NEW ORLEANS - Ricky Jean-Francois atoned for a season-long suspension by getting his big right hand on the ball for LSU.
If only Austin Spitler could have gotten a piece of it for Ohio State.
Everyone wants to talk about offense and defense, but it was a couple of lesser-known players — both of them putting in time on special teams — who played pivotal roles in LSU’s 38-24 victory over the Buckeyes in the BCS national championship game Monday night.
“Special teams always plays a key role,” Spitler said. “Unfortunately, it did not fall our way tonight.”
Start with Jean-Francois, who sat out the first 12 games for an off-the-field issue, presumably related to academics, before finally getting on the field in the Southeastern Conference title game last month.
“It made me start appreciating everything,” Jean-Francois said. “I felt like I wanted to leave school, but all my coaches told me to hang in there, something is going to come for you.”
The Tigers were sure glad they had the 281-pound sophomore from South Florida when Ohio State lined up for a 38-yard field goal midway through the second quarter, the game tied at 10, the Buckeyes poised to go back in front after squandering an early 10-0 lead.
Ryan Pretorius had been money all season, but there was nothing the Ohio State kicker could do when Jean-Francois bulled his way up the middle, stuck up his hand and batted the ball down before it ever had a chance to clear the line.
Darry Beckwich scooped up the loose ball, and the Tigers went off the other way for an eventual touchdown and their first lead.
“Their linemen weren’t putting their hands up. They were just using their shoulders,” Jean-Francois said. “So I backed up and tried to time the ball. When I got back there and saw my hand go up, I was like ’Please let me block this ball.’ When I blocked it I was just shocked.”
LSU coach Les Miles said his staff spotted some weaknesses in Ohio State’s protection scheme and spent the past two weeks trying to come up with ways to exploit it.
“Ricky Jean-Francois is a very talented guy,” Miles said. “He got good push, got a hand up and got a hand on it. To me, that was definitely a turning point.”
And a measure of redemption for Jean-Francois, who did more than just block a field goal. He had six tackles, a half-sack and 1½ tackles for losses, earning the game’s defensive MVP award over more-heralded teammates such as Glenn Dorsey, Kirston Pittman and Ali Highsmith.
“Once I lifted my head back up, I felt like I was on top of the world,” Jean-Francois said.
If only Spitler had kept his head up. LSU went on to score 31 straight points, but Ohio State might’ve had a chance if not for his blunder on the first possession of the third quarter.
A 15-yard penalty for intentional grounding left LSU in a fourth-and-23 hole, the Buckeyes readying themselves to get the ball for their first second-half possession. But Spitler, a sophomore linebacker and native Ohioan, had even bigger plans.
He sliced through the line without being touched and set his sights on punter Patrick Fisher, crashing into his right leg a split-second after he punted the ball away.
If Spitler had just taken a little better angle, maybe kept his eye on the ball a little longer, he surely would have made a crucial block — maybe even given Ohio State a touchdown.
“I guess I took my eye off it,” Spitler said. “I thought I had it. I probably could have blocked it without even diving. But that’s your natural instinct. I took my eye off it, I guess. They always preach to keep an eye on the ball at the block point. I thought it would hit my body at least.”
On the replays, Spitler looked so well-positioned that no one could figure out how he missed the ball. But miss it he did. When he got up, he saw the ball sailing 60 yards down the field and a yellow flag on the field. The 15-yard personal foul gave the Tigers an automatic first down.
“It was fourth and like, forever, and we get a roughing-the-punter call,” linebacker Ryan Lukens said. “That kind of stuff hurts. It really hurts the defense. You can’t really expect the defense to bounce back after something like that.”
LSU sure took advantage of the miscue, and Ohio State fell apart. The Buckeyes picked up another 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct on the next play, sending the Tigers off on a touchdown drive that made it 31-10.
That was it.
“I’m not going to say it would make or break the game,” Lukens said. “But it definitely had an impact.”
Both very special in their own way.
CFT: Johnny Manziel nearly transferred out of Texas A&M before the 2012 season after being suspended, according to reports, but he stayed after his successful appeal.
About 325 former Penn State players, among them Kerry Collins and Paul Posluszny, have signed a statement supporting the lawsuit filed by the family of former coach Joe Paterno.
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