GLENDALE, Ariz. — Trainers dashed from the LSU sideline to the aid of Joe Burrow, who remained down on the cold, slippery field at State Farm Stadium.
The quarterback had just taken a vicious blindside hit while attempting to make a tackle after throwing an interception. The pick went back for a touchdown to put UCF ahead 14-3 in the first quarter, but the more immediate concern was for the health of the quarterback — from those who don’t know him, anyway.
After a few painful moments, Burrow picked himself up off the canvass. He didn’t miss a snap, and LSU followed the lead of its tough-as-nails quarterback.
Burrow threw for 394 yards and four touchdowns in an MVP effort and a defense missing a host of key players held firm in the second half as LSU outlasted UCF 40-32 in a wacky Fiesta Bowl on Tuesday afternoon.
“The only reason I didn’t get up after one second is because I got the wind knocked out of me,” Burrow, visibly bruised, said afterword. “I would’ve gotten up immediately if that didn’t happen.”
“I knew he was coming back in. That’s just Joe,” running back Nick Brossette said. “He got right back up. He’s a soldier. He’s one of our commanders, and I had no doubt he was going to play.”
LSU will return home a winner from its first ever Fiesta Bowl trip to cap a 10-3 season. The Tigers secured their first 10-win season since 2013 while snapping the nation’s longest winning streak at 25 games in a row.
Games LSU could have won, like Florida and Texas A&M, still don’t sit well with LSU coach Ed Orgeron, but winning 10 games is undeniably an accomplishment for a team picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC West before the season. Many predicted LSU would struggle to be bowl eligible in 2018 given the team’s litany of question marks.
It’s a feather in the cap of a coach whose name was near the top of every preseason hot seat list. LSU is now 25-9 since Orgeron took over as the interim coach during the 2016 season, and the Tigers have never lost back-to-back games under his watch.
“Here’s the deal: People are going to talk. Let them talk the way they want,” Orgeron said. “We blocked out the noise. Our guys overcame a lot of adversity. We came together.
“We talk about grit all the time. Our guys have grit. They practice with grit. They block out the noise. A lot of adversity. Look at the DBs that we didn’t have in the game. Nobody made — there was going to be no excuses. We’re going to put 11 men on the field and fight like Tigers.”
That mindset turned out to be the theme in a game that became a war of attrition, and a chippie one at that. For two teams that had never met before, there was an awful lot of extracurricular activities after the play.
LSU began the day already missing three of its top four cornerbacks, and the thin got even thinner as half of the starting secondary got ejected in the first half. Cornerback Terrence Alexander threw a punch and All-American safety Grant Delpit got ejected for targeting.
Despite all that, the makeshift defense held the high-powered UCF attack to 250 yards of total offense. Before the final three minutes of regulation, UCF’s only second-half points were set up by a muffed punt, and their only first down of the third quarter came on a pass interference penalty. At one point the LSU defense forced three consecutive three-and-outs as the offense padded the lead.
“We came in with the ‘next man up’ mindset, especially for the defense, because we knew we were going to be missing a lot of key players,” said linebacker Devin White, who forced a key fumble in the second quarter. “I told them it was a great opportunity to make a name for themselves, and I think a lot of people did that. We’re one team one heartbeat, so we stick together.”
Winning time of possession figured to be the key metric for LSU, given its personnel shortcoming, and they executed the plan to perfection. LSU held the ball for more than 44 minutes compared to just 15 for UCF and ran 86 offensive plays to UCF’s 61.
The offense moved the ball at will all day to the tune of 556 total yards. The Tigers could’ve scored more were it not for hot a host of procedural penalties and sloppy ball handling that killed drives in the red zone.
That was true even during the disastrous start for LSU. A long drive came to an abrupt end on the pick six that set up Burrow to be blindsided by UCF defensive lineman Joey Connors.
It looked like that hit could end Burrow’s day, but he didn’t miss a snap. LSU came right down the field and answered with a 22-yard strike from Burrow to Justin Jefferson, who hauled in another touchdown later in the half.
“That’s his character as a competitor,” tight end Foster Moreau said of Burrow. “He fights to the bitter end, and he’s going to do it until he doesn’t have a pulse. That’s just him, and it’ll always be him wherever he is in life. He’s a great leader.”
LSU took the lead for good on a 49-yard catch and run by Derrick Dillon early in the second quarter. Burrow later connected with Ja’Marr Chase for a touchdown in the third quarter to re-assert control of the game after UCF scored going into halftime.
Three Cole Tracy field goals helped bolster the lead in the late stages of the game. UCF scored and converted on a two-point try to make it a one-score game with under three minutes to play, but LSU recovered the ensuing onside kick.
UCF got the ball back with 39 seconds left, but there would be no streak-saving miracle. JaCoby Stevens, who had another strong performance, sealed the victory with an interception off a tipped pass.