Guts and glory

BATON ROUGE, La. – Early Sunday morning – in a dimly-lit parking lot just outside Tiger Stadium – members of LSU's coaching staff passed around a bag of Ruffles and chomped on homemade sandwiches prepared by their wives.

Midnight came and went. Then 1 a.m. and 2.

Eventually there would be film to break down, a new game plan to construct, a different opponent to try to conquer. But all of that could wait.

This, after all, was an experience they wanted to savor.

The sound of honking horns from the cars that crept down Dalrymple and Nicholson Drive; the chance to lounge in their folding chairs and rehash the plays and calls from the season's marquee game; the national title hopes that were enhanced after one of the biggest wins of their careers.

LSU 28, Florida 24. Rarely will it get any better.

"If you didn't enjoy watching our team fight," Tigers coach Les Miles said, "if you didn't enjoy watching them scrap …"

Miles paused.

"To me," he said, "that was a pretty special game."

So special that Miles was about the only LSU coach not to take part in the tailgate gathering later that evening. Shoot, he was probably too spent after making a series of gutsy calls that ultimately kept the top-ranked Tigers in the forefront of the national championship picture.

Miles went for it on fourth down five times Saturday – including three times during the decisive fourth quarter. Each attempt was successful and, according to Miles, extremely premeditated.

Miles told his assistants a few days before the game that he wanted to be aggressive on fourth down against Florida because the Gators are a possession team with a knack for controlling the clock. Miles informed his players of his intentions shortly before the game.

"We knew if we got into fourth down opportunities we were going to make those calls," Miles said. "We were going to make them. We just knew it."

Trailing 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Miles' decision to go for it on fourth down paid off when quarterback Matt Flynn scrambled and threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Byrd.

LSU's defense forced Florida – the defending national champion – into a three-and-out on its next possession, and the Tigers capitalized by uncorking a 15-play, 60-yard drive that shaved 8:11 off the clock.

Running back Jacob Hester scored the game-winning touchdown on a 2-yard plunge with 1:09 remaining, but the real story of the drive was Miles' decision to go for it twice on fourth-and-1.

The second of those two calls came when LSU was on Florida's 7-yard line, when they could've easily forced overtime with a chip-shot field goal.

"We've formed an attitude that we can win anytime," Flynn said. "If that means going for it on fourth down or faking a field goal, so be it."

Indeed, Miles' aggressive decision making wasn't limited to the fourth quarter. The Tigers' first touchdown came on Ryan Perrilloux's 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter. Their next score came after a fake field goal on fourth down midway through the third. The play was almost identical to the one LSU ran a few weeks ago against South Carolina.

A reporter joked after the game that Miles may want to try his luck at one of Louisiana's riverboat casinos.

"I've gambled more than you think," Miles quipped.

Miles said he could sense that the Tigers supported his approach – especially during the game-winning drive.

"They were asking me to bow my neck," Miles said. "They'd already bowed theirs. They just wanted me to call it and give 'em the chance."

As well as they played on offense, LSU's defense also came up big by holding Florida to 142 yards in the second half.

The unit's key play came with the Tigers trailing 24-14 early in the fourth. LSU missed a chance to pull within a touchdown when Colt David shanked a 37-yard field goal – his second miss of the day. But Florida's ensuing possession ended when LSU's Kirston Pittman intercepted a pass that ricocheted off the helmet of Florida's Cornelius Ingram.

"I saw it hit off his helmet," Pittman said. "It was like a pot of gold coming out of the sky. It was a huge turnover. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

LSU took over on the Gators' 27-yard line and scored five plays later on Flynn's pass to Byrd to pull within 24-21. That gave the Tigers all the momentum they would need en route to the victory.

Of course, it also didn't hurt that LSU's public address announcer alerted players and fans of No. 2 USC's 24-23 loss to Stanford during the fourth quarter.

"I don't know if it had an effect or not," Pittman said. "But I know a lot of guys got excited to hear that they had lost. It's hard to ignore. I remember exactly what the announcer said: 'Stanford 24, USC 23.' The whole place erupted."

The Tigers said the announcement didn't cause them to lose focus.

"We got pretty hyped up for just a quick second," receiver Brandon LaFell said. "But the coaches got in our ear and said, 'Hey, we can't control what they're doing out there. But we can control what we're doing right here. We’re down 10. Let's put some points on the board.'"

The Tigers did just that and, as a result, they sit atop at the polls. Quizzed about the national title picture Saturday, Miles said he didn't want to look too far ahead. Instead he heaped repeated praise on his squad for battling back from adversity.

"In the end," Miles said, "that's what’s going to define this team: Character."

LSU travels to Lexington next week to face Kentucky, which fell to 5-1 after Thursday's loss at South Carolina.

"This team is together, man," LaFell said. "It comes from us going through tough things in the weight room and in the summer and in practice. We're all for one. Either you're all in.

"Or you're not in at all."