10 years later: Jacob Hester revisits crazy LSU win at 2007 SEC Championship win

BATON ROUGE, La. — Dec. 1, 2007 was undoubtedly one of the craziest, most unpredictable days in college football history. In the eye of the storm sat the 2007 LSU Tigers, one of the craziest and most unpredictable teams in college football history.

Now 10 years later to the day, it’s time to look back on one of the most bizarre moments in LSU, and college football, history. LSU legend Jacob Hester spoke with SEC Country to recount the events of that day, from a surreal stay in the hotel before the game to the pillows being thrown and drinks being spilled on the plane ride home.

This, as Hester remembers it, is the story of LSU’s 2007 SEC Championship Game victory.

Before the storm

Things didn’t look good for LSU. Sure, the Tigers were set to play for the SEC championship. But less than a week before the trip to Atlanta, the Tigers lost to rival Arkansas. It was LSU’s second triple-overtime loss of the season, and it dropped LSU down from No. 1 in the BCS standings to No. 5.

LSU’s players knew there was a chance to make it into the National Championship, but that chance was slim. No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Georgia were idle, so No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia both had to lose, and LSU had to win the SEC Championship Game versus Tennessee if the Tigers had any shot of making it into the BCS top 2.

Compounding the issue, LSU was without its starting quarterback. Fifth-year senior Matt Flynn was injured and couldn’t go, paving the way for sophomore Ryan Perrilloux, who was making just the second start of his college career.

Hester said he and his teammates knew the odds were against them, but they were keenly focused on winning the SEC title.

“I’d be lying if I said we thought maybe we’d find a way back into the national championship,” Hester said. “We knew a lot of things had to happen for us to get back in, but we knew our résumé was good. But for us, we felt like playing in an SEC championship still meant something. We had gone before and got beat pretty bad by Georgia. That was something that still played on our minds. And look: Anyone who plays in the SEC will tell you that it’s extremely hard to win an SEC championship, so we still had that goal in front of us.”

Things get weird

Reports surfaced on the day before the game that LSU coach Les Miles would be leaving LSU to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Michigan. But Hester and his teammates hadn’t heard from Miles.

Usually, that would be a harbinger of impending doom.

But at LSU in 2007, Hester didn’t believe this could be true. That season, Miles had former a “unity council,” a group of upperclassmen to whom Miles deferred for team decisions. Hester, Flynn, safety Craig Steltz, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey and punter Patrick Fisher made up the council, helping to advise Miles on how to conduct team and player discipline decisions.

Hester firmly believed Miles wouldn’t have considered leaving LSU without first consulting the unity council.

“We knew that if there was any possibility, he would’ve called us into a meeting before and kind of given us a heads up,” Hester said. “That’s the guy he was. When you see those reports, most of the time you think ‘This thing’s true’ if somebody comes out and says it’s a for sure deal. But we knew without hearing it from his mouth it wasn’t true.”

Hester used his hunch as a leadership tool. He went to younger running backs, such as Charles Scott and Keiland Williams, and told them how he felt. He gushed about how admirable it is for a coach to turn down his alma mater and stay loyal to his players, talking about how much confidence this shows Miles has in LSU.

“This guy just turned down his dream job,” Hester said he told his teammates. “A job where he played football. He has a lot of respect for it. He’ll tell you he’s a Michigan Man. And he turned it down because of the faith he has in you guys and the love he has for LSU.”

The morning of the SEC Championship Game, Miles called a press conference. Which is bizarre. Coaches usually don’t address job rumors, especially not hours before one of the biggest games of their lives. But Miles stood at the podium and said what was on his mind.

Watching with Flynn from the team hotel, Hester could barely believe what he was seeing.

“So the press conference is about to come on,” Hester said. “We’ve already found out that he isn’t taking the job. So I’m thinking ‘Press conference and he hasn’t taken the job? This is going to be fun.’ So he goes in and he does his deal, and I’ll tell you what: It fired us up a little bit to see him with that passion about us.”

So Miles was staying. Done deal. That’s over with. Now it’s time for a football game.

About Tennessee

Tennessee probably wasn’t the best team in the SEC East in 2007. That distinction probably belonged to Georgia, the highest-ranked SEC team in the BCS standings at the time. But the Vols were no slouches.

In addition to having beaten Georgia, Tennessee had also beaten another ranked team in South Carolina. But the No. 14 Vols were a three-loss team, having allowed a total of 145 points in defeats to California, Florida and Alabama. But Hester believes that statistic is misleading.

“I don’t think that Tennessee team gets enough credit for how good they were, especially defensively,” Hester said. “I know Eric Berry was young, but he was on that team. [Jerod] Mayo was a linebacker. And Erik Ainge seemed like he was in his 17th year at quarterback at Tennessee. So they had some veteran guys.”

Tennessee’s defense was led by a man who would become more familiar to LSU fans in the coming years: John Chavis. Knowing Chavis’ love of blitzes and exotic fronts, Hester said Flynn worked hard to prepare Perrilloux for all the different looks he was about to see. To his credit, Hester also said LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton did a good job of finding the eight or nine plays and packages that would best match Perrilloux’s skill set.

Not the best start for LSU

Tennessee got the ball to start the game and promptly stormed 57 yards in six plays over three minutes to take a 7-0 lead. Ainge was 2-for-2 with 24 yards and a touchdown, future Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster ran three times and Gerald Jones rumbled 20 yards on long carry of his own.

The Tigers reached the red zone on each of their first two drives but settled for a pair of 30-yard field goals to cut the Vols’ lead to 7-6.

