For the second year in a row, LSU's season ended in a disappointing bowl game loss. Last year's BCS National Title Game embarrassment seemed like it had established itself as the program's ultimate big-time postseason loss, but Monday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl challenged to be just as bad. Was LSU's fourth-quarter play calling to blame?
In football, a coach's offensive play call in critical moments is often judged based on if the play succeeds or fails. If the offense advances the ball, regardless if the play was a run or pass, then the impression is created that the right call was made. After all, it is hard to argue against something that worked. However, if the play failed and set up the opposition to win the game, then fan befuddlement and cries of "why?" typically ensue.
In Monday's Chick-fil-A Bowl, LSU head coach Les Miles was an unfortunate example of this truth. After letting a 24-13 fourth-quarter lead slip to 24-22, LSU took possession of the ball with 2:43 remaining in the game. Despite the fact that LSU had recorded negative-seven yards of offense in the fourth quarter up to this point, they were still in position to finish the game after QB Zach Mettenberger completed an 8-yard pass to about midfield. Clemson still had all three of their timeouts, so the smart thing to do on second down seemed like running the ball. If you also considered that LSU RB Jeremy Hill already had 124 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries, the choice seemed even more evident.
Les Miles thought otherwise.
On second and two, Mettenberger rolled out and had receiver Jarvis Landry devastatingly open about 10 yards down the field. Imitating the infamous Super Bowl XLVI Brady-to-Welker misfire that could have sealed a victory, Mettenberger overthrew the ball, stopping the clock and bringing up third down. So was this a bad call?
If Mettenberger had completed the very makeable pass, LSU would have been able to either run out the rest of the clock or at least have a shot at about a 50-yard field goal to extend its lead to five points with under a minute to go. Miles' call would have been highly praised for its successful defiance of conventional wisdom, and his Mad Hatter nickname would be positively alluded to all offseason.
But Mettenberger didn't complete the pass, and on third down he went to the air again, throwing another incomplete pass to Landry. LSU then punted to Clemson, who somehow completed a fourth-and-16 pass play from their own 14 and drove down the field to hit a 37-yard field goal as time expired for the win. That was ridiculous and also very notable in the game's big picture, but Miles' play calling still remains the focal point here.
Based on how wide open Landry was on second and two, it's hard to argue that Miles made a completely awful decision. The execution wasn't there, but the opportunity was. Passing again on third down, though, was highly questionable. The possibility that Clemson might have been expecting the run there seems reasonable, but hopefully that was not the primary reason LSU opted to pass yet again.
LSU plays in the SEC, where games are won in the trenches between massive men who regularly go on to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. Clemson plays in the ACC, which hasn't had a team win a BCS title since the 1999 Florida State Seminoles. If you're LSU, give the ball to Hill and give yourself your best shot to move the chains.
But if Mettenberger had completed the third down try...