By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Long after the final whistle had blown on LSU VS Florida State, the janitorial employees and Superdome staffers began to clean up the debris from a sold out crowd...quietly sweeping up garbage and shutting up shop with the remnants of an all time climax still ringing in their ears.
Though it was now a cavernous, empty ghost town, only an hour before, fans had filled the Dome to capacity, capped at just under 70,000 people.
Pregame, you'd be right in suspecting Sunday night to be a de facto home game for LSU....but in all actuality, Florida State rode into the heart of New Orleans and took over the Tigers' second home at the same time their middling, lukewarm team bossed Brian Kelly's Tigers on the field.
In what will be remembered as one of the wildest endings to any game you're likely to witness, LSU's Brian Kelly era stumbled out of the gates, fell on its face, rolled down a tarmac, proceeded to get up and put one bloody foot in front of the other, breaking the lock and squeezing through the doors until transcendence seemed possible....and then, at that exact moment of bewildering optimism and never-say-die glory, the door was slammed shut.
LSU came into the game as marginal favorites containing a far more talent-rich squad, more decorated coaching staff and all the resources of the top program they are.
But they didn't play or coach like the program we expected under Brian Kelly, lacking intensity, energy and toughness for 3 quarters until QB Jayden Daniels, WR Jaray Jenkins and DL Mekhi Wingo made dynamic, game-altering plays which should've sent this game to overtime.
In my worst feared scenario, LSU came out sluggish in a nightmare first half.
Allowing Jordan Travis to connect on eleven 3rd down completions, including an electric double reverse flea flicker which seemed to suck the life from the Tigers' sideline, the Superdome became a fiery cauldron of Seminole chants.
LSU's luck and discipline wasn't there on Sunday night, either, with Maason Smith going down on a non contact ACL tear early in the 1st quarter, BJ Ojulari nearly joining him a play later with a deeply bruised knee, Kayshon Boutte became frustrated due to a lack of touches, while later on, highly lauded WR Malik Nabers muffed not one, but two punts.
At the same time, LSU's offense were hot garbage, only generating yards through the scrambling abilities of Jayden Daniels. However, the Arizona State transfer arrival's ultimate trust in his next level speed enabled him to ignore open opportunities to Jack Bech and Kayshon Boutte in space.
Calling passing plays almost exclusively, which didn't result in receiving rhythm or big gains, Mike Denbrock's offense were beyond one dimensional.
Their lack of balance, almost a refusal to run the football, gave Florida State's underrated defensive line all the impetus and freedom to attack Daniels, blowing up the pocket time after time and forcing Jayden to abandon big hits in the pocket in exchange for chunks of yards....much to the frustration of his receivers.
LSU's defense may have given up yards in the passing game, yet Matt House's group stood strong in the red zone, pulling off three key stops with their backs against the wall....only to hand the ball directly to a listless offense.
Down 14 points late in the game, Brad Davis' offensive line succumbing to Florida State's transfer DE Jared Verse, kicker Damian Ramos seeing 3 points blocked off the board, as both punt return fumbles set the Seminoles up deep in LSU territory, the scoreboard scenario could have been much worse if not for the end zone DBU heroics of Sage Ryan, Jay Ward and Mekhi Garner, all denying touchdowns.
In the 4th, LSU's offense began to wake up, and Jaray Jenkins' first touchdown cut the score to 24-17. Immediately after, House's defense forced yet another punt....and it appeared all the momentum was shifting the Tigers' way.
Then, calamity happened.
Following Nabers' second heartbreaking fumble, Florida State prepared for the kill shot, hoping to run it in from LSU's own 3 yard line with just over a minute remaining.
But LSU's Mekhi Wingo refused to give up, even if many wearing purple and gold were already vacating their alcohol-washed seats for the exits.
Seminoles' Head Coach Mike Norvell botched the play call, Florida State's Ward fumbled the quick toss and defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo was on hand to improbably recover amidst a violent scrum.
Handing Daniels a chance to tie the game at 24 with one timeout and a single minute on the clock, 99 yards to travel, Denbrock's offense produced the unthinkable.
With one dramatic play or interminable review after another, Daniels drove the team 99 yards using his arm more than his legs, hitting the mentally tough Nabers consecutively for 25 total yards only a minute in live time after his near-catastrophic second fumble.
Then, Daniels found Boutte and freshman Mason Taylor, the latter diving out of bounds to preserve two seconds on the clock at the 3 yard line.
Time enough for one mind-boggling play.
Daniels came up clutch, eschewing his legs for the hands of trusty veteran Jaray Jenkins, 2019 LSU's last remaining receiver reeling in the potential tying touchdown with triple zeroes on the clock and the Superdome flying into a frenzy.
Despite no rushing game outside of their quarterback, regardless of an incredible lack of energy or intensity from LSU's staff, losing two starting defensive linemen to injury and a ridiculous targeting play, their #1 receiver dropping a pair of surefire touchdowns in the first half before catching just two passes all game, fumbling a duo of punts in enemy territory, and yet their defense gave Florida State zero points on either turnover and Daniels was able to rally his receiving corps for three strong drives to fight their way back in this game.
The PAT was an afterthought as everyone relaxed and took a deep breath for overtime, hearts collectively in mouths throughout the prior 15-20 nail-biting, rollercoaster minutes.
Then, once television cameras trained on Damian Ramos and the Tigers' special teams unit, dwarfed in formation by Florida State's hungry group (who had already blocked a kick earlier), many, including this author, felt a sickening feeling.
The ball was snapped, the hold took longer than normal, the approach from Ramos was slower, a key block on the edge was missed and suddenly, a Seminole hand reached out and swatted the ball, sending Ramos' low kick flopping into the air, hurling towards the uprights....only to clatter off the upper mid-section of the bar, bouncing out and away....
Before anyone could even ask themselves "what the hell did I just witness?", Mike Norvell and Florida State were celebrating on the Superdome turf, Jayden Daniels gave the cameras a smirk that said "what more could I have done?" and Brian Kelly, appearing rattled and disgusted, strode across to shake Norvell's hand before departing through the tunnel quickly.
It was college football at its most dramatic, painful apex, leaving those with any vested interest sick and twisted, somehow calling for more.
For 3 1/2 quarters, Sunday night was a pisspoor, lackadaisical, undisciplined and completely bizarre start to the Brian Kelly era at LSU. But during the final quarter, we witnessed true fight from Tiger defenders, desire which bled over to LSU's offense.
And in the scorched earth social media aftermath, we witnessed a squad of players who refused to quit, even when segments of their own fan base certainly did.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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