They were waiting.
Adorned in every style of headgear — sombreros, top hats, purple-and-gold feather afros, flat bills and snapbacks — the student section waited for LSU coach Les Miles to be there for the traditional rendition of the Alma Mater following Alabama’s 21-17 stunner in Tiger Stadium.
After 22 straight home wins and just one Saturday night loss under Miles, it was a Pavlovian reaction.
It was also a futile one as Miles, his famous hat burrowed especially low, barreled with a blank face past them to the tunnel and into the depths of the stadium.
There would be no payoff for the Mad Hatter’s gambles this time. This was the flip side of the coin with which Miles so often gambles.
For once, it was the opposing team that pulled one out of its hat against LSU.
“I want the people to look at this film and say, LSU had opportunities to win this time, like they did with Alabama when we won in Tuscaloosa last year,” said LSU junior defensive end Sam Montgomery.
Cover the score on the final stat sheet, and nearly everything else suggests a Tiger win.
The Tigers won the turnover battle, almost doubled Alabama in time of possession and outgained the Crimson Tide by 104 yards.
It’s the kind of dominant stat line LSU has been on the opposite side of many times in recent memory, only to rescue wins with a little Miles magic or the kind of improbable drive Tide quarterback AJ McCarron mustered in the waning moments.
There was a failed onside kick, a missed fourth-down conversion, a botched attempt at a fake field goal and a questionable decision to kick a 54-yard field goal near the end of the first half.
It’s a laundry list of aggressive playcalling, the kind noticeably absent from Miles’ repertoire through the first eight games of this season.
“Our football team came in here to win,” said Miles, who railed against people that “discounted” LSU leading up to Saturday night. “We did not go timidly into the night. We went after it. I felt that we played extremely hard.”
He saved those accolades for his players. With a pained face, Miles was left grasping for stat sheets, tape recorders and a microphone — anything he could reach — during the postgame news conference as he lamented his own shortcomings.
“I wish I could have had a couple of my calls back, just so you know,” he said. “That is the way it goes sometimes. ... I told the team in the locker room that we win and lose in the same way: as a team. Nobody feels worse than [any player] in this room. I feel worse.”
The doubt came on a night that should have felt like one of his greatest triumphs, as Miles largely shored up his critics’ typical concerns.
The Tigers’ offense combined Les’ penchant for a hard-nosed rushing attack with a clutch and efficient sideline-to-sideline passing attack.
“The game plan was almost perfect,” said freshman offensive lineman Trai Turner.
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the rest of the offense didn’t turn the ball over once.
Even after a few critical early flags, the Tigers finished below their season average in number of penalties and yards penalized.
Those were ultimately mundane successes, not the momentum-changers LSU is so accustomed to earning under Miles.
“We put our defense in some tough situations,” said freshman running back Jeremy Hill. “There were a lot of momentum shifts in the game. You wish you could have some of them back. It’s a sickening feeling — unexplainable.”
Players say they come to LSU for Miles’ gregarious nature, to experience the euphoria of having a coach so confident in them that he will risk everything on the field for them.
According to senior offensive tackle Josh Dworaczyk, that confidence is unwavering, even after Saturday’s misfires.
“You could see some conflict in him in the locker room, because he was proud of us but felt like he let us down,” Dworaczyk said. “The way he put it, it was a heavyweight fight that ended in a decision, one we didn’t get. Coach was trying to push on the gas, and we were right there with him 100 percent.”
But it was Miles who faced the consequences alone, walking off the field silently, flanked only by an LSU official as fans above one side of the tunnel chastised him and fans on the other side consoled.
After filming his postgame interview on the empty north end zone turf, Miles peered toward the vacant student section and let out an exasperated sigh.
Call it gambler’s remorse.