Team Cliffhanger survives maximum-drama season
NEW ORLEANS -- Oh, to have been a pharmaceutical rep in Louisiana in the fall of 2007. You could have made a killing administering to overwrought LSU football fans.
"If you take heart medicine, you probably had to up the dosage," said lifelong Tigers fan Kevin Fayard. "And if you don't take heart medicine, you probably ought to."
Or something else.
"I've always joked that the only time Xanax is appropriate is before Jacob plays football," said Jacob Hester's mother, Nancy. "This year, you needed the maximum dose."
This was a maximum-dose, maximum-drama season.
Team Cliffhanger put its fans through more tense moments than I can recall from a single team. It was one long autumn on the ledge, a season of endless suspense, a near-weekly assault on the central nervous system. Les Miles rolled the dice so often he should have entered Gamblers Anonymous, with about a million codependents living and dying on every tumble.
Hopes were dashed and revived multiple times -- within games, and within the scope of the season. Huge stakes, huge swings of emotion, over and over.
"It's been so nerve-wracking," Nancy Hester said. "Your stomach is in your throat. It's not something I have enjoyed at all."
There was the fourth-down drama against Florida. The triple-OT upset loss at Kentucky that jeopardized the title run. The reckless touchdown pass to beat Auburn. The two late scores to overcome Alabama and Nick Saban. The triple-OT upset loss at home against Arkansas that seemed to end all title hopes. There was a barrage of key injuries at critical times.
And that was just the regular season. The final dramatic turn was a doozy: On the morning of Dec. 1, most LSU fans probably thought they were losing Miles to Michigan and were headed to the Allstate Sugar Bowl. By midnight, the Tigers had kept their coach and were ticketed for the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
"I think there was some divine intervention," Miles said.
Is God an LSU fan? The Almighty did not return calls seeking comment for this story, but it's safe to assume He has bigger issues right here in town with the ongoing Hurricane Katrina aftermath.
Nevertheless, the Destiny's Team tag fits these Tigers awfully well.
"I really feel it was our destiny to be here," receiver Early Doucet said. "For things to go the way they went I just think it was meant to be."
This is the way things went, from one hairpin plot twist to the next:
Oct. 6: LSU 28, Florida 24The No. 7 Gators led three different times by 10 points, but it was the Tigers who scored 14 fourth-quarter points to pull out the victory in one of the hardest-hitting games I've ever seen.
LSU possessed the ball for 12 of the final 15 minutes, embarking on arduous drives that seemed to keep boiling down to fourth-and-short. Five times in that game, Miles went for it on fourth down, and five times, his team converted.
Most of the conversions were by Hester, who hammered just far enough to move the chains. Up in the stands, wearing her No. 18 purple jersey, Nancy Hester was a wreck.
"I felt like he was the most capable one playing to get the first downs," she said. "But when they'd measure, every time I prayed, 'Please, let it be enough.' I don't know that anyone but his mother could understand."
Actually, many of Hester's teammates seemed to feel the same way.
"It had my heart pounding, emotions running," said Doucet, who was injured and forced to watch from the sidelines.
But the climactic play was a third down, not a fourth. It came from the Florida 2, with 74 seconds remaining, as the Tigers broke the huddle.
"You could hear a pin drop," Hester said, as he lined up behind quarterback Matt Flynn.
A few seconds and 2 yards later, you could hear the explosion from Tiger Stadium all over Baton Rouge. Hester had landed in the end zone, and on the West Coast, USC was being shocked by Stanford. LSU had the No. 1 ranking all to itself.
Oct. 13: Kentucky 43, LSU 37 (3OT)The first time it appeared the Tigers had blown their shot at a national championship was on the road trip to Kentucky. It took triple overtime and an inspired opponent rallying against an LSU team that appeared to be paying the physical price for the brawl against Florida the week before.
The Wildcats scored the final 13 points of regulation to force OT against the flagging Tigers. After matching touchdowns in the first OT and field goals in the second, Kentucky scored first in the third. Then Miles' fourth-down winning streak crashed to a halt when running back Charles Scott was stopped on fourth-and-2.
Kentucky fans swarmed the Commonwealth Stadium field after beating No. 1 for the first time since 1964. LSU seemingly lost control of its own destiny in the title chase.
"You never know what will happen," linebacker Darry Beckwith said. "We are still in it. A one-loss team can still make it to the national championship."
Would you believe a two-loss team?
Oct. 20: LSU 30, Auburn 24A third straight frog strangler was the tightest escape of them all. The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter alone, the last time with a single second remaining on the Tiger Stadium clock.
