TAMPA, Fla. — The flags atop the masts of the pirate ship in the north end zone fluttered in the misting rain as Jeremy Hill dug his cleats into the turf.
A pirate was about to set sail on his plundering raid.
Quarterback Anthony Jennings, nerves jumping like guitar strings in his first college start, was no doubt relieved to shove the ball successfully into Hill’s waiting breadbasket. In front of him, Trai Turner and Jerald Hawkins carved a hole in the Iowa front line and Hill was off, aimed amidships like an 18-pound cannon shot at that distant galleon.
Forty-two yards Hill traveled before they could bring him down.
It was just a warning shot across the Hawkeyes’ bow.
The autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from the sea
Steve Sabol’s words delivered by the God-like voice of John Facenda in that old “NFL Films” clip would have been a fitting soundtrack to Hill’s virtuoso performance in Wednesday’s Outback Bowl.
It speaks of a football man taking the ball and crushing the will out of his opponent.
It speaks to what Hill did against the Hawkeyes.
LSU didn’t have Zach Mettenberger to helm its offense. Iowa’s black-shirted defense neutralized Jennings, who was as green as the glistening grass on the floor of Raymond James Stadium, and stuffed the Tigers’ dynamic wide receiver duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. like a model ship into a bottle.
Hill knew Iowa would be keying on him, but that it would somehow still be up to him to carry the Tigers anyway. He thought back to the way he would run the target right off his back in his days at Redemptorist High School and started steaming, full speed ahead.
“My coach would put it in my hands and say, ‘Go win the football game,’ ” Hill recalled. “Great players have that mentality, when everyone’s looking for someone to make a play. I just took it on my shoulders that I needed to make plays to win this football game. Our O-line and our fullbacks did a great job, and it was just up to me to make a few guys miss.”
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
ESPN analyst Jon Gruden joked during Wednesday’s telecast that, if he came back to coach, he’d want to be LSU’s running backs coach.
With guys like Hill to work with, it’s not hard to understand why.
Iowa couldn’t stop him. Couldn’t bring him down. Not until the damage was done. Not until he marauded for 216 yards and two touchdowns on 28 bone-crunching carries.
On his first touchdown run, a 14-yard, spinning, careening, try-to-keep-this-bull-out-of-the-china-shop display of raw, unapologetic power, Hill toted All-Big Ten linebacker James Morris along like he was one of his thigh pads. Hill’s second TD run, of 37 yards with 2:02 left to play, had a similar force-of-nature quality to it.
“I thought for about 80, 85 percent of the runs, we did a good job making it tough, making it sticky,” Morris said. “As the running games go, somebody’s out of position and somebody pops one. That’s frustrating.”
That somebody was usually No. 33.
LSU netted 220 rushing yards. Hill had all but 4 of those. Are you seeing the picture he painted?
He’ll knock you ’round and upside down
And laugh when he’s conquered and won.
Before this now-completed LSU football season began, Hill nearly scuttled himself.
Videotape. Outside a bar just outside the LSU campus. Hill wasn’t hitting a hole in the line but the back of a man’s head. And laughing.
It was, among other things, a violation of his probation stemming from a guilty plea of misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile Redemptorist student from his high school days.
“We’re going to see the whole person,” LSU coach Les Miles said in August after reinstating Hill, controversially, to the team.
We saw all of Jeremy Hill in the past year, all that a human being can be. Deeply flawed. Contrite. And, ultimately, capable of great achievements.
“I knew I would play, but I didn’t know how significant my role would be,” Hill said. “I knew whatever my role was I would accept it and do it to the best of my ability.”
That he did. When he finally stopped running Wednesday, he had toted the rock nearly eight-tenths of a mile this season — 1,401 yards, the second-best single-season total in school history.
Iowa defenders weren’t the only things Hill evaded Wednesday. He dodged and juked around questions as to whether this was the NFL draft-eligible sophomore’s final game as a Tiger.
“It’s a big decision,” Hill said. “When we get back to Baton Rouge, I’ll figure all that out.”
Now show him that horizon.