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In any given football game, especially a game that isn't going the way the fans would like, the most popular guy in the stadium is the backup quarterback.
Such was the case during Monday night's BCS Championship Game, as LSU's Jordan Jefferson stumbled through series after excruciating series while backup Jarrett Lee sat on the bench watching the Tigers' offense overrun by Alabama in a 21-0 rout.
It must have been a surreal experience for Lee, who was a big reason LSU was in the championship game in the first place. It's easy to forget that Jefferson wasn't the starter for most of the year. He was suspended following a preseason fight outside a bar and didn't see the field until the fifth game of the season. Meanwhile, Lee kept the Tigers afloat. In the pivotal season opener against Oregon, a game that many thought the Tigers would lose without Jefferson, Lee led the Tigers to a 40-27 win. While his numbers weren't great, Lee managed the game, didn't turn the ball over and took advantage of the opportunities created by the defense and special teams.
And managing — keeping LSU out of trouble, putting the Tigers' playmakers in a position to score — was Lee's strong suit. Through his nine starts, Lee threw 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He led the SEC in passing efficiency. He was Mr. Stability.
But it was the last game against Alabama that did Lee in. He started, threw back-to-back interceptions, lost the confidence of his coaching staff and barely saw the field again over the last four games. So when LSU needed a manager, a stabilizing force, something to stem the Tide, coach Les Miles didn't feel comfortable going to Lee even though it might have been the right choice.
After the game, Miles acknowledged that there was probably going to be some second-guessing about not playing Lee, but he stood by Jefferson.
"We felt like with Jordan Jefferson's feet and ability to move, get out of the rush, that it was fair that he finish," Miles told ESPN sideline reporter Erin Andrews after the game.
"I can tell you that the pass rush — we did consider Jarrett Lee. But we felt like with the pass rush that we were getting that we needed a guy that could move the seat and not sustain that pass rush," Miles added later.
But Jefferson didn't really get out of the rush. He panicked a lot. He struggled to make accurate throws — including one pass he threw right to Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley in one of the worst interceptions on record. And that's when things started to unravel for Jefferson. He blamed the running back for his mistake, his body language was poor on the sidelines and, in turn, the rest of the team took on his attitude.
The Jefferson that had been so adept with his feet looked afraid of getting hit. He wasn't attacking the defense on option plays, often leaving his pitch man open to a vicious hit. And when he did bounce out of the pocket, Alabama's speedy defense easily tracked him down. He had one 18-yard run that gave LSU a bit of hope late, but ended that drive by having the ball knocked out of his hand for his second turnover of the night.
That was just how it went for Jefferson, who seemingly couldn't do anything right.
LSU managed just 92 total yards and five first downs. It didn't even cross midfield until there were 8 minutes remaining in the game. Jefferson had 14 carries for 15 yards. To say that Jefferson's feet were the difference is just massaging the truth. His feet might have gotten him out of a couple jams, but they rarely resulted in anything positive.
What's worse is that Jefferson actually told reporters after the game that he thought he played well.
Chew on that one for a moment.
It's easy to say that Miles knew what he had with Lee when it came to Alabama. In Lee's career against the Tide, he was 24 of 58 for 316 yards, one touchdown and seven interceptions, but in a game like Monday's national championship, when nothing is going right for the Tigers, why not try to switch things up? What would have been the harm in throwing Lee out there for a series or two? It's like bringing in the backup goalie in hockey; it's just a change of pace. Miles — or someone — obviously thought about it because Lee was warming up on the sideline, but he never stepped on the field. Miles gutted it out with Jefferson and, consequently, Jefferson helped deliver one of the worst performances in a national title game in recent memory.
"I wish I could have helped out in any way," Lee told ESPN's Edward Aschoff after the game. "Still thought we played hard, fought tough, had a special season, a special group of seniors. I really enjoyed playing with these guys. But yeah, I felt like given the opportunity I could have came in and helped a little bit."
When asked if there was any point Lee thought he could go to the coaches and ask for a chance, he shot down the notion.
"If they wanted to give me an opportunity, they would have," he said. "I just tried to stay loose, tried to stay prepared on the sideline if that opportunity did come."
Miles is a guy who's known for taking chances and often those chances pay big dividends for his team. It's that attitude that helped win LSU's title in 2007 and what helped get them into the national title game Monday night. However, it's the one chance Miles didn't take that might end up defining this year.