ORLANDO, Fla. — Leading up to Monday’s Citrus Bowl, a Notre Dame receiver said the Fighting Irish would test LSU’s claim of having the nation’s best defensive backs.
They waited to the very end to do just that — and succeeded in spectacular fashion.
Wideout Miles Boykin caught a 55-yard game-winning touchdown pass from backup quarterback Ian Book, snagging the well-placed ball with one hand, then breaking a tackle and wildly racing into the end zone with 88 seconds left as a green-clad crowd roared.
Boykin’s grab – over junior cornerback Donte Jackson – sent LSU spiraling to a 21-17 season-ending loss to No. 14 Notre Dame at a damp and chilly Camping World Stadium, wrapping up Ed Orgeron’s maiden season as head coach with a disappointing result. The 16th-ranked Tigers finished 9-4 in Year 1 under the fiery Cajun, and they head into the offseason knowing they whiffed on a key opportunity for a signature 10th victory.
LSU blew a 14-6 fourth-quarter lead, missed two first-half field goals — one from 22 yards — and failed to score a touchdown from inside the 2-yard line on two drives.
“Shot ourselves in the foot today multiple times,” defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “Can’t be a great team like that and have those kinds of mistakes and think you’re going to win the game, but we’ll rebound on it.”
It will be a while. Exactly eight months from Tuesday the Tigers meet Miami in Arlington, Texas, to open the 2018 season.
“Our guys fought hard. Looking at the overall picture, very proud of our football team,” Orgeron said. “Made tremendous improvement over the season. Very disappointed in this loss. I told the team to put it on me; should have prepared better.”
Afterward, players rallied around Jackson, who was on man-to-man coverage on Boykin during the game-winner. The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder leaped over the 5-11 Jackson for his one-handed grab near the 32-yard line. He then slipped past John Battle and stepped over Jackson on his way to the end zone.
“We didn’t get enough pressure on him,” Lawrence said. “People are going to look at Donte (Jackson), but put it on the defensive line. We’ll take the blame.”
Said end Christian LaCouture: “You can’t fault Donte for that. He caught it behind his head with one hand. How he did it was spectacular.”
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Jackson’s back and head were facing away from the pass as it arrived. Just as he turned around, Boykin swung his right paw into the air toward the sideline, gripped the ball and brought it in.
“Ian put it in a place where only I could reach it,” Boykin said afterward. “Great pass. Lucky to pull it down with one hand.”
Last week after a bowl practice, Notre Dame receiver Equanimeous St. Brown took a subtle shot at the LSU secondary’s self-proclaimed nickname of Defensive Backs University (DBU).
“They play a lot of man to man,” St. Brown said. “Known as DBU or think they are. Whatever. Up to us to make plays and show them what we can do.”
The Irish showed it in the end.
“Tremendous catch by (Boykin),” Orgeron said. “Donte (was) on him. He’s a big receiver. Poor job by us making the tackle. Should have lived to play another down there. That’s what I’m most disappointed in.”
There was plenty more to be unhappy about in a game played in very un-Florida-like weather. A steady misting rain blew throughout the entire affair, turning cool temperatures at kickoff into the rare cold setting in the Sunshine State.
The weather was the least of Orgeron’s problems on a day when his Tigers bumbled and stumbled.
LSU did not crack the scoreboard until more than 3 minutes into the third quarter, didn’t break the 100-yard rushing mark until seconds remained in the third and had its season-long kicking woes reappear. Connor Culp missed a 22-yarder, and Jack Gonsoulin missed a 37-yarder. Returned DJ Chark muffed two punts, and quarterback Danny Etling started 2 for 7 through the air.
The offense saved one of its most important missteps for last, failing to score a touchdown on first-and-goal from the 10 and settling for Gonsoulin’s go-ahead 17-yard field goal with 2:03 left.
This was a theme of Monday’s battle.
“We just couldn’t finish the drive we needed to finish,” said running back Derrius Guice, who had 98 yards on 21 carries. “We should have finished that drive in the end zone.”
The Tigers couldn’t punch it into the end zone on consecutive cracks from inside the 2-yard line in the first half, and they didn’t get a chance to try a third time on a fourth-and-goal. Freshman F-back Tory Carter committed a critical false start penalty that scrapped Orgeron’s plans to go for it.
In the fourth quarter, Orgeron did not give serious thought to attempting a fourth-and-goal before Gonsoulin’s 17-yarder, he said — mostly because of the previous failure on the goal line.
“You think about it and you go ahead (with a field goal),” he said. “Only 2 minutes left to go. Defense has played well. I didn’t think they were going to score. I wanted to give our team a chance to win. We went for it on fourth-and-1 and had a penalty and then missed a field goal. Didn’t want to do that again. Maybe if we’d got if fourth and 1 the first time, maybe I’d done it again.”
Dave Aranda’s defense stood tall for three quarters. The fourth was a disaster.
Notre Dame rolled up 148 yards and 15 points in the final 15 minutes. That’s four more fourth-quarter points than Aranda’s unit had allowed in its previous seven games combined.
The Irish (10-3) used a 10-play, 75-yard fourth-quarter drive to tie the game. They had a run of 31 and a pass of 29 on that march and then converted 2-point attempt — a shovel pass that locked the game at 14 with 7:49 remaining.
“I thought we did very well in the beginning,” LaCouture said. “Halftime, nobody allowed a touchdown, doing very well stopping the run. They started throwing more and put (Book) in, and he had a couple of good deep balls. Last one was a great catch.”
Book, the sophomore backup to starter Brandon Wimbush, gained 64 yards on the ground, excluding lost yardage on sacks, and he threw for 164. He provided the “difference,” Orgeron said — a surprise when hype surrounded Notre Dame running back Josh Adams. LSU bottled him up for 44 yards on 15 carries.
Aranda’s unit slowed Adams and ND’s seventh-ranked rushing defense even though three LSU starters were missing on the front seven. It was their highly touted DBs that foundered late. Coaches expect Jackson to bypass his senior season for the NFL draft, and projections have him as high as a late first-round pick.
Jackson was not made available after the game, but he posted a message on Twitter on Monday night: “I’ll never hang my head or feel sorry for myself, it is what it is. Trust me (I’m going to) be alright.”