the team quit on the field after an interception gave the Oregon Ducks a two-score lead in the third quarter.  Two weeks ago, they ran out of gas in a closer loss to the Florida Gators.  One week ago, they required two overtimes to put away a UAB Blazers team that had every right to believe they could take down the Vols in Neyland Stadium.  The team was so beat up that the Vols took a day off during LSU prep week just to get people healthy again.

Here's another viewpoint: in RTT's Pickem Pool, LSU beating Tennessee was the second-most confident prediction of the weekend, behind only North Carolina beating East Carolina and Michigan beating Illinois.

And the way things happened on the field, there's still no reason that LSU shouldn't have won handily.

TENNESSEE COULDN'T STOP THE RUN

Even if you factor out the first-play scamper by Jordan Jefferson, Stevan Ridley still averaged 5.6 yards per carry with a long of only 29 yards.  Runs into the middle of the line were consistently successful for roughly 5 yards, as a depleted Tennessee line just couldn't hold up (especially on the defense's right side - the same side the game-winning play went through).  Much like the 'Creer drive' against MSU two years ago, where every play was a run by Lennon Creer and resulted in a touchdown, all LSU had to do was power the ball down Tennessee's throat.

Yet LSU insisted on giving Jefferson and Lee opportunities to throw the ball back to Tennessee.

TENNESSEE COULDN'T RUN CONSISTENTLY

Tennessee ended with a net 96 rushing yards, which includes 5 sacks for a loss of 41 yards, but that stat doesn't reveal that Tennessee was hit-and-miss in the run game.  There was simply no way that Tennessee could keep up with a game where LSU scored more than two touchdowns. 

TENNESSEE COULDN'T PASS PROTECT

The five sack tally doesn't include all the hurries and hits that Matt Simms had to undergo.  That the guy is still standing and didn't throw an interception should be considered a tremendous accomplishment.  But the Baby Vol offensive line just doesn't have the experience to deal with the blitzes and schemes that a second-year John Chavis defense with LSU's talent can muster.  And on Saturday, the line didn't hold at all.

TENNESSEE DIDN'T GIVE UP

This has to be noted: Tennessee played their best game of the season on Saturday.  Even in loss, the team was more competitive in the closing minutes than against Oregon or Florida.  Despite the aforementioned weaknesses of the team, there were plenty of bright spots.  The special teams went almost flawlessly, save for Palardy's missed field goal.  The defense played sharp and opportunistic, getting 4 total turnovers.  Route-running was improved and the run game looked better than it had in weeks.

OFFENSIVELY, LSU CAN'T HANDLE IN-GAME DECISIONS

Give the above, the simplest solution was for LSU to play battering-ram and steamroll Tennessee on the ground, but their balanced playcalling (36 rushes to 33 passes) reveals that LSU was not interested in taking advantage of the on-field results but preferred to stubbornly run the predetermined gameplan.

Defensively, LSU played very well.  Hiring John Chavis was one of the smart things they've done over the last few years, and he was well up to the task.  Holding Tennessee - even a depleted Tennessee - to 217 total yards and 14 points should have been enough to make this a comfortable win.  His defense even made a great late stop on 3rd and 4th downs that gave LSU the ball back and the chance to win.

The most obvious coaching gaffe was in the final two minutes, summarized nicely by TSK.  A team with such poor control of time-critical situations is not going to win championships.  This is entirely on coaching and, by this time, we have enough information to close the book on Les Miles.

LES MILES CANNOT HANDLE CRISIS

The time management in the final minutes belongs to the head coach.  In close games, it is also a time of tension and constraint that may fairly be labeled as 'crisis'.  This is not equating the situation to a medical crisis in terms of importance, but rather in terms of its effect on human though processes, for as tension increases, the mind tends to shut down cognitive thinking and rely more heavily on reflexive action.  This is the same reason that time appears to slow down when people are in emergencies:  they go into a high-speed mode and the brain sacrifices higher order pontification for the sake of immediate action.  This is also why practice is so hugely important: as the brain gives up original though, it relies on memory; the better the memories are ingrained, the better the response.

On the Tennessee sideline, the coaches saw the LSU substitution and immediately recalled their right to substitute their own players.  Had that ploy worked as per the rules, that final in-regulation play might never have even happened, as the time for a prompt substitution would have run out the clock.  In crisis, Tennessee's coaches were prepared for a move that could have very well forced the game to end without incident.  It just happened to backfire because the players weren't ready for it.  (But that's a different discussion; the point of this is to only highlight the thinking processes on both sidelines.)

On the LSU sideline, the Tiger coaches took too long between plays and were completely unprepared for the final play of the game.  The response was to dial up one of their favorite plays (whatever that might have been), unaware of the logistics involved in getting the play off.  Panic had set in and Les's crisis thinking deficiencies were once again visible to everybody.

TWO SHIPS PASSING IN THE NIGHT

The trajectories of these two teams couldn't be more opposite.  Since Les Miles has taken over LSU, they have consistently declined from an unstoppable werewolf with a chainsaw for an, um, appendage to a werewolf with a chainsaw for a tetherball.  Still very talented, LSU is sliding in the SEC and is firmly behind Alabama for the West (and most likely Florida in their cross-divisional rivalry).  This year, they are surviving on the misfortunes of others (e.g. UNC's sudden loss of half their defense).  As long as the wins come in, Miles is safe as head coach, but at some point he won't have this run of luck to fall back on.  When that happens, will the LSU fans be so patient as they face Florida and Alabama every year?

Meanwhile, Tennessee is slowly going from a broken program to a team that can fight with the better teams of the conference.  In week two, they could contend with Oregon for a half before gassing out.  In week three, it was almost three full quarters.  In week five, Tennessee took their first road trip for Dooley (and most of the team) and had LSU beaten after 60 minutes.  It took the most bizarre of endgames to give LSU the extra 5 seconds needed to atone for Les's clock mismanagement.

There'll be more bumps and bruises for this Tennessee squad, but it's clear that they are headed in the right direction so far.  It's just a matter of how far they can go.

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