Commentary

Fittingly, a two-loss team is champion this season

Updated: January 9, 2008, 5:39 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Through an entire season of upsets and upheaval, teams moved in and out of the top of the polls as if it were a fleabag motel instead of the Ritz-Carlton. No one stayed long, and the ones that claimed they belonged didn't exactly look the part.

Until the last night of the season, that is. On the last night of the season, college football found an occupant for its penthouse.

[+] EnlargeLSU
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesFor the second time in five years, the Tigers are holding the crystal football.
The LSU Tigers are a dominant champion. They are a deserving champion. And as a fitting end to a season that never followed its script, college football has a two-loss champion.

LSU rolled over Ohio State 38-24 in the Allstate BCS Championship Game, becoming not only the first two-loss champion in the modern era, but also the first two-time champion in the 10-year history of the BCS. That the Tigers managed to achieve both distinctions captures the uneven nature of their season, in which they lost two games in triple overtime and won three others in the final 90 seconds of regulation.

There would be no such thrills Monday night because LSU cut way down on its mistakes. The team that finished the season 118th in the nation in penalties per game (8.7) committed only four in the last, most important game. The Tigers (12-2) committed only one turnover. Ohio State (11-2), the team known for not beating itself, committed seven and three, respectively.

Give credit to LSU coach Les Miles, who has taken more shots in his three seasons at LSU than expected for a man with a 34-6 record.

Miles stuck with LSU even as his dream job at his alma mater, Michigan, opened and closed without him. Winning the national championship -- and beating Michigan's archrival to do it -- is some kind of consolation.

"This very special season," Miles labeled it, "this very special team."

These very special Tigers dominated with a physicality and a depth of talent on both sides of the ball that left the Buckeyes looking overmatched in the sport's biggest game for the second year in a row.

The speed issue, promulgated after Florida whipped Ohio State 41-14 a year ago, was a canard, an easy way to explain the Buckeyes' awful performance. After Monday night, Ohio State has some more explaining to do.

"I just think they were more physical than us," said Ohio State All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, the Butkus Award winner.

Ohio State had the game's leading rusher in sophomore Beanie Wells, who gained 146 yards on 20 carries and scored the first touchdown of the game. Buckeyes quarterback Todd Boeckman threw for 208 yards, 34 more than his LSU counterpart, Matt Flynn. Not since Al Gore got 500,000 more votes than George Bush have the final statistics been so misleading.

For one thing, Wells gained 118 yards on his first seven carries, which leaves 28 yards to be spread over his final 13. For another, Boeckman got sacked five times and the Tigers leveled him several times more.

Flynn, the senior quarterback who missed the SEC championship game with a shoulder injury, threw for four touchdowns. Two of them went to tight end Richard Dickson, but Flynn spread the ball to teammates one and all.

Coach sat us down and said, 'Hey, we been in big games before. We've been down before. Play like we know how to play.'

--LSU offensive tackle Ciron Black on what Les Miles said

When he threw a 10-yard touchdown to Brandon LaFell with 7:25 left in the second quarter that put the Tigers ahead for good, 17-10, Flynn had thrown his first nine completions to six different receivers. He won the Most Outstanding Player award on offense, completing 19-of-27 passes.

"What Flynn's meant to this team," Miles said, "is he's a great leader, an unbelievably competitive quarterback."

The three weeks before the Tigers began bowl practice allowed Flynn and All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey to heal. Dorsey had played the second half of the season with a strained knee and bruised tailbone, but he looked like himself again.

"You saw a healthy LSU team," Dorsey said. "When we're healthy, we can come out and play with anybody."

The Tigers gave the 79,651 fans and a national television audience two games for the price of one. In the first game, they fell behind 10-0 before they even made a first down. The defense gave up a 65-yard touchdown run to Wells on the fourth play of the game. Hyped-up, All-American safety Craig Steltz overran the play in his rush to provide run support, and Wells sprinted right past him.

On LSU's first possession, center Brett Helms fired a shotgun snap past Flynn while the quarterback called an audible on third-and-7. Flynn sprinted back and fell on it at the LSU 6-yard-line.

The defense blew a coverage and let Boeckman complete a 44-yard pass to Brandon Saine that set up Ryan Pretorius' 25-yard field goal.

And then the Tigers, offense and defense, took a deep breath.

"Coach sat us down," said offensive tackle Ciron Black, "and said, 'Hey, we been in big games before. We've been down before. Play like we know how to play.'"

The same message went to the defense.

[+] EnlargeRicky Jean-Francois
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireRicky Jean-Francois wreaked havoc in the Buckeye backfield.
"The stakes were high. The emotions were running high," said LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who, by the time he said it, was Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini. "...I just said, 'Hey, don't panic. We know what we have to do. Settle down and play football the way you know how.' We've been through it a million times."

It may have seemed like a million. In fact, LSU fell behind by 10 points for the fourth time this season (Florida, Auburn, Alabama). There are two important things to know about that. One, LSU didn't let Ohio State get ahead by more. And two, LSU won all four of those games.

"We felt like they could not throw the football against us well enough to win the game, that they'd have to run it," Miles said. "And we felt like we'd eventually be able to turn that down, as well."

That pretty much describes the second game. LSU scored 31 unanswered points, controlling the line of scrimmage whether on offense or on defense, and forcing the Buckeyes to make the sort of crippling mistakes that the Tigers had inflicted on themselves so often this season.

There were the back-to-back nightmares for Ohio State in the second quarter with the score tied 10-10. One play after Brian Robiskie dropped a 21-yard touchdown pass, LSU defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois, the Other Guy in the middle with Dorsey, blocked Ryan Pretorius' 38-yard field goal attempt. Jean-Francois, who also had 1½ tackles for loss, became the game's Most Outstanding Player on defense.

Not only did Boeckman throw two interceptions and lose a fumble after a crushing hit by linebacker Ali Highsmith, but Ohio State committed five personal-foul penalties. The worst: a roughing-the-punter call on linebacker Austin Spitler on the first possession of the second half. The Buckeyes, trailing 24-10, had stuffed the Tigers.

Spitler's penalty resuscitated LSU's drive at the Ohio State 45. After Jacob Hester's 2-yard gain, Buckeyes defensive end Cameron Heyward got busted for a dead-ball personal foul that moved the Tigers to the Ohio State 28. Three plays later, Flynn threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Early Doucet for a 31-10 lead. Game. Set. Crystal football.

For the second consecutive season, college football's biggest night featured the champions of the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten Conference, the two most politically powerful leagues in college football.

And for the second consecutive season, Ohio State got overwhelmed by its opponent. Throughout the second half, the three letters chanted by the purple-and-gold-clad fans in the dome were not "L-S-U!" but "S-E-C!"

After the game, just inside the locker-room door, there stood Dorsey, Sharpie in hand, signing the backs of LSU jerseys worn by his coaches' sons. Dorsey, towering over Omari Porter, the young son of assistant head coach Larry Porter, bellowed, "What's up, dawg? We champs, huh?"

For the second time in five seasons, the Tigers are champs.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com