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October 23, 2007

LSU becoming familiar with tight finishes

BATON ROUGE, La. – LSU already has created more drama in the past three weeks than you'd see in a season's worth of "Grey's Anatomy" episodes.

The Tigers were 5-for-5 on fourth-down conversions to rally from a 10-point deficit in a 28-24 victory over defending national champion Florida on Oct. 6. They blew a 13-point, second-half lead in a 43-37 triple-overtime loss to Kentucky on Oct. 13. This emotional roller coaster continued Saturday when LSU erased another 10-point deficit to beat Auburn 30-24 on Matt Flynn's 22-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd with one second left on the clock.

"I'm getting too old for this," LSU running back Jacob Hester said after the Tigers' latest moment on the brink. "These close games are killing me, but that's the way the SEC is and that's the way it's going to be."

In a span of two weeks, the Tigers nearly went from being the top-ranked team in the nation to the third-place team in the SEC West. No wonder the Tigers feel the need to take a collective sigh of relief as they head into an off week.

"The open week hits us at the right time," LSU coach Les Miles said.

Miles won't get much time to exhale. The next game on LSU's schedule is one of the most anticipated matchups of the entire season. LSU fans circled Nov. 3 on their calendars as soon as former Tigers coach Nick Saban returned to the SEC to take over Alabama's program. Now that LSU and Alabama are tied atop the SEC West, their showdown in Tuscaloosa, Ala., carries more weight.

This represents a chance for Miles to prove once and for all that this is his program now and that he isn't just someone capitalizing on the mother lode of talent Saban left him.

It's also a chance for Saban to prove he's ahead of schedule in his plan to make Alabama a national contender – while ruining LSU's title hopes in the process.

On paper at least, LSU shouldn't have that much of a problem. There's no question the Tigers have the most talent in the SEC West. Frankly, LSU has proved beyond much of a doubt thus far that it's the most-talented team in the nation.

LSU has five running backs as good as the feature back at most programs. Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux give LSU a quarterback tandem that combines experienced leadership with youthful athleticism. The Tigers also have the nation's best overall defensive player in Glenn Dorsey and one of the nation's best safeties in Craig Steltz.

So why are the Tigers struggling to put teams away? A team this good shouldn't have to rely on fantastic finishes every single week.

"We're a second-half football team," Hester said. "That's the way we've always been. We come out and play football in the second half.

"I wish we'd start getting off to a better start, but as long as we keep finishing the way we are, I'm happy."

After putting away teams by halftime for the first part of the season, LSU has engaged in down-to-the-wire finishes each of the past three weeks. This chart shows the first-half and second-half scores of each of the Tigers' games this season. LSU's score is listed first.
Mississippi State17-028-045-0
Virginia Tech24-024-748-7
Middle Tennessee23-021-044-0
South Carolina21-77-928-16
NOTE: *--denotes overtime points, as well.
Actually, they weren't always that way. LSU soared to the top of the rankings earlier this year by putting teams away early. LSU outscored its first four opponents 85-7 in the opening half. But the Tigers have been outscored 57-41 in the first half of their past four games.

Blame it on a series of injuries or a brutal midseason schedule, but LSU hasn't looked nearly as dominant as it did earlier in the season.

An early season groin injury to Early Doucet left LSU relying on a group of ultra-talented but inexperienced receivers with a penchant for dropping the ball. LSU has made a series of ill-timed penalties the past three games.

A defense that allowed a grand total of seven points in its first three games has given up at least 24 points in each of its past three contests.

"I can tell you we're still a product of some mistakes that have to be ironed out," Miles said. "I'm not going to put up with illegal procedures that take time off the clock and timeouts used inappropriately. We have work to do."

That much was evident against Auburn.

Auburn has played 15 true freshmen and 11 redshirt freshmen this season, but LSU looked like the less experienced team for much of the night.

LSU wasted timeouts early in the second half. Brandon LaFell's misplay of a long pass from Flynn turned a potential touchdown into an improbable interception. LSU missed plenty of tackles early. A fumble by Perrilloux resulted in an Auburn touchdown.

But the Tigers have enough talent and senior leadership to overcome those types of mistakes. A trio of seniors helped make sure LSU kept its title hopes afloat.

Flynn played arguably the best game of his career and threw for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone. Hester showed his toughness by catching a short pass and diving into the right corner of the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter. Doucet returned to action and immediately reasserted himself as LSU's go-to receiver.

They'll need to continue playing that well for LSU to remain in title contention.

Fortunately for LSU, the schedule gets lighter after the Alabama game. The Tigers welcome Louisiana Tech to Death Valley, travel to Ole Miss, then play host to Arkansas in their final three regular-season games before a potential appearance in the SEC Championship Game.

LSU already has played such a tough schedule that it almost certainly will remain at least third in the BCS standings as long as it doesn't lose again. The Tigers possibly could jump ahead of Boston College to earn a shot at the title even if the Eagles remain undefeated.

"All we have to do is look at our schedule and take it one game at a time," Miles said. "I know it's an old coaching cliché, but it's a fact. I'm looking as far as the next opponent. Take care of business, do the things we're capable of doing and get in that SEC title game. That's where we want to be."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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