GLENDALE, Ariz. — This was not supposed to happen.
All the injuries. The suspensions. The guys skipping out on the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft. The uncertainty surrounding the LSU offense. Even the unexpected death of cornerback Kary Vincent’s father the day before the team left Baton Rouge to fly here.
By New Year’s Day, Ed Orgeron was long supposed to have been searching for another job, and the Tigers were supposed to have wrapped their season already in some backwater December bowl, if that.
These Tigers refused to follow the script. Do the expected. Succumb to a merciless pounding by vicious, seemingly vengeful fate bent on scuttling their season.
“It does get tough,” defensive end and Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP Rashard Lawrence said, “but we don’t like to complain too much.”
They had their stumbles this season. LSU might still be trying to score against Alabama. And Orgeron could sit on the podium in the postgame news conference and still feel the pain of ones that got away at Florida and Texas A&M.
But there were far more highlights, often surprising ones, and the Tigers one of the best for the end: a 40-32 victory over long unbeaten UCF, with State Farm Stadium’s floodlights glinting off the Fiesta Bowl trophy and Orgeron beaming just as brightly.
“This,” Orgeron said, “was a tremendous year.”
Winning smooths over so many potholes and pitfalls, layers polish on an offense that was at times stagnant and a defense that often had trouble getting off the field. The Tigers won to finish 10-3 for the first time since 2013, and will almost certainly finish among the top 10 in the final polls after Monday night’s CFP National Championship Game for the first time in seven years.
Asked what he thought about his detractors, Orgeron grinned.
“You really want to know?” he asked. “We shared a comment in our locker room.
“People are going to talk. Let them talk. We blocked out the noise. Our guys overcame a lot of adversity, and we came together. We played some good football this year.”
Good football, in utter defiance of the odds.
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The beginning of this Fiesta Bowl seemed a microcosm of the one-step-up, two-steps-back nature of LSU’s entire season.
The Tigers took the ball and got a 77-yard kickoff return from Clyde Edwards-Helaire — himself involved in what district attorney Hillar Moore described as a justifiable shooting of an apparent robber Dec. 22 — to the UCF 16-yard line.
But they had to settle for the first of four Cole Tracy field goals.
The Knights responded with a swift touchdown drive, then LSU stunningly fell behind 14-3 as Joe Burrow threw a pick-six. Burrow then got earholed by UCF's Joey Connors and taunted by another, Nate Evans, as he tried to get off the ground.
But Burrow, by any standard one tough hombre, answered by throwing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson. He threw three more TDs to tie an LSU bowl record, and he brushed up against a 400-yard passing day with 394 through the air as LSU somehow shredded the Knights with big passes and ball control (the Tigers possession for an amazing 44:31 compared to UCF’s 15:29).
LSU gave up some points but allowed only 250 yards, a heavy pass rush on backup quarterback Derriel Mack (he was sacked five times) negating much of UCF’s quick-strike capability.
Afterward, the Tigers threw a little dirt on the grave of the Knights’ 25-game winning streak, the one that included a claim of some sort of carnival prize national championship after going 13-0 last season.
“I really wouldn’t call it a trench game,” said linebacker Devin White, who earlier in the week called UCF’s national title boast “embarrassing.”
“I don’t think they could really play in the SEC week in and week out.”
Some say the College Football Playoff has reduced all other bowls to mere exhibitions. For LSU and UCF, there was deeper meaning than that.
The Tigers wanted a springboard back into the national conversation. The Knights wanted to prove teams like UCF from the Group of Five conferences like the American Athletic Conference also belong.
It remains to be seen what this win does for LSU, though the Tigers are quite likely to start next season in the top 10. It remains to be seen what this defeat has cost UCF, but it may well set the Knights’ legitimate national title contender hopes back for years.
Yes, UCF was without its star quarterback McKenzie Milton, who suffered a gruesome leg injury Nov. 23 against South Florida.
But the Knights couldn’t dominate a ravaged LSU defense that was one more lost defensive back away from trying to slip an LSU tuba player, or a disguised Patrick Peterson, into the secondary.
After going all Rocky Balboa on the Knights, getting up off of the canvas and basically saying, “Is that all you’ve got?” Burrow had this parting bon mot for the guys from Orlando:
“They’re a helluva team,” LSU’s salty signal-caller said. “But as far as a physical game, we play in the SEC every week. I’ve played in more physical games, for sure.”
There may have been more trying LSU football seasons, too.
But it’s hard to imagine one that turned out to be so successful.