At halftime Saturday in Tiger Stadium, the LSU band belted out a brassy, watery version of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Fool in the Rain.”
Weather-wise, it was the perfect call.
The question, with the Tigers looking good at the time leading Ole Miss by 13 points, was this: Who was the fool in the rain?
For most of this season finale, LSU’s heavily ridiculed defense was making Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral look like the court jester, intercepting him no less than five times. The Tigers led by 16 points early in the third quarter and appeared to be coasting.
But there’s no coasting when the merry prankster, Lane Kiffin, is on the other sideline calling the plays. And though it was his old compadre Ed Orgeron across the way, Kiffin was giving no quarter against an LSU D that was running out of answers … and bodies.
A lot of the good vibrations coming off the fog-shrouded, shoe-flying, play-with-pride upset victory LSU had at Florida a week earlier threatened to melt away in the cold pre-Christmas rain in the Tigers’ latest regular-season game in 113 years.
However you chop it up and dissect it, whatever you say about all the players LSU has lost over the year and the injured Tigers who continued to limp out of this one, the bottom line is the bottom line. Winning, ugly, beautiful, or by whatever means necessary, is the ultimate arbiter. And despite another defensive keelhauling, LSU survived on some derring do from some highly promising freshmen and six turnovers to turn back the Rebels unsurprising uprising, 53-48.
LSU chose not to go to a bowl for the first time since 1999, a sacrifice the NCAA may or may not take into much account when it makes the final judgement of its investigation into the program. But the Tigers did manage to close with a flurry, stunning Florida 37-34 the previous week to get to 5-5 and avoid LSU's first losing season in 21 years.
Whether LSU will lose any assistant coaches before the Tigers reconvene for spring practice is another matter.
LSU forced five interceptions and a fumble from Corral that included a pick-six by Jay Ward, a sophomore who suffered much criticism himself this season but became one of its best defenders. It was LSU's fifth interception return for a score this season, a remarkable total.
But the Tigers still surrendered 558 yards to the Rebels, the sixth time under defensive coordinator Bo Pelini 2.0 that they've allowed 500 or more yards in a game.
Now that the season is over, which is when coach Ed Orgeron said staff evaluations would take place, Orgeron was asked where he was in that thought process. He responded by keeping his cards glued to his chest, perhaps stuck there from the driving rain.
"I'm going to enjoy this victory," he said.
Just to have it on the record, @BKubena did ask Ed Orgeron about how #LSU will evaluate the coaching staff now that the season is over.— Jeff Nowak (@Jeff_Nowak) December 20, 2020
Ed Orgeron's response was a grin and "you know what? I'm gonna enjoy the victory."
He kept grinning and silently waited for the next question. pic.twitter.com/2MiWs5vPmc
Fair enough, and well he should. After LSU got pummeled 55-17 by Alabama on Dec. 5, it looked like the Tigers were bound for a super-dismal 3-7 record with Florida and Ole Miss' high-flying offenses still on the docket. Both offenses piled up the yards and points against LSU, but the Tigers still found a way.
That they did with a slew of youngsters taking over starring roles is a testament to those players, and to LSU's coaches. Freshmen like wide receiver Kayshon Boutte and quarterback Max Johnson.
A heaping helping of LSU's offseason momentum and possibly the direction of the program was on the line when defensive tackle Neil Farrell sacked Corral and forced an Ole Miss punt.
LSU got the ball back down 48-46 but facing a potential avalanche of adversity. Only 2:36 remained, LSU had no timeouts, and a freshman who'd never been in this position before (Johnson) was at the controls.
Anything else in the box, Pandora?
Turns out the odds were not stacked too high after all. All it took LSU was three plays. Johnson found Boutte in the left flat, and rather reminiscent of Justin Jefferson on that seminal touchdown reception from Joe Burrow last year at Texas, Boutte churned up the left sideline to score on a 45-yard catch-and-run with 1:34 left to put LSU ahead by the winning margin.
"It was a great feeling," said Boutte, who merely set a Southeastern Conference record with 308 yards receiving and three scores on 14 catches. "I was hurting. I had twisted my ankle (the drive before) but I couldn't quit."
A burning question remained, though: Did LSU score too quickly? It seemed so as the Rebels sped from their 34 after the kickoff to the Tigers’ 28. But Corral, who hurt LSU more with his feet than his arm, had the ball stripped by Ali Gaye, bouncing away into the hands of safety JaCoby Stevens playing his final game as a Tiger.
“When I’m 50 with kids, I can always say I didn’t quit,” Stevens said. “There’s no excuse to quit. These are memories you’ll take to the grave.”
Two straight wins and a top-three recruiting class give LSU momentum going into 2021, though many issues remain to be resolved.
Here's a new one: Will Myles Brennan have to legitimately beat out Johnson, and possibly fellow freshman TJ Finley, to get back the job he waited for so long?
Neither Ed Orgeron nor Kayshon Boutte predicted the massive, record-setting day from the true freshman in LSU's 2020 season finale, but it all…
Perhaps. But for now, it's enough for these Tigers to leave with the pleasant taste of a victory cigar. Even if it is too damp to light and kids like Johnson and Boutte are almost too young to smoke.
"It's a brotherhood," Johnson said. "I'm thankful for these guys and my coaches. I'll never forget these times."
If that isn't a quote on which to close out the 2020 season, I don't know what is.