BATON ROUGE, La. – Inside a college football cathedral Saturday afternoon, Les Miles received his sacrament. He bent over, plucked a blade of grass from the field at Tiger Stadium and placed it on his tongue. For his LSU football team to beat favored Alabama, it would take more than players and preparation. Miles needed some divinity on his side.
"I have a little tradition that humbles me as a man, that lets me know I'm a part of the field and a part of the game," he said. "I'll tell you one thing: The grass at Tiger Stadium tastes best."
No, Les Miles is not above snacking on a little grass in times of stress. "I see him do it every day. … I guess he says it has a lot of protein," LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard said, and this is the beauty of Miles: teetering on the edge of committal to the coaching sanitarium only to redeem himself with performances like Saturday's. Lunacy and genius, after all, inhabit the same sphere, and following the Tigers' 24-21 victory that thrust them back into national title contention and removed the Crimson Tide from its quest to repeat, Miles' mastery of both could not be denied.
"He's not crazy," LSU captain Kelvin Sheppard said. "He's Les Miles."
Though the two aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, it's impossible to deny Miles' effect on games he coaches. Because he calls end-arounds to the tight end and fake punts and keeps dozens of other trick plays underneath his ubiquitous white ballcap, Miles – not any of his players – becomes the wild card in games. He dictates pace. Opposing coaches have to scheme against what he might do. In his old domicile, Alabama coach Nick Saban got outfoxed by the slyest one in the skulk.
And afterward, awed by Death Valley at its 92,969-person acme and the game ball awarded to him by Sheppard, Miles turned introspective in the fashion only he can. The opening line to his press conference, delivered barely above a whisper, went as such: "I'm very thankful that I live in a country and have a job that allows me to experience some of the really positive things in our lifetime – college football. College football was celebrated today."
Indeed, those in purple and gold rejoiced that their offense, inconsistent bordering on inept, turned into a big-play juggernaut after trailing 7-3 at halftime. A 29-yard dash by Josh Jasper – the runningest punter in the nation – kick started the Tigers. The 75-yard touchdown pass from Jordan Jefferson to Rueben Randle on the next possession gave them a 10-7 lead. And both were pistol shots compared to the bazooka Miles tucked into his back pocket.
[Rewind video: Les Miles tours the Gulf oil spill]
All week in practice, LSU ran a play called "toss reverse," and before the Tigers boarded their bus to the stadium Saturday morning, Miles told the play's star, DeAngelo Peterson, "Just be ready." Peterson waited all afternoon, and with LSU trailing 14-13, facing a fourth-and-1 and well within field-goal range, Miles approached him: "DeAngelo, this is your play."
"It would be a mistake not to give him the opportunity," Miles said, "for DeAngelo Peterson to have a play like that."
Here's the thing: Peterson is a 6-foot-4, 243-pound tight end, and the play called for Jefferson to toss the ball to running back Stevan Ridley and for Peterson to swoop left, take a pitch from Ridley and cut it upfield. He did, and with Jefferson leading the way – knowing the play would be called, he consulted with offensive linemen this week to learn proper blocking technique – Peterson scampered 23 yards, to the 3-yard line, and set up a Ridley touchdown.
"Who expects the tight end to get a reverse?" Shepard said. " … When you call a football game, you can't be ordinary. You've got to do different things, and that's what we do."
Entering Saturday's game, the Tigers were known more for their slipperiness than excellence. They weaseled out of a loss to Tennessee because the Volunteers had 13 men on the field. They needed a lucky bounce on a fake field goal to beat Florida. Two weeks ago, Auburn punished them for 440 yards rushing. Coming into Saturday, LSU's offense ranked 101st in the nation. So to see them pile up 338 second-half yards again the Crimson Tide showcased something beyond the trickeration, though Miles pitch-perfect usage of it counterbalances the game-management follies that leave him a target of criticism here.
"I promise you, it's not in my hat," the Mad Hatter said. "I don't think I've done anything that 50 or 60 high school coaches in this state wouldn't do. If you like football and kind of got a feel for some stuff, let it ride sometimes."
About the authors
Dan Wetzel and Jeff Passan write for Yahoo! Sports, the most-read sports site on the Web. Josh Peter, a former Yahoo! Sports reporter, is a freelance writer. Wetzel has coauthored four books, including the New York Times bestseller “Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph” with Alonzo Mourning, and lives in Michigan. Peter is an award-winning investigative journalist who has earned national attention for his reporting on the Bowl Championship Series. In 2005, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series on race and high school football in the South. He lives in Los Angeles. Passan has won multiple Associated Press Sports Editors awards and lives in Kansas.
Miles' thin-set azure eyes lit up. They often do. His voice vacillates between passionate and passive, loud and lulled. He's a Yankee in the South, a risk taker in a scripted business, wearing a conservative white mock turtleneck and an audacious purple jacket. He won a BCS championship in 2007 and nearly lost his fan base this year. And now he's the toast of Louisiana again, sending Saban back to Tuscaloosa in a clown suit.
"We needed coach for this game," LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said. "He put us in a position to make plays. We weren't going to make them without him."
With him, LSU now has an ever-slim chance at the BCS title game. If the Tigers run the table and Auburn beats Alabama on Thanksgiving weekend, the SEC will feature a pair of one-loss teams, and were Auburn's defeat to come later in the season, it would hurt considerably more. Depending on how high LSU ascends in the rankings this week – it's currently 10th and could leapfrog as high as fifth – it could make the case as the SEC team currently playing the best and try to convince voters a one-loss SEC team is better than an undefeated Boise State or TCU.
Never mind that Auburn should lock up an SEC championship game berth with a victory against Georgia next week. Nebraska didn't make the Big 12 championship game in 2002 and still played for the BCS title, and whether via a bad loss to Alabama or snafu with Cam Newton's eligibility, Auburn's stranglehold on a spot in the BCS title game is vulnerable, even if it did beat LSU.
The Bayou Bengals, meanwhile, are footloose and fancy-free. They took care of Alabama. All that's left are home games against Louisiana-Monroe and Ole Miss, then a regular-season-ending trip to Arkansas. In three weeks, this patchwork bunch could well be 11-1.
"There's a special piece to this team," Miles said.
Sure is. In a white hat, with trick plays on his brain and a piece of special, magical grass in his mouth.