2017 Best Game Story: Andrea Adelson

By Andrea Adelson
ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. — The game clock showed 2:01. Deshaun Watson gathered his teammates and told them simply, “We’re going to get this touchdown. We’re going to win this national championship.”

Nobody on that sideline doubted. Not with Watson under center. Everybody wearing orange and purple firmly believed they had the best player in the country on their side, Heisman or no Heisman. They reminded everybody: Heismans are voted on; championships are won.

This would be it for him, on the last drive, in his last game.

“I’d seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew,” Watson said after Monday’s title game. “I told myself, ‘They left too much time on the clock.'”

First play, pass complete. Second play, pass complete. Down the field they went, a march toward inevitability. When Watson arrived at Clemson in January 2013, he tweeted, “Me. In a National Championship Game. I’m just waiting on that moment.”

It came on first-and-goal at the Alabama 2. The play call came in: Crush. Watson would roll out and go to receiver Hunter Renfrow in the flat.

“We knew that play was going to work,” Clemson receiver Mike Williams said. “When you want it the most, you go out with your best call. We knew that was our best call.”

The play call was brilliant. So was its execution.

“I saw the whole play develop, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, wide open,'” Tigers defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “I’m on field goal unit, so I sprinted right onto the field as Deshaun was throwing it. I knew it was game. One second left. It was beautiful timing.” More…

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2016 Best Game Story: Glenn Guilbeau

Comment by the judge, Mickey Spagnola: This LSU-Texas A&M contest was a complex game, and thought the writer did a wonderful job capturing the emotion of what was taking place with LSU head coach Les Miles, but also gave us a feel for the actually took place in the game, too. Great depth to this piece. A pleasure to read.

By Glenn Guilbeau, Lafayette Advertiser/Gannett Louisiana Newspapers

BATON ROUGE – After two weeks of being stalked by the elephant in the room wanting to fire him, LSU football coach Les Miles rode a pair of “elephants” off into the sunrise. His sunset will have to wait.

LSU trampled Texas A&M, 19-7, Saturday night in the regular season finale to snap a three-game losing streak and save Miles’ job in front of 80,000 at Tiger Stadium. Then offensive tackle Vadal Alexander, who is 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, and defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, who is 6-5, 300, put Miles, a hefty former Michigan guard in his own right, on their shoulders and carried him across the field amid chants of “Keep Les Miles … Keep Les Miles.”

Moments later, Miles met with LSU President F. King Alexander, who assured him he would remain the Tigers’ coach following two weeks of his job hanging in the balance as LSU athletic director Joe Alleva and some members of the Board of Supervisors, cast as Miles’ executioners, readied to release him.

“Scary. I want you to know, scary,” Miles said of the players’ ride, not the walk through the valley of fired at press conferences, a radio show and a Gridiron Club booster meeting over the last week.

“I want you to know, one, they’re tall,” Miles said of his purple and gold elephants. “And when you’re sitting up there, you know, I now know what it’s like to ride an elephant. Scares you to death, and you just pray that you can hang on to the ears, because there’s just not much to grab on to. But I was thrilled. I was touched, pleased.”

Miles had little to cling to over the last two weeks as well. Three publications produced stories that said Miles was coaching for his job after 30-16 and 31-14 losses to Alabama and Arkansas that followed a 7-0 start, 4-0 opening in the Southeastern Conference and a No. 2 national ranking. Then LSU Board of Supervisors member Ronald Anderson said that even if Miles beat Ole Miss and Texas A&M to finish 9-2, “it’s still something that needs to be looked at,” in reference to Miles’ job status.

“It’s the way they lost the two games,” Anderson said.

Then LSU lost the third straight game in similar fashion, falling behind early by 24-0 at Ole Miss and only getting back in the game briefly before a 34-17 loss that completed the trilogy. Not since 1966 had the Tigers lost three in a row by 14 or more.

Suddenly, it looked over, particularly amid reports that Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and/or his agent, Jimmy Sexton, had been contacted about Fisher, who was the offensive coordinator when LSU won its first national championship in 45 years in 2003 and won the 2013 national title at Florida State, taking the job.

Miles talked like it was over or near over as well at two press conferences last week, at his radio show Wednesday night and at a Gridiron Club booster meeting on Friday where he said it looked like he would not be coaching LSU’s bowl game. All the while, Alleva said nothing, saying only that he would comment after the season.

“I’d get up in the morning early, have me a little breakfast, and I’d go off to work,” Miles said when asked about his last two weeks, knowing he may be fired. “Occasionally I’d see somebody staring at me, like, ‘Are you going to? Are you not going to?’ I’d say to them, ‘I’m going to work. I love my job. I’m doing my job as best I can.’”

Then, the momentum of the Fire Miles movement slowed by Friday as national media continued to harshly criticize LSU for being on the verge of firing the freewheeling “Mad Hatter” despite a .769 winning percentage, a national championship in 2007, a national championship game appearance in 2011, two SEC titles and four double-digit win seasons from 2010-13. On Saturday morning, Board of Supervisors member Stanley Jacobs finally broke LSU’s silence with a statement to Gannett Louisiana supportive of Miles.

