Les Miles still has his tricks, but this LSU team has championship ingredients as well

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BATON ROUGE, La. – Undefeated LSU is putting together a zesty gumbo of ingredients that could create a Southeastern Conference championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Leonard Fournette is the meat. All of it – sausage, chicken, whatever. The running back is the best player in America, a fact that he reinforced in a 35-28 victory over Florida on Saturday night with 180 high-impact rushing yards.

Quarterback Brandon Harris and receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre are the vegetables – an underrated but essential ingredient. Harris has the arm, Dural and Dupre have the speed and hands. And occasionally, when opponents overly fixate on Fournette, LSU calls enough pass plays to showcase their ability.

Defense is the stock. The Tigers came into the game against Florida allowing less than 100 yards rushing, and then held the Gators to a mere 55.

And the secret ingredient? That’s mystifying Les Miles, the coach who fears nothing and flouts convention and might just call anything at any given time.

“He’s got a bunch of stuff up his sleeve,” kicker Trent Domingue said. “They call him ‘Mad Hatter’ for a reason.”

Trent Domingue celebrates after scoring the game-winning TD on a fake field goal. (Getty)
Trent Domingue celebrates after scoring the game-winning TD on a fake field goal. (Getty)

The reason Saturday night: a fourth-quarter fake field goal that produced the winning touchdown on a 16-yard run by Domingue off a lateral from holder Brad Kragthorpe. Within chip-shot range of the go-ahead points, Miles blithely increased the degree of difficulty and employed the element of surprise. It worked, and the difference between a three-point lead and seven was huge down the stretch.

That bit of deja voodoo had to sting Florida. It was the second time Miles has beaten the Gators with a fake field goal, gigging them in 2010 with a backward pitch over the head by the holder that bounced – naturally – and was scooped up by the kicker for a 28-yard run that set up the winning touchdown.

There was no bounce Saturday night. But there were several bobbles, as a jittery Domingue labored to haul in a perfect pass from Kragthorpe.

“My heart was fluttering with each bobble,” Miles said.

Domingue admitted that nerves played a part in his less-than-clean catch.

“I guess my hands were shaking,” he said. “My whole body was.”

And when the junior from Mandeville, La., crossed the goal line with the first touchdown of his life in an official football game?

“I kind of blacked out a little bit,” Domingue said. “I’m not sure what happened.”

After coming to, Domingue wasn’t quite ready to say he struck a mighty blow on behalf of eternally maligned kickers.

“I don’t know about being athletes,” he said. “But we’re at least partial players, I guess.”

That’s the thing when playing against Miles – even his partial players are threats. His unpredictability must leave opposing coaches with a pit in their stomach on the sidelines, wondering when the mood will strike Miles to do something madcap.

“It was a heck of a call,” Florida coach Jim McElwain said. “A gutsy call. But you know what, it’s kind of a badge of honor because they think they’ve got to fake one to beat us.”

Even offensive coordinator Cam Cameron – who hasn’t exactly been a riverboat gambler with the gameplan this season – got into the act Saturday. During LSU’s 28-point second quarter, Cameron dialed up a flea flicker that worked to perfection.

Fournette took a handoff from Harris, drawing the attention of the Florida defenders and most of the rest of the known universe. Then he stopped, pivoted and pitched the ball back to Harris, who gunned it deep to Dupre for a 52-yard gain. Fournette scored from six yards out on the next snap.

LSU's Leonard Fournette carried the Tigers Saturday with 180 rushing yards. (AP)
LSU's Leonard Fournette carried the Tigers Saturday with 180 rushing yards. (AP)

It was part of a dazzling first half for Harris, who also completed a 50-yard bomb to Dupre for a touchdown with 15 seconds left in the half. That was a classic Mad Hatter moment as well: the Tigers frittered away 1 minute and 7 seconds running just four plays and moving just 20 yards – then a lightning strike bails them out of a bad possession.

In the first half alone, Harris threw for 189 yards – 67 more than his per-game average on the season. The Tigers came into the game last in the SEC by a long shot in both pass attempts and yardage, a source of frustration for fans who wanted to see five-star talents like Harris and Dupre unleashed enough to take some of the defensive focus off Fournette. This game revealed a new versatility to what had been an All Leonard All The Time offense.

“I can’t stand it,” Harris said of the criticism of LSU’s passing game. “I play with a chip on my shoulder every single week. I say this real humbly: this team knows how talented we are passing the ball; everybody knows what I can do throwing the football.

“It really hurt when people say all we have is a running game. Keep doubting me, I love it. I think the receivers love when people doubt us. Teams are going to be out to stop seven [Fournette]. They put nine in the box, I’ll say thank you and take advantage of it.”

But then there was the second half, when Harris threw just seven passes and LSU produced just 13 yards through the air. The Tigers offense stalled and Florida rallied and suddenly it was a tie game heading into the fourth quarter.

Fournette carried LSU downfield, with the help of the Tigers’ only significant passing play of the second half: a third-down throw from Harris to Dural for 14 yards. When the drive stalled at the Florida 16, Les Miles got his latest crazy idea.

“I saw a light bulb click over his head,” Domingue said.

The call was made, the field-goal unit came on, the lateral was thrown. And bobbled. But ultimately caught. And Trent Domingue became the latest LSU partial player transformed into a full-fledged hero by his daredevil head coach.