BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU coach Les Miles had no idea he was taking the biggest gamble of the entire season.
Auburn was clinging to a 24-23 lead when LSU moved into field-goal range in the final minute of this Southeastern Conference Western Division showdown. The clock had ticked down to 16 seconds left when LSU lined up at Auburn's 22.
Miles could have called for a short pass before calling his final timeout to set up a game-winning field goal. He could have immediately called the timeout and sent his kicking unit onto the field.
He instead decided to make one final pass into the end zone.
"There was the anticipation we would (still) have time to kick a field goal because we were in field-goal range," Miles said.
He didn't need it.
Matt Flynn threw a perfect strike to Demetrius Byrd for a 22-yard touchdown pass with one second remaining as LSU kept its national-championship hopes alive with a 30-24 victory over Auburn.
Miles should say a prayer of thanksgiving that Byrd made the catch. If the pass had been deflected or dropped, time may have run out before LSU (7-1 overall, 4-1 in the SEC) could have attempted a field goal.
"I looked over, saw there was only one second left and almost had a heart attack," said LSU running back Jacob Hester, whose outstanding block in the backfield gave Flynn enough time to make the critical pass.
LOUISIANA STATE 30, AUBURN 24
Offensive player of the game
LSU QB Matt Flynn, a senior, rebounded from a disappointing performance against Kentucky by going 22-of-34 for a career-high 319 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception that came on a dropped pass. His numbers would have been even better if LSU's receivers hadn't dropped so many passes.
If that last-second touchdown pass to Byrd had been deflected or dropped, time might have run out on LSU, but that wasn't the only strange move in the final two minutes. After taking a 24-23 lead with 3:21 left, Auburn attempted a squib kick that allowed LSU to begin its final drive at its 42.
LSU WR Early Doucet returned to action after missing most of the Tigers' past five games with a groin injury. Doucet led all receivers with seven catches for 93 yards. Auburn DE Quentin Groves also played after sitting out two games with dislocated toes. Groves recorded his 26th career sack to tie the school record set by Gerald Robinson (1982-85).
Auburn WR Montez Billings entered the game with 11 catches for 128 yards, but he caught six passes for 78 yards against LSU. Billings scored his first career touchdown when he capped Auburn's opening possession with a 17-yard reception.
LSU DT Glenn Dorsey – arguably the best defensive player in the nation – left the game for good after being blocked below the knee by Auburn G Chaz Ramsey in the third quarter. LSU coach Les Miles said he thought Dorsey would be fine, but he planned to look at the game film to see whether Dorsey was the victim of a dirty hit. "It's one thing if it's not intentional," Miles said. "But if it's an intentional post-and-chop, that went out in the '70s. That's terrible."
What this means for Auburn
Auburn saw its four-game winning streak end. It falls out of a first-place tie in the SEC West and loses to a top-five team for the first time under Tommy Tuberville, who had been 3-0 in these types of matchups since coming to Auburn. The Tigers play host to Ole Miss next week.
What this means for LSU
The Tigers keep their national-title hopes alive and should be ranked no lower than third when the BCS standings come out Sunday. LSU gets a week off before meeting former coach Nick Saban on Nov. 3 at Alabama in a matchup of SEC West leaders.
LSU set a school record with its 18th consecutive home victory. The Tigers had won 17 in a row at Death Valley from 1935-37. … LSU also has won 25 consecutive Saturday night home games. … Flynn set career highs in pass attempts (34), completions (22) and passing yards (319).
Miles already had earned a reputation as one of college football's biggest riverboat gamblers two weeks ago when LSU went five-of-five on fourth-down conversions to rally from a 10-point deficit in a 28-24 victory over Florida.
But this represented his biggest risk yet.
When a team has its back against the wall, as the Tigers did in the Florida game, you expect them to pull out all the stops. But in this case, LSU was going for broke when it already had a chance to win with a 39-yard field goal.
LSU simply never expected so much time to run off the clock on that touchdown play.
"There was a sense of urgency," Flynn said. "I was trying to get the play called and get everybody lined up. I felt that as much time was left, that we could get an incomplete (pass) and still have some time on the clock."
Why take the risk at all?
LSU believed Byrd was fast enough to outrun Jerraud Powers, who was responsible for man-to-man coverage in the scheme Auburn's defense was playing during that final series. Byrd had even motioned to offensive coordinator Gary Crowton to let him know he could get open for a long gain.
"I was looking up to the press box and raising my hand to Coach Crowton," Byrd said. "I guess he saw me."
Crowton called for "144 Go," which has Byrd and Early Doucet run vertical patterns. Powers actually covered Byrd so tightly on the play that LSU could have argued for interference, but Flynn threw a perfect pass that fell right into Byrd's hands.
Only after the Tigers finished celebrating did they look at the scoreboard and notice how the decision could have backfired.
"I had a timeout that I could call (beforehand), but I did not expect it to come down to one second," Miles said. "I didn't have it timed out that far."
Then again, who could have blamed Miles for betting his season on Flynn's right arm? Flynn, a senior, had kept LSU afloat all night by delivering arguably the greatest performance of his career.
Flynn withstood numerous drops to go 22-of-34 for 319 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, on a pass that bounced off the hands of LSU receiver Brandon LaFell. Flynn went 13-of-22 for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the second half to help LSU rally from a 17-7 halftime deficit.
"That was the Matt Flynn we remember from the Miami game (a 40-3 Peach Bowl victory in 2005) in his first start," Miles said.
Flynn needed to come up big to overcome his teammates' mistakes.
One week after a heartbreaking 43-37 triple overtime loss to Kentucky, LSU came out flat and allowed Auburn (5-3, 3-2) to score a touchdown on the game's opening possession. Auburn reached the end zone again in the second quarter after Powers returned a Ryan Perrilloux fumble 36 yards to set up Carl Stewart's 1-yard dive.
With his team 30 minutes from getting knocked out of national-title contention, Flynn provided a halftime pep talk that helped spark a comeback.
"I just kind of told the team at halftime that we've been beating ourselves the past couple of weeks," Flynn said. "I said, 'Let's grow up and end it right here. Let's make the second half define our season. Let's make the second half define who we are as an offense.' ''
The mistakes had started in the first half when Zac Etheridge knocked the ball loose from Perrilloux to set up Powers' long return. And they continued in the second half when the pass bounced off LaFell's hands and landed in the arms of Pat Lee, turning a potential touchdown pass into an improbable interception. But the biggest mistake would have come if time had run out before Colt David could have tried a game-winning field goal.
As it turned out, LSU didn't even need to attempt that kick.
"It was a risky call," Flynn said. "The coaches have all the confidence in the world in these players. It's nice to have that."
It certainly was a bold decision. Was it a smart decision?
We'll leave that up to the opposition to decide.
"They converted and scored," Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox said, "so I guess it was a good call."