“There has been much speculation that Les Miles is coaching his last game tonight,” Jacobs said. “For that to happen, there would have had to have been a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors. No recommendation has been made. He is our coach, and I wish him well.”

Later Saturday, the Palm Beach Post reported Fisher had told Florida State’s president he was staying at Florida State. Then LSU defeated Texas A&M as Miles was cheered before kickoff at Senior Night ceremonies and during and after the game. Alleva, meanwhile, was roundly booed when he appeared via recording on the giant video board welcoming fans to Death Valley before the game. The fans’ signs in the stadium favored Miles in a landslide. “Keep The Hat, Fire The Rat,” said one.

“When I walked out there for Senior Day, I did expect cheers,” Miles said. “But it was their insistence of cheering and getting my attention. I wondered at first, ‘Is that for me?’ Then I said, ‘That must be for me.’ So I took my hat off, and boy I tell you, I was just really pleased.”

LSU proceeded to run behind Alexander and company to a vintage Miles victory – 244 yards rushing and only 83 passing – while the troubled defense held the Aggies to 89 yards on the ground and 250 total.

“It was a nice night,” Miles said. “Victory is always enjoyed, especially when it comes a couple of weeks late. It’s nice to be the head coach at LSU. Proud to be associated with a great institution. It’s a joy. Nice to have them come say, ‘You know the job you’ve been doing, you still can do it.’ And I like that.”

Alleva tried to make nice afterwards. “I want to make it very clear and positive that Les Miles is our football coach,” he said. “And he will continue to be our football coach. Les and I have talked, We have talked about this program, and we are committed together to work and compete at the highest level.”

Jacobs is glad Miles will be still LSU’s coach. “I’m thrilled to death that Les is staying,” Jacobs said after the game. “I did not know he would be until we started winning in the second half. He deserves to be our head coach.”

Not all board members were as happy. Anderson was reached after the game, but had no comment, though he did intimate that Miles may have had him in mind when answering a question after the game concerning those who wanted him gone.

“There’s probably a guy or two I’d like to meet in an alley and just have a little straight talk with,” Miles said. “But I’m not built that way.”

Miles won his LSU career saving game his way – with the run and not the pass. “The game itself was an imperfect fistfight,” Miles said. “The guy who delivered our body blows was Leonard Fournette.”

Fournette gained 159 yards on 32 carries, and the sophomore tailback from New Orleans became the school’s all-time leading rusher for a season with 1,741 yards, passing Charles Alexander’s 1,686 in 1977. His 4-yard touchdown run with 2:50 to go put the game on ice at 19-7 and started more of the “Keep Les Miles” chants.

“The motor seems to be pretty stinking strong,” Miles said defiantly when asked if he was told to change his offense for next year.

“I can say, it’s been one of the longest few weeks of my life,” Fournette said. “It was hard for everybody. It’s been hard – not just about Coach Miles, but when you lose three. It wasn’t easy. It’s hard to deal with.”

The Tigers (8-3, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) will likely return to the top 25 on Sunday, and next week will learn its bowl destination. A bowl in which Miles now plans on coaching.

“I want you to know something, I love coaching football,” Miles said.

“The players love him as our coach,” LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre said. “I love him as my coach. He’s been a great coach since before we’ve been here. He’s built a legacy here.”

The Tigers won at least eight games in a season for the 16th consecutive season and will be going to a 16th straight bowl – 11 straight under Miles.

“We wanted to come in here, and we wanted to get a win,” LaCouture said after letting Miles off his shoulders. “We needed it. We wanted it. Coach Miles deserved it. We love him to death. We thought as a team that he deserved the win. Let’s make one thing clear – the chain of command starts with Coach Miles. That’s how we think of it. We wouldn’t want anyone else here.”

Glenn Guilbeau

Glenn Guilbeau gguilbeau@gannett.com

Glenn Guilbeau

AGE: 55

COLLEGE: University of Missouri-Columbia

BACKGROUND: Guilbeau won a first place this year  for the first time since the 2001 contest, when he took Game Story in the now-defunct “Loose Deadline” category, which appealed to him, for an account of “morning in Tiger Stadium” after a watershed upset the night before by unranked LSU and first-year coach Nick Saban over No. 11 Tennessee. His Game Story winner in the current contest on tight deadline was an account of LSU’s 19-7 victory over Texas A&M last season that saved Coach Les Miles job until early this season that is. Guilbeau also placed second this year for a Column describing the same dramatic week when Miles’ future hung in the balance a year ago. His honorable mention was for a Feature on LSU running back Leonard Fournette. … Guilbeau, a native of the New Orleans area, had honorable mention in Column in 2015 and 2014 and placed several times in early FWAA contests in the 1990s with a second in Game Story, two thirds in Column and a fourth in Enterprise. He has covered college football for more than 30 years at the Tiger Rag Magazine in Baton Rouge (1983-84), the Montgomery Advertiser (1985-86), the Alexandria Town Talk (1987-93), the Mobile Register (1993-98), the Baton Rouge Advocate (1998-2004) and since 2004 at the Gannett Louisiana/USA Today Network, where he also covers the Saints. Guilbeau lives in Baton Rouge with his wife, Michelle, a former political reporter at the Baton Rouge Advocate who is now communications director for state treasurer John Kennedy, and their boxer mix Bailey Bama, who (don’t tell LSU fans) is from a pound in Union Springs, Ala., and has never seen LSU beat Alabama in football.

