They huddled together at the 25-yard line 90 minutes before kickoff, the player and coach who had endured so much scrutiny and criticism since LSU's 19--17 loss to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl last January. It had been a long, difficult off-season for Tigers quarterback Jordan Jefferson and coach Les Miles, and now Miles talked to the junior about applying the lessons he had learned in the spring. But mostly he talked about starting fresh.
When 21st-ranked LSU survived a late scare from No. 18 North Carolina to win 30--24 at the Georgia Dome last Saturday, it was clear that both Jefferson and Miles had moved on from 2009. The game was one of several surprising results in an oddly uneven day in the SEC, from No. 4 Florida's ugly win over Miami (Ohio) to Ole Miss's loss to I-AA Jacksonville State.
Facing a team gutted by suspensions, ineligibility—13 Tar Heels sat out the game—and distraction (assistant coach John Blake, whose ties to an agent are being investigated, would resign one day later), Jefferson delivered one of his finest performances. Showing poise in the pocket, the 6'5", 224-pounder completed 15 of 21 passes for 151 yards and two TDs. "Jordan is growing up," says LSU passing-game coordinator Billy Gonzales.
Jefferson's maturation was evident when he walked to the line with 2:37 left in the first half and the ball at the Tigers' 49. Surveying the defense, he noted that the Heels had only 10 players on the field. As Jefferson dropped back, he saw the safety on the right side sprint to cover a receiver running a route to the sideline. That left the middle of the field wide-open. Jefferson launched a beautiful TD pass to Rueben Randle. The score put LSU up 30--10.
"That long play," says Jefferson, "shows exactly what I've been working on."
Just 19 last fall, Jefferson was the youngest starting quarterback in the SEC—and it showed. He rarely threw downfield, and he held the ball too long. (LSU allowed 37 sacks, tied for most in the conference.) That has changed (Carolina sacked Jefferson once), maybe in time to save Miles's job. Over the last two years he is 0--6 against Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss, and his teams have suffered several late-game meltdowns. Tempers are short among the Tigers faithful. As Miles left the field, an LSU fan stood in the corner stands and yelled, "You're gone, Miles! You're gone! Just quit now!"
The coach kept his head down. Jefferson, walking behind, did the same. They were moving on.
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AL TIELEMANS (JEFFERSON)
UNTOUCHABLE Jefferson didn't often have to run for his life against the Tar Heels, who sacked him just once.