At the end of the 2004 season, Nick Saban ended his long flirtation with the NFL and bolted for the Miami Dolphins. Fans howled with outrage and then moved on to finding a new coach, with much higher standards this time.
Just a year removed from a national title, LSU wouldn’t settle for some guy working his way up the ranks. They wanted an established big name coach, befitting a championship program. However, Skip Bertman wasted no time in identifying his man, hiring Les Miles a few days after Saban’s last game.
LSU fans are never so happy as when they complain about the coach, so the pitchforks were out before Les Miles even coached a single game, but then real life intervened. The state of Louisiana was hit by the twin punches of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, leaving a path of devastation in their wake.
LSU would play its first home game in Arizona, a thriller over Arizona St. The first on campus sporting event of the school year wouldn’t be until September 21, when LSU hosted Tennessee at Tiger Stadium. The PMAC was a stopgap medical facility right next door, still housing 6000 patients on game day.
Simply put, the Tigers represented something more than just a game that season. Sure, they didn’t rebuild a house or save a life, but they gave a beleaguered state the illusion of normalcy for a few hours every weekend.
There are simply things more important than football. The players had to carry a state’s hopes and dreams, while they slept on floors and struggled to find their own slice of serenity. It was unfair to ask that of kids, but ask we did, and they rose to the occasion.
Les Miles, a Midwesterner with no experience with hurricanes or Louisiana culture, had to be more than a coach. He had to balance real lives instead of practice schedules, and he had to preserve the football team as a symbol for people to rally behind.
Skip Berman would recall years later,
”I can’t emphasize enough, everything we asked of Les he did. He never said, ‘But what about the game?’ As he always does, he put the kids first and family first.
”He did a wonderful job not just coaching the team but pulling them through this mother of all distractions. No coach in the history of college football has gone through this and could do it better than Les Miles handled it.”
Les Miles learned Louisiana culture all at once. The way we pull together, the pride we have in our unique cultural heritage. He was an outsider who immediately became one of us. He deferred to his players on whether or not to play, and he concerned himself with family even before team. On the ladder of who the team played for, the top rung for “TEAM” was replaced with “LOUISIANA.”
Due to the missed games early in the season, the team had no bye week, and the team was forced to play eleven straight weeks without a rest. The Tigers started with a loss to Tennessee, as the team almost literally ran out of gas in the second half. Then they rattled off nine straight wins before finally running out of steam in the SEC Championship Game.
Miles had survived a difficult first year and truly became part of the culture. He also learned an important lesson about the priority of football, which I think his coaching philosophy embodied for the rest of his LSU career. He was always aware of our larger place in the game. He seemed to enjoy the pageantry, the culture, the everything of the college football. Most coaches block out distractions, but Miles discovered it is the distractions which make these games so valuable.
Despite its run to the title game and a spot in the top ten, LSU didn’t qualify for a BCS bowl and instead got shipped to Atlanta again to play in the Peach Bowl against fellow top ten team, Miami. Both squads had been national title contenders and a tad disappointed not to be playing for the big crown that season.
Finally, with a chance to rest and a chance to get back something resembling their normal lives, LSU showed the world just how good this team really was. Had it not been for the hurricanes, its entirely possible the 2005 team would have won the national title. They were that good and that loaded with talent. But the 2005 season, if it taught us anything, it was that there are more important things than titles.
First among them is home.
Miami came into the game with the nation’s third ranked defense and top ranked pass defense. LSU’s star quarterback, JaMarcus Russell, was nursing an injury so Miles turned over the offense to sophomore Matt Flynn. The plan seemed simple: don’t get hurt, don’t get blown out.
Someone should have told Miami.
LSU’s first drive stalled out, and Chris Jackson missed a 50-yard field goal. Miami took over and went to its all Devin Hester all the time offense. Hester would line up under center on a few plays while also being their top receiving threat out of their usual formation. However, the Hurricanes couldn’t quite get in the end zone, settling for a 21-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Missing its star quarterback, the LSU offense struggled until Miles went to a more power rushing attack late in the quarter. A ten play drive would only feature one pass, and that was on third and nine. LSU couldn’t get in the end zone, but they tied the game up with a 37-yard field goal.
The key play of the game came early in the second quarter. Miami had the ball on the LSU 35 and on fourth and one, elected to go for it rather than punt. The LSU defense stiffened, and Kyle Wright’s QB sneak went nowhere. LSU took over on downs, and four plays later, Flynn connected with Craig Davis for a 51-yard touchdown. LSU took the lead 10-3, and never looked back.
Jackson would nail another 47-yard field goal to the score on LSU’s next possession. LSU had now scored on three consecutive possessions, but the game was still fairly tight at 13-3. Miami would actually move backwards on its next possession, and LSU would drive down the field again. Working against the clock, Flynn found Addai in the end zone on third-and-two from three-yard line with just 18 seconds left in the half.
Miami would get the ball first in the second with a chance to get back in the game, but the LSU defense held them to another three and out and zero yards gained. LSU took over at midfield and a steady diet of Joseph Addai would quickly result in another LSU touchdown. Any chance of a comeback was quickly destroyed.
Jacob Hester would add the next touchdown to go up 34-3. The party reached its apex when Jackson faced a punt on fourth and nine, scampering for a first down to set up a final field goal.
By the time the dust settled, LSU had destroyed the ninth-ranked team in the country, 40-3. It was the worst bowl loss in the history of the Miami program, and essentially ended the second era of the Miami dynasty. Miami always had a certain aura about them, and LSU completely punctured that balloon.
In the midst of the postgame celebration, Dwayne Bowe got in a fight with several Miami players in the tunnel, and several players would be sent to the hospital. LSU won both the game and the fight. And they did it without their best player.
The Miami game was a statement of what might have been. What we got instead was perhaps the most meaningful and inspirational team in LSU history. Seems like a fair trade.
35-31 Arizona St
An embarrassment of riches. The 2005 season was truly special and it was impossible to choose one game. I took the Miami game because it showed what LSU could do when fully rested and nearly healthy, but there was a classic nearly every week. The “home” game in Arizona St ending on a fourth down conversion for a touchdown. The huge lead at Tennessee that slipped through the team’s fingers due to exhaustion. Overcoming five turnovers to beat Florida. Auburn missing five field goals, including one in overtime. The comeback against Bama leading to another overtime win between top five teams. Clinging to dear life against Arkansas, and an intercepted two point conversion making up the margin of victory.
It’s hard to choose one game, which is what makes 2005 my favorite season ever.
What’s the Greatest Game of 2005?
This poll is closed
"Home" win at Arizona St
Exhausted effort v. Tennessee
Auburn misses. Again. And again. And again. And again.
Trading haymakers with Bama
Holding on to beat Arkansas
Beating up Miami. Twice.