2015 Best Game Story, by Ivan Maisel

ffaw_redesignComment by the judge, Alan Cox: Good look at one of the bigger games of the season as Oregon beat seemingly unbeatable Florida State, hitting home the key plays from the game. The article gave you a feel for what happened without simply being just a complete play-by-play recap, and had a great variety of quotes from both sides. It had a great lead and was easy and enjoyable to read.

By Ivan Maisel

ESPN.com

PASADENA, Calif. – Give a game ball to the data geeks, the emotionless analysts who crunched the numbers and determined that No. 2 Oregon would beat No. 3 Florida State and advance to the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

Ivan Maisel

Ivan Maisel

Those of us governed by the pit of our stomachs, the ones who had seen the defending national champion Seminoles find a way to win no matter how scruffy their play, had trouble buying into the staging of Duck Dynasty at the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual.

Yes, Oregon had a plus-20 edge in turnover margin, but Florida State had come from behind in nine of its last 11 games.

Yes, the Ducks dominated the Pac-12, winning their last eight games by an average of 25 points, but the Seminoles had won seven games by six points or fewer. They had the indomitable quarterback, Jameis Winston, who had not lost since a high school game in 2011.

When the sun no longer lit the San Gabriel Mountains and the fourth quarter of the inaugural semifinal began, Florida State would seize control.

It didn’t quite work out that way on a typically spectacular New Year’s Day in the Arroyo Seco. By the time the fourth quarter began, all Florida State had seized was up. The Seminoles’ 29-game winning streak vaporized, their composure lost somewhere amid five turnovers in six possessions in the second half, Jimbo Fisher’s squad got steamrolled by the Ducks 59-20.

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2014 Best Game Story, by Ivan Maisel

Comment by the judge: Great look at the most compelling game and play of the entire 2013 college football season that helps readers picture it perfectly in their heads. The story featured a great sampling of quotes from all those involved, including great snippets from Chris Davis. However, I especially enjoyed the quotes from Alabama tight end Brian Vogler, who was covering on the play, which provided a unique perspective I had not seen in any other articles about this game.

By Ivan Maisel

ESPN.com

Ivan Maisel

Ivan Maisel

AUBURN, Ala. — Someday, someday, there will be a greater Iron Bowl finish than this one. Babe Ruth died, and the Yankees continue to play. Sinatra has come and gone, and people still sing. Forty-one years after “Punt Bama Punt,” Chris Davis caught a field goal attempt nine yards deep in the end zone, and started running.

So it’s possible that the way that No. 4 Auburn dethroned No. 1 Alabama 34-28, will be eclipsed. But at this moment Saturday night, with the cheers at Jordan-Hare Stadium still reverberating from here to Columbus, Ohio, it doesn’t seem possible at all. With the clock showing all zeroes, Davis returned Adam Griffith’s Hail Mary of a 57-yard field goal attempt 109 yards for a touchdown.

“We saw they had a guy back there,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “Everybody knew they had to cover him. We just didn’t, we didn’t cover it right.”

In the 15 seconds or so that it took Davis to sprint from end line to end line, Alabama lost its chance at a third consecutive BCS championship; Auburn won the SEC West and planted itself in the BCS title debate, No. 3 Ohio State saw its BCS hopes come to life, and the spectrum of emotions that college football can elicit stretched a little beyond its limit.

“I knew when I caught the ball I would have room to run,” Davis said, “and I knew we had bigger guys on the field to protect and that was all after that.”

The game unfolded as Alabama’s toughest games have unfolded all season long. The Tide started slow, fell behind, warmed up and took the lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a 99½-yard touchdown pass from AJ McCarron to Amari Cooper. In any other Iron Bowl, that would’ve been the stuff of legend. But then Alabama’s karma got run over by Auburn’s karma, in which the Tigers keep believing until they pull off a miracle finish. That’s what happened against Georgia, when Ricardo Louis caught a deflected pass for a 73-yard touchdown in the final minute.

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2013 Best Game Story, by Ivan Maisel

Comment by the judge, Gene Duffey: Good lead that quickly told the story of Baylor football. Story captured the mood of the game and Baylor’s dominance. Liked the reference to Baylor knowing what a Heisman winner is like compared with Collin Klein. Nice quotes from Snyder and Klein.

By Ivan Maisel

ESPN.com

Ivan Maisel

Ivan Maisel

WACO, Texas — Floyd Casey Stadium will never be confused with Death Valley or the Horseshoe or any of the college football palaces where road teams get mugged. It seats 50,000 in theory, if rarely in reality, because Baylor just doesn’t fill it up. It’s old and unloved and five miles from campus, and Baylor can’t wait to tell you about the new stadium it will open in two years.
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