ORLANDO, Fla. — With two minutes remaining in the first half, LSU had 187 yards to Notre Dame’s 103. The Tigers defense limited Irish star running back Josh Adams to 13 yards on eight carries. LSU had nine first downs to Notre Dame’s four and possession for twice as long.
LSU had dominated Monday’s Citrus Bowl to that point, but the score was 0-0.
Two missed field goals, one each by freshman Connor Culp and sophomore Jack Gonsoulin, kept LSU scoreless in the first half. One long run and pass later from Notre Dame backup quarterback Ian Book, and the Tigers were inexplicably trailing 3-0 at halftime.
Those misses mattered plenty in the end. Notre Dame’s Miles Boykin scored from 55 yards in the final two minutes of the game — his one-handed catch providing the play of the game — and the Tigers lost 21-17 in a New Year’s Day bowl game they could’ve won Monday.
A game they should’ve won.
“I think so,” senior wide receiver Russell Gage said when asked if 17th-ranked LSU (9-4) outplayed No. 14 Notre Dame (10-3).
“I think we beat them in numbers and everything. On the field, physically, we were more physical than them. They just made the big plays at the right time.”
The two missed field goals weren’t the only errors. Punt returner DJ Chark fielded a bouncing punt at the 1-yard line instead of letting the football roll into the end zone. He was tackled at the 3. He later muffed two punts, one he recovered and another LSU's Tory Carter recovered.
Zach Von Rosenberg even mishandled a punt but recovered and booted the ball on the run for 47 yards.
“We just looked sloppy,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said of his special teams unit. “Twice, we had 10 men on the field.”
LSU’s best drive of the half reached the 1-yard line. A third-down sneak from Danny Etling didn’t get into the end zone, and a false start from the fullback ended any plans for a fourth-and-1 attempt. Culp then missed a 23-yard field goal wide right.
Another drive gave Gonsoulin, a walk-on, a chance from 37. He missed wide left. LSU finished the season 16 of 27 on field goals and switched between Culp and Gonsoulin multiple times.
“We couldn’t finish the drives we needed to,” junior running back Derrius Guice said.
In the fourth quarter, LSU again reached the 1-yard line but was stopped within inches of the goal line. Gonsoulin made a 17-yard field goal with 2:03 left for a 17-14 lead.
Considering the kicking woes, was there any consideration to going for it?
“Obviously, you think about it,” Orgeron said. “But you go ahead with under two minutes to go. I thought our defense would stop them.”
Maybe in 2018, LSU's special teams will be improved.
LSU hired former New Orleans Saints assistant Greg McMahon a year ago — soon after Orgeron became the permanent head coach — as a consultant. Orgeron has touted him as a “genius” when it comes to special teams, but his support-staff role prohibits him from talking to players about football. He can attend meetings and practices but can’t talk to players.
LSU went the season without a full-time special teams coordinator, instead sharing the duties among five assistant coaches. Since the NCAA increased the number of assistants from nine to 10, effective Jan. 9, it is likely McMahon will become an official LSU assistant coach and the special teams coordinator. Then he can talk directly to players instead of funneling his advice through graduate assistant Chris Forestier.
Orgeron said after the game he’d hire a special teams coordinator during the offseason. He also said McMahon could be that person.
“He’d be highly considered,” Orgeron said. “That was the plan the whole time.”