It was the most recklessly successful call of the 2007 season. With time wasting and the Tigers trailing by three points, LSU was dithering at the Auburn 22. In the stands, Nancy Hester thought, "This thing's slipping away, and nobody's doing anything about it."
When the Tigers finally lined up, most everyone figured LSU's final play would be to position the ball for a tying Colt David field goal. Instead, Flynn loaded up and threw to the end zone, where Demetrius Byrd bailed out Miles with a great catch to win the game.
"That was one of the few times I've ever questioned a call," said Fayard, the lifelong fan. "Everyone was screaming 'Snap the ball!' Or 'Call timeout!' Then when he threw it, 'What are you doing?!' It was one of those 'No! No! No! Yes!' plays."
Said offensive tackle Ciron Black: "I got to the sideline, and there was one second left, and I thought, 'God!'"
Nov. 3: LSU 41, Alabama 34How about a fourth straight wire job? At least the Tigers had a week off between Auburn and Alabama, but there was no coasting through this game against Saban, their former coach -- vilified by LSU fans for leaving in the first place and doubly so for returning to a rival school.
The Tigers made enough errors (three interceptions, 130 penalty yards) to keep the Crimson Tide in the game. Once again, they entered the fourth quarter trailing; once again, they took the lead; and once again, they gave it back.
This time, the rescue effort required a 32-yard Flynn-to-Doucet pass to tie the score at 34 with 2:49 left, followed by a sack of 'Bama QB John Parker Wilson and a fumble. LSU recovered on the Alabama 3-yard line, Hester punched it in with 86 seconds left and the Tigers escaped again.
"I don't know if we have played this poorly before," Miles said afterward. "But, if we are going to play this poorly, it's good to win."
Especially since an epidemic of upsets nationwide again cleared the way for LSU to be No. 1 and regain control of its destiny.
Nov. 23: Arkansas 50, LSU 48 (3OT)Once again, a late Tigers touchdown was needed -- this time just to produce overtime. Flynn hit Byrd from 2 yards out with 57 seconds left.
But that only set the stage for a crushing series of overtimes, capped by a Flynn two-point pass being intercepted on the final play and the Razorbacks shocking the world in a devastated Tiger Stadium.
"That was the worst we've ever felt," Flynn said.
When a bruised Hester gingerly walked out of the training room after the game, his family tried to boost his morale. Big brother Joseph explained how the Tigers still could make the national title game: a loss by Missouri or Kansas in the Big 12 title game; a loss by West Virginia in one of its two final games; LSU beating Tennessee for the SEC title hey, it can happen.
"Call it mother's intuition," Nancy Hester said to her son, "but something tells me it's all going to work out."
"It's not going to work again," Jacob replied.
"No, I think it may," she said. "Your mother always knows best."
Dec. 1: LSU 21, Tennessee 14With speculation rampant that Miles would take the vacant job at his alma mater sometime in the days after game, most Tigers fans woke up for the SEC title game in Atlanta on edge.
Nancy Hester text messaged her son at the team hotel. He replied: "He's given me his word. He's not leaving."
Before the game, Miles announced he was staying, LSU's first huge victory of the day, then said his "damn strong team" had to go beat the Volunteers. Naturally, that didn't come easy, since the Tigers were playing without the injured Flynn.
Down 14-13 in the fourth, cornerback Jonathan Zenon stepped in front of an Erik Ainge pass and coasted 18 yards for the go-ahead score. The defense shut down the Vols over the final 10 minutes, and LSU won the SEC title.
Now all it needed, later that night, was an Oklahoma victory over No. 1 Missouri and a Pittsburgh miracle upset of No. 2 West Virginia. The Tigers boarded their charter flight home to Baton Rouge well before either game was over.
The pilot gave constant updates of both games to the anxious Tigers, who could scarcely believe the scores from Morgantown: Pitt, with a losing record, was somehow beating the Mountaineers. Less surprising was the news that Oklahoma was taking out Missouri.
When the pilot came on and said Oklahoma had won and he "thought" he had the final score correct, Hester said to Flynn, "If he's wrong, I'm throwing him off this airplane."
The pilot was right, of course. The path, stunningly, had cleared, and LSU was on its way to the title game. When the Tigers touched down and Hester turned on his phone, he had a voice message from his mother.
"What have I told you your whole life?" she said. "Your mom knows best."
Now, of course, all the Tigers have to do is win the thing. Their fans will be hoping for a blowout but should be resigned to the fact that nothing has come easy all season, and it probably won't now against No. 1 Ohio State.
"I'm hoping we get out early and fast," Nancy Hester said. "Because, really and truthfully, I don't think my heart can take much more."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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