TAMPA, Fla. — It was subtle and simple. But when a few dozen LSU players painted No. 9 on their arms for Wednesday’s Outback Bowl, they wanted that statement to reverberate from Tampa to Baton Rouge.
“It was for Ego,’’ Tigers senior linebacker Lamin Barrow said.
After LSU’s defense wrapped up a 21-14 victory against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Raymond James Stadium, when the emphasis was properly sending off the seniors and departing underclassmen, several of the Tigers remained mindful of the player who wasn’t there.
Junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson — No. 9 — didn’t make the trip to Tampa. LSU coach Les Miles said Ferguson had a “medical issue’’ and “was not allowed to be with the team.’’
He didn’t elaborate, citing health confidentiality rules.
Ferguson’s absence could have shaken the defense, which played without one of its leaders and a potentially key performer against Iowa’s formidable running game. Instead, with sophomore Quentin Thomas and freshman Christian LaCouture filling in for Ferguson, along with junior Anthony Johnson maintaining his havoc-creating standard at the other defensive tackle, LSU hardly missed a beat.
The Hawkeyes were limited to 233 yards — the fewest LSU surrendered this season against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent — and just 76 on the ground.
“I feel like Ego is going to be proud of us,’’ LSU freshman cornerback Tre’Davious White said.
LSU sophomore defensive back Jalen Mills said he didn’t learn about Ferguson’s absence from the lineup until he arrived in Tampa.
“I called him and everything,’’ Mills said. “He told me, ‘Good luck.’ Tell all the seniors and everybody else that he loves us.
“Why he’s sick, I didn’t even ask him. I mean, just knowing that he’s willing to do anything to come and play for us.’’
Miles said Ferguson’s absence wasn’t a lingering emotional issue. It was the “next man up’’ philosophy.
“The responsibility of our football team is when a starter leaves a spot, the guy who comes in has to play that position as it has been played at LSU,’’ Miles said. “If somebody was hurt on the first play, the next guy goes in, and he has to play like a Tiger.’’
Miles said Thomas “played a very significant role in that game.’’
If there was a drop-off in play from Ferguson’s absence, it wasn’t noticed by the Hawkeyes.
“Even without him, they played great,’’ Iowa wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley said. “That’s great defense by LSU.’’
“Losing their guy No. 9 (Ferguson), you hear about it, but you can’t ever take it for granted,’’ Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz said. “Especially on an LSU team. You know they’ve got somebody back there who’s going to fill the void and go all out.’’
LSU sophomore running back Jeremy Hill, voted the game’s Most Valuable Player with a 216-yard rushing performance, said he was proud of his defensive teammates.
“When Ego’s not here, something’s missing,’’ Hill said. “We had to persevere and fight through it.’’
For an LSU defense that was criticized for its inability to stop Georgia (44-41 meltdown loss), control Ole Miss (27-24 defeat) or handle Alabama (38-17 loss), it was more late-season retribution.
After losing seven defensive underclassmen last season to the NFL draft, the Tigers faced obvious adjustments.
The throttling of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and now a bowl victory against Iowa — both in the late season — have the Tigers thinking big.
“From start to finish, we feel like our defense established control,’’ Barrow said. “They had one good drive on us, but they missed a field goal. A few things here and there, and we could’ve shut them out. I feel we played to that level.
“Guys like myself and others who really feed off Ego’s energy, we were sad. But we knew he wouldn’t want us to play at any less of a level. Of course, you want your brother to be on the field with you. Even though Ego wasn’t here, he was here in spirit.’’
White said the game represented a learning experience.
“Coach Miles and coach (John) Chavis (defensive coordinator), they mold us as a team,’’ White said. “When times like that come and our backs are against the wall, everybody is working together and we can capitalize on them. I feel like we stepped up.’’
And in turn, the Tigers stepped out, letting the world see the No. 9 displayed on their arms, showing they were unified in their mission. For the players who were there — and the notable one who wasn’t — it was mission accomplished.