BATON ROUGE — Scott Woodward’s reaction was probably like yours and mine and the millions of people watching on national television and the 100,000 here at Tiger Stadium.
As the USL the offense trotted down the court for a two-point conversion attempt – one play for all marbles, one slap to beat mighty Alabamaseconds to bring down Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide – most gasped collectively.
“I was thinking, ‘holy s—!'” said Woodward, athletic director of the Tigers. “And then I thought, OK, he’s got them on the ropes. Knock them out!”
A punch, a quick swing, a left hook, a right cross, a blow to the head. Describe it as you wish, LSU took down Alabama32-31 in overtime, amid a euphoric gumbo of Cajun delight here Saturday night.
In his first year as a coach, Brian Kelly went for the win. He had the pebbles, the cajones, the sausages, one might say. He trusted Jayden Daniels, who, like Kelly, is new to these parts. They were there, after fighting back with a season-opening loss to Florida Statean embarrassing home defeat for Tennesseea couple of foreigners – a transfer of Arizona State and a trainer our Lady—putting Bama on the ropes.
Three meters for glory. Nine feet for all that.
Daniels took the snap, darted a right and zipped the ball to tight end Mason Taylor in the flats. Taylor, son of former NFL All-Pro Jason Taylor, caught the ball at the yard line, cradling it in his stomach, then clung to it – it seemed like forever – before eventually falling back across the goal line as Alabama safety Jordan Battle came too late.
It was a rush into the purple and gold field, a swampy mass of humanity spilling over the playing surface, ebbing and flowing like the muddy Mississippi.
“Before the game started, if you had asked me, ‘I’m going to give you a game to beat Alabama,’ I would have taken that 100 out of 100. At that point, I thought about it,” said Kelly. “We had a really good game that we didn’t use and they didn’t see.”
And just like that, LSU (7–2, 5–1 SEC) – a team left for dead with a coach many think is not a good fit here, with a bunch of transfers that don’t fit, an inconsistent quarterback and a horrible special teams—is in the driving seat to win SEC West and qualify for the championship game in Atlanta. It was unthinkable just four weeks ago. LSU’s path to reaching the title game at 10–2 is a trip to 5–4 Arkansas next week, a 4–5 UAB team the next, and 4–5 Texas A&M at College Station to end the regular season.
It’s a great term-opening run for Kelly, the 61-year-old northerner who pushed and pushed hard in the offseason. They say he faked a southern accent and that his dance steps stink. As he straight out of Kelly, many around LSU were seething over criticism of the offseason, including his right-hand man, Brian Polian, the team’s special teams and recruiting coordinator who said about critics in March: “That’s enough!”
And now, months later, Kelly is fighting back.
“Took big balls!” said an LSU administrator of the call at Colon.
LSU only took two shots in overtime. Daniels scored on the first play, going for 25 yards to answer Alabama’s score. As soon as he crossed the goal line, Kelly made the decision to go for two. But just as Daniels was about to break the ball, the coach ran along the sideline and signaled a timeout.
When the timeout huddle broke, the offense returned.
“I couldn’t watch,” says Beth Rex, LSU chief of staff who has worked with Kelly for years. “I knew how important it was for him to beat Alabama.”
“I had never beaten Alabama,” Kelly said.
The game unfolded, the fans unfolded, and the Tigers knocked out their former coach. It ended a nightmarish decade here against Saban, the 71-year-old bugaboo who had beaten LSU 10 of the last 11 times they played. He had won five consecutive games at Tiger Stadium, dating back to 2010 – a streak that ended a shy of Bear Bryant’s winning six games, ending his career there.
The Saban demons have been excorcised. In the end, it didn’t matter that Alabama gained more yards (465 to 367) and more first downs (25-21) and sacked Daniels six times. In the clutch, the fleet-footed LSU quarterback shone. He led the team in rushing (95 yards) and passing (182) and scored three times.
Daniels punctuated a classic of a contest with his final dart, a pinpoint pass that provided the final lead change. LSU led 14–9 early in the fourth quarter. There were six lead changes the rest of the way and a tie – the latter from the foot of Bama kicker Will Reichard. His 46-yard field goal with seconds to go sent him into overtime.
On a topsy-turvy day in college football—three teams ranked in the top six lost– the most electrifying affair happened right here on the bayou, when for the second time this year the tide found itself on the wrong side of an assault field.
Fans flocked from the stands as Taylor caught the pass and fell into the end zone. They hoisted receiver Malik Nabers on his shoulders. They sang, chanted and danced. They drank (perhaps too much). One man in particular was quite over-served, resting on the shoulders of his buddies as they carried him from the field, through the tunnel and out of the stadium into foggy Louisiana on Saturday night.
No one was playing with the goal posts at LSU, not with this man guarding the precious white props.
An hour later, after the chaos had subsided and the drunken fans had left the stadium, Kelly stood under those exact goal posts giving an on-pitch interview for the local radio network, her bold appeal winning.
“That may have been the biggest call-up in Tiger Stadium history,” said Paul Boudreaux, a longtime LSU fan who works with the team.
The call was familiar. In fact, Kelly had previously called the game in a clutch situation, in a game against Florida State in 2014. With Notre Dame down four on fourth base with 17 seconds left, quarterback Everett Golson rolled right and found an open receiver for a touchdown. Officials, however, called it offensive pass interference against the Irish. They ultimately lost the match, 31-27.
“It was the exact same game,” Kelly says smiling, “but I knew we weren’t going to be called for a pick.”
One man who isn’t surprised that Kelly can compose such a piece is Saban himself. One of Saban’s dearest friends, Lenny Lemoine, a Baton Rouge businessman and LSU booster, spent last weekend with the coach to celebrate his birthday. The two talked about the new Tigers football coach.
“He told me he thought Brian was one of the last great tacticians in the game,” Lemoine said.
Confidence sank from Kelly this week. He knew the Tigers could hang around. He knew Bama was unruly (the Tide had nine flags on Saturday). They were exposed against Texas, Arkansas and Texas A&M. They were beaten by Tennessee.
He felt good about his team despite bumps this year, like the 24-23 loss to Florida State in New Orleans to open the season and the 41-13 bashing of Tennessee here at Tiger Stadium on October 8. .
“I knew after the game against Florida State we were going to improve and be a better team in November,” Kelly said. “I knew they had a fight after the game against Florida State. I knew that good days were announced for this group. How they worked…that’s why I went. I am ready to do anything for this group. They showed that they would get there one way or another. They did it again tonight.
Kelly too. He has already revived a place that won it all in 2019. The Tigers limped to an 11-12 record in 20 and 21, setting off a series of events: the costly dismissal of Ed Orgeron ($17 million) and the high-priced hiring of Kelly (a 10-year, $100 million contract).
To be here so early, nine games into his tenure, is something that surprises even Woodward.
“I knew it would work. I knew he could do it,” the DA says. “But so fast? Court.”
Dance, sing and talk as you want, Brian Kelly. You beat Alabama.
More college football coverage: