By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
ORLANDO, Fla. — Sometimes a guy makes a play so spectacular that all you can do is tip your hat and move on.
LSU led Notre Dame 17-14 in the final minutes of the 2018 Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium on Monday afternoon. The Tigers sent their defense on the field to put the victory on ice and clinch a 10-win season in Ed Orgeron’s first full campaign.
That’s not what happened.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book went deep down the right sideline, and receiver Miles Boykin snared it out of the air with one hand, evaded LSU defensive backs Donte Jackson and John Battle and raced into the end zone for the game-winning 55-yard touchdown as Notre Dame stunned LSU 21-17 in a wild finish.
“It was a tremendous catch by him,” Orgeron said. “We had Donte on him, our best cover guy. He’s a bigger receiver, but a tremendous catch by him. Now we did a poor job missing the tackle. We should’ve lived to fight another down there. We had two guys on him and missed the tackle. That’s what I’m most disappointed of.”
But it’s not the one fantastic play that’ll bug Orgeron and Co. in the coming weeks and months. The loss will leave LSU kicking themselves all winter because it had plenty of chances to win the game and prevent the result from coming down to one spectacular play.
The Tigers dominated play for most of the first half but found themselves trailing 3-0 at halftime by virtue of two missed chip shot field goals. One of those was a 22-yard try after LSU couldn’t punch the ball in from the 1-yard line and took a false start penalty on an aborted fourth and goal attempt.
LSU was on the goalline again with a chance to go up a touchdown in the game’s final minutes but couldn’t punch it in. Running back Derrius Guice got tackled just shy of paydirt, and Orgeron elected to send in Jack Gonsoulin for the go-ahead 17-yard field goal instead of going for it from inside the 1-yard line.
“Obviously you think about it,” Orgeron said. “But you go ahead with under two minutes to go and your defense has played well. I thought we could stop them, and I wanted to give our team a chance to win.”
Orgeron put his trust in his defense, which had been dominant up until Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly pulled his quarterback, Brandon Wimbush, in favor of the freshman Book. Book quickly proved the more dangerous passer while still offering a viable threat running the football.
“It was on us,” defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “We missed a couple of field goals and all that, but at the end of the day, the defense was on the field up three and we didn’t finish. That’s on us. That hurts us. That’s not on Coach. It’s on us.”
The stunning conclusion spoiled a fantastic effort from LSU quarterback Danny Etling. The senior quarterback and Guice connected on a pair of second-half touchdown passes and finished his final collegiate game 19-for-33 passing with 229 yards and converted a handful of pivotal third downs with his legs.
It was a heartbreaking way to go out for seniors like Etling and defensive end Christian LaCouture. LaCouture fought back tears while trying to find the words to describe the emotion of playing his final game in purple and gold.
“I left it all out there,” Etling said. “I played as hard as I could. I feel like I really left it all out there. It’s unfortunate to come up short, but you can sleep pretty well at night knowing you gave it your all. It’s just unfortunate how everything played out.”
Swarming defense, stagnant offense and a mixture of brilliant and atrocious special teams play kept the game sloppy and scoreless through the first quarter. DJ Chark cost the Tigers field position by fielding a punt inside his 5-yard line and muffing two others — one LSU was extremely fortunate to get on top of.
LSU got its offense moving in the second quarter with two lengthy drives, but both ended in confounding fashion with nothing to show for it.
Etling drove the Tigers inside the Notre Dame 10-yard line to set up first and goal early in the second quarter. Three stuffed runs later, LSU took a false start before going for fourth and goal from the 1-yard line. Connor Culp promptly came on and pushed a 22-yard field goal attempt wide right.
The defense got the ball right back with a quick three-and-out, and LSU drove across midfield again. A sack derailed the drive, and this time Gonsoulin missed a 37-yard field goal try wide left. LSU gained 187 yards in the first half but failed to dent the scoreboard.
“We left a lot of points on the board in the first half,” center Will Clapp said. “We had shots there and didn’t execute.”
Notre Dame, sparked by a quarterback change, broke the scoreless stalemate just before halftime. Book scrambled through the LSU defense to convert a third-and-20, eventually setting up Justin Yoon to make a 47-yard field goal and put the Irish ahead at the break.
“We had a lot of opportunities,” Lawrence said. “We shot ourselves in the foot a lot today, multiple times and it cost us. You can’t beat a great team like that and have constant mistakes and think you’re going to win the game.”
A special teams gaffe by the other side put LSU ahead. A bouncing punt from Zach Von Rosenberg grazed the leg of a Notre Dame blocker, and LSU long snapper Blake Ferguson dove on the ball to set LSU up in plus territory.
This time the Tigers capitalized on the field position, cashing in on an inside screen pass from Etling to Guice that went for a 20-yard touchdown. Earlier in the game Guice became the fifth player in LSU history to amass 3,000 career rushing yards.
Notre Dame continued to move the football with Book under center, but Greedy Williams picked Book off to end a drive that’d reached LSU territory. His six interceptions this season are the most by an LSU player since Morris Claiborne in 2011.
The Irish creeped closer with another long field goal from Yoon, but LSU responded with another long drive into Notre Dame territory. Etling lowered his shoulder and got popped to convert a critical third down and eventually hooked up with Guice on a 2-yard touchdown, their second of the day.
But Notre Dame wasn’t going down without a fight. Book converted another third and 19 on the ensuing drive and marched the Irish inside the LSU 10-yard line.
Facing third and goal, Book scrambled and found Louisiana native Michael Young in the back of the end zone for the touchdown. Josh Adams bulldozed into the end zone for the two-point conversion to tie the game up with less than eight minutes to play.
LSU now heads into an offseason that figures to be full of change. Players prepared all week having heard numerous reports that LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada would not be back in 2018. LSU will also be replacing offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, BYU’s new offensive coordinator, and defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, who is retiring.
“We’re going to look at the overall picture,” Orgeron said. “We’ve got four guys left to sign. There’s going to be critical areas for us to sign. I’m glad we’ve got a place kicker signed. Obviously we need that.”