After that, the game started to slog. LSU’s next three drives heading into halftime were a turnover on downs, a punt and a missed field goal. The turnover on downs surprised LSU the most. As Hester joked, the way that season went, it was more surprising when LSU failed on fourth down than when it succeeded.

Coming back out after halftime, LSU had a new spark. Perrilloux led LSU down the field 76 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers their first lead of the game, 13-7. The sophomore found Brandon LaFell for 48 yards on a 3rd-and-3 to extend the drive, and capped it with a 27-yard strike to Demetrius Byrd on 3rd-and-16 for the score.

The lead didn’t last long. By the end of the third quarter, Tennessee added another touchdown, giving the Vols a 14-13 advantage. By this point, LSU’s offense was sputtering. The Tigers followed their touchdown with a fumble, an interception and two punts.

The last punt from Fisher pinned Tennessee at its own 9-yard line with 10:45 remaining. After an incomplete pass on first down and a short completion on second down, Tennessee faced 3rd-and-5 from its own 14 with 9:54 remaining.

Which is when LSU found magic.

The play of the game

Ainge lined up in the shotgun and caught the snap, dropping back to throw. He looked to his right, where he had three receivers lined up. He threw toward the sideline, targeting his receiver standing at the numbers on the 20-yard line.

Senior defensive back Jonathan Zenon read the play the whole way. He jumped the route from the inside, stealing the ball out of the air. As soon as Zenon intercepted the pass, it became immediately clear that no one was going to bring him down. He had six points, and LSU had the lead.

“Jonathan Zenon is a guy who had a really good season that year but he got overshadowed with Chevis Jackson, who was a third-round pick, and Craig Steltz, who was an All-American,” Hester said. “But Zenon had been so stout that entire year. He wouldn’t have been the guy you thought was going to get it. Even a guy like Curtis Taylor had 5 interceptions that year. Steltz was even more than that. Heck, he had three in one game against Mississippi State.

“But Zenon came up with a huge play and the play we needed. He had a great year that year. Not a lot of people talked about him. But us as players knew he was capable of it.”

The interception gave LSU a 19-14 lead. The situation called for a two-point conversion attempt, but Hester said there was no extra pressure despite the size of the moment.

“Things usually when you’re going for 2 or going for a fourth down, you almost make the moment too big,” Hester said. “But for that year, the way Les was calling things and the way everything had worked out for us, when you call a 2-point play, you don’t even think about it. That’s just the way that year went. In moments like that, it was just another play.”

The conversion worked, of course, with Perrilloux scoring on a quarterback keeper. LSU went up 21-14. Then the defense closed the door. Tennessee turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, and linebacker Darry Beckwith intercepted Ainge in the red zone to ice the game in the final minutes.

LSU had won — and Miles’ presence might’ve had a lot to do with that.

“We knew what job he just turned down,” Hester said. “We didn’t make that a small thing. We knew how big that was for him to not go to Michigan. When a coach shows you loyalty, especially in this day in age when there’s not a lot of that, you appreciate it. You want to make sure you do the most you can for him.”

Help was coming

Little did LSU know during the SEC Championship Game, the team’s wildest dreams were in the process of coming true.

The Tigers boarded the team plane back to Baton Rouge after the win. While the Tigers were in the air, there were two pivotal games being played. No. 1 Missouri faced No. 9 Oklahoma for the Big 12 championship, and No. 2 West Virginia was hosting archrival Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl.

To put the moment in perspective, smartphones were in their infancy in 2007. The first iPhone debuted that summer, and as Hester remembered, only one or two players had them. But there wasn’t wifi on the plane, anyway. If the Tigers wanted score updates, they had to get them from the pilot, who received updates through his radio and relayed them to the team through the loudspeaker. As Hester heard the scores and found out West Virginia and Missouri were trailing, he still couldn’t quite believe what was happening.

“We were like ‘[West Virginia will] find a way. They’ve got Steve Slaton, Pat White, Darius Reynaud. They’ll score points,'” Hester said. “We’re on the team plane and the score updates kept coming in, and the Missouri-Oklahoma game updates keep coming in. You start sitting there thinking, ‘Maybe we’ve got a shot.’ With every score the pilot’s saying over the loudspeaker, we’re getting more and more intense.”

If Missouri and West Virginia both lost, Ohio State was definitely going to be in the top 2. Then it came down to Georgia and LSU. But LSU had the conference championship and wins over six ranked teams. If the dominoes fell, LSU was likely to get the other spot.

“By the time we landed, all the scores had come in,” Hester said. “We’d already celebrated somewhat on the plane. Even though we didn’t know 100 percent, we had been hearing that with our résumé, with the wins we had, with both of our losses coming in triple overtime, we had a real shot to make the thing. By the time we got from the airport to LSU, they’d pretty much all but said we were in.

“You can imagine there were pillows being thrown, blankets flying everywhere, drinks are spilling. There are no seat belts being worn on this plane. Everybody’s up celebrating. You’ll never forget moments like that.”

Hester recalls Flynn running around kissing teammates on the forehead and high-fiving everyone in sight. With the way the season had gone, this was the way it had to end: with a berth in the BCS Championship Game.

“There’s no dull part of that year,” Hester said. “It didn’t matter who we were playing. Didn’t matter what was going on. Just the way that season went. No season has ever gone like that. There’s never been a two-loss champion since then. I know Auburn’s in the playoff picture right now, but nothing like that has ever happened. We knew it was a crazy, quirky, special season. But when you’re part of a championship, to be a part of a championship that unfolded the way ours did is even more special.”

The post 10 years later: Jacob Hester revisits crazy LSU win at 2007 SEC Championship win appeared first on SEC Country.

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