Looking at Miles' Decision-Making against Alabama

You deserve the applause for playing to win. - Chris Graythen

Some might criticize Miles' play calls, but the calls rarely resulted in Alabama points, and were often the mark of a guy playing for victory.

I'm finally able to look back over the Alabama game with a somewhat rational eye. It only took about four days. I'm not going to make excuses: LSU should have won, but didn't. And we don't make excuses for losses around these parts. This was a loss, and it hurt.

However, one of the narratives coming out of the game is that Les Miles was "outcoached". Now, I will humbly submit that nobody knows what this phrase actually means in a one game construct. I certainly don't. It's just online puffery that makes fans and sportswriters feel smart. It's saying something without saying anything. Of course Miles was "outcoached". We lost. Had LSU won, Saban would have been outcoached.

Both coaches try and put their teams in a position to succeed, and they reach this point in wildly different ways. Alabama tries to control all risk and make the game about simple execution, which makes sense considering Alabama is usually the more talented team. Miles, on the other hand, plays on his team's emotions to get the maximum effort out of his players. He accepts mistakes, so long as they are mistakes of aggression and effort. Neither coach is right or wrong, it's just their own method.

When two evenly matched teams meet, like LSU and Alabama, it usually comes down to the way the ball bounces. And it bounced against Miles. Was this getting outcoached? Did he make the wrong calls? Well, Miles has taken the heat for some of his calls, so let's look at them in context and evaluate the decision at the time it was made instead of just second guessing based on the outcome itself.

DECISION #1: The FAKE FIELD GOAL

The Situation: With a little less than 5 minutes left in the first half, LSU is down 7-3 and sitting on the Alabama 30. It's 4th and 12 after LSU recovered a fumbled punt in Alabama territory, but the drive has stalled thanks to a Copeland penalty.

The Thought Process: We just got a gift of field position and screwed up our red zone chance by shooting ourselves in the foot with a penalty. Alabama has just scored and holding LSU to a field goal attempt here is a big win for the Tide defense. Momentum is slipping away, so let's dial up the big play when no one is expecting it.

The Fallout: It doesn't work. At all. Alabama was playing safe and the play had about no chance of working. This playcall stands as the worst call of the night and while I hate to say it's indefensible, but it certainly wasn't a good call. Just grab your points and get out. You have to check out of that play.

DECISION #2: The LONG FIELD GOAL

The Situation: Time is winding down in the first half. LSU has just driven 54 yards in 2:30 to get to the Alabama 37 yard line. LSU is still down 7-3, moving the football, and the defense is playing pretty well, having just gotten a three and out.

The Thought Process: Why the hell not? Give the 54-yarder a shot, and if we miss it, Alabama runs out the clock and we're no worse off than we are by not kicking this thing.

The Fallout: Alleman misses badly, Alabama takes over possession and drives down the field in one minute to score a touchdown and go up 14-3 right before the half. The decision to kick wasn't awful, but it doesn't appear Miles considered the risk of an Alabama drive, but in his defense, who saw that coming? I hate to pin things on the defense, who played great all night, but they played miserable football in the final two minutes of each half. It's a disturbing trend this season - LSU cannot stop two-minute drills.

But the mistake here probably wasn't the long field goal, it was Miles' old bugaboo, clock management. LSU has 2nd and 2 at the 35 and Ware lost two yards. Miles then calls a timeout with 1:18 left. He then calls a pass play, which falls incomplete and stops the clock again. Essentially, Miles saved the clock for Alabama to make that drive. Kicking the long field goal isn't terrible, but doing it with a minute left probably was. Run the damn clock.

DECISION #3: The ONSIDE KICK

The Situation: With 3:35 left in the 3rd quarter, LSU finally scores a touchdown and cuts the lead to 14-10. Miles calls for an onside kick to get the ball right back.

The Thought Process: We have them on their heels, let's attack. Go for the jugular.

The Fallout: James Hairston touched the ball a half yard too early, so LSU's recovery is wiped out by penalty. LSU's defense forces a fumble in the red zone to prevent any damage on the scoreboard. I know this play didn't work, but man, I love this call. It was all aggression and it showed Miles' greatest strength: faith in his players to make plays. Part of taking risk is that there is actual risk, but it ended up not costing LSU any points and set the tone for the fourth quarter. LSU was going for the win, not playing passive football. Really, this was a slightly better bounce, or just more patience from Hairston, away from being a call people are raving about. Had it worked, Miles just would've been "lucky" again.

DECISION #4: The WARECAT

The Situation: There's about nine minutes left, LSU is up 17-14 and once again, a drive has stalled right around the Alabama 30 yard line (the 25, to be exact). Hill failed on 3rd and 2 to set up 4th and a very long 1.

The Thought Process: I don't trust my kicker. Alleman has been unreliable all season, and in this game, especially from the middle distance. Besides, a field goal doesn't do me a whole lot of good, I want a touchdown. We're running the ball nearly at will and on top of that, the Warecat formation has been highly successful for me all year long. I'm putting the ball in the hands of my best unit to try and put this game away.

The Fallout: Spencer Ware fails to make a first down. Alabama gets it on downs and promptly goes three and out. Now, I'm going to ask you honestly: do you think Alleman hits that field goal? And even if he does, do you think LSU wins the game? I think the answer to both question is no. A field goal doesn't win the game there, and Alabama's going for the TD anyway. I also don't think Miles "took points off the board." Could he have made a better play call? Maybe. But the Warecat's been money for LSU all season long in short yardage, and we had even shown a tendency to run wide or even throw out of the formation. I don't think we tipped run up the middle. And even if we did, you have to have faith your bet unit can pick up one yard in crunch time. I have to be honest, I thought Miles made the absolute correct call here. But sometimes the correct call doesn't work out. That's life.

DECISION #5: KICKING A FIELD GOAL AGAIN

The Situation: LSU is still up 17-14, now with only 1:39 to play. LSU has the ball on the 28 yard line on 4th and 6 and Alabama has used their last timeout. Miles sends out the kicking unit.

The Thought Process: Get 3 points and force Alabama to score a touchdown instead of forcing OT with a field goal.

The Fallout: Alleman, of course, missed. Alabama drove down the field in 5 plays and 43 seconds to score the winning touchdown. OK, Miles didn't know the defense would fold again, after playing so great in the second half, but two-minute drills have been a team weakness all season long. And here's what gets me, the field goal doesn't help that much. Let's say that Alleman has a 25% chance of hitting a 45-yarder. Even then, you haven't put the game away. However, a 4th and 6 play has about the same 25% chance of working and if it works, you win. Game over.

Miles chose the "safe" play which really was no safer than just going for it, and with less advantage to be gained. Also, it was the first call Miles made all night that did not show faith in his players to make plays. Converting the 4th and 6 was unlikely, but it was no more unlikely than a long field goal, with a far a greater reward.

People are criticizing Miles for being too aggressive. In fact, he wasn't aggressive enough.

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