Earlier this season, when LSU was getting ready to begin SEC play back in September, Brian Kelly said the Tigers would get punched in the mouth any number of times during SEC play.
He said LSU would have to be resilient.
Kelly said LSU would find itself in such positions during SEC games where they would have to fight back, pick themselves up, dust themselves off.
Saturday’s SEC Championship Game with unbeaten and No. 1 Georgia – a 17.5-point favorite – and a bruised and recently beaten LSU, epitomized Kelly’s early season prediction.
Georgia’s 50-30 ugly, even brutal, win over LSU was a sort of microcosm of the Tigers’ entire season wrapped. It was wrapped into 60 minutes of game action that was at times frustrating, debilitating, and yet, somehow, even in the end, promising, and even, at times, exhilarating.
On the surface, when Georgia (13-0) led LSU (9-4) 35-10 at halftime, you might have jumped to the conclusion that the Bulldogs simply outmatched and outclassed the Tigers.
That would be the rational and simple assumption most would make. The score indicates as much.
But that was not the case. Not necessarily.
Instead, all told, even though Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett threw four touchdown passes on Saturday, and even he was was named the game’s MVP, the game itself was really much closer than it seemed.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
There is definite gap between where Georgia – the defending national champions, the current SEC Champions and the likely No. 1-ranked team heading into the College Football playoffs – and where LSU currently is.
It’s just LSU isn’t as far away from where Georgia is, even though the Bulldogs know exactly where they are headed, and the Tigers are waiting to find out which second-tier bowl (most likely, the Vegas Bowl) will invite it.
As a matter of fact, the divide between Georgia and LSU is not as wide as even the score Saturday may seem to indicate.
Georgia scored first after LSU put together a 14-play 69-yard drive on its second possession and found itself setting up for a field goal. LSU was about to go up, 3-0. But it never happened.
Georgia’s Nazier Stackhouse blocked Damian Ramos’s field goal. But then the punch in the mouth really occurred.
LSU stood around looking stunned the kick had been blocked. The Tigers literally froze, didn’t move.
And, for a few seconds no one did. Not even Georgia’s players. Not even the referees.
Georgia’s Christopher Smith thawed out first.
Smith scooped up the ball at the Bulldog’s 4-yard line and before LSU knew what was up, he had returned it 96 yards for a touchdown.
Let’s see, blocked kicks and early deficits. Sound familiar?
“Obviously, we did a poor job coaching,” Kelly said. “It’s our responsibility to have our guys alert. In that situation, they were not alert, and that falls on coaching, and that falls on my shoulders. I take full responsibility for that.”
But LSU proved to be characteristically resilient. Three plays are all it took for Jayden Daniels to hit Kayshon Boutte on a 53-yard scoring play and the Tigers tied it up, 7-7.
However, Georgia responded with an impressive drive of its own as Brock Bowers caught three key passes including a three-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 14-7 lead as the first quarter ended.
On the LSU’s next drive, Daniels threw an accurate pass to Jack Bech that was broken up and appeared to be incomplete. But it deflected off Bech’s helmet instead of the turf and was intercepted by Georgia.
On the next play, Bennett fired a 22-yard touchdown to Ladd McConkey to put Georgia up, 21-7.
Bennett then capped a 13-play Georgia drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Washington, followed by a three-yarder to Dillion Bell with 32 seconds left in the first half for a 35-7 lead.
Daniels, who had reinjured his ankle on the previous series when he was sacked and replaced temporarily by Garrett Nussmeier, hobbled back onto the field and drove LSU 51 yards in seven plays culminating with 42-yard Ramos field goal to make, 35-10 at halftime.
LSU did not quit in the second half.
Nussmeier started and played the entire second half and connected with Malik Nabers for the 34-yard touchdown to make it 35-17.
LSU forced a quick three-and-out, looking to cut into the Georgia lead.
Nussmeier hit Nabers on a 59-yard bomb deep down the middle, but Georgia stopped LSU running back Josh Williams for no gain on a fourth-and-one at the Bulldogs’ five-yard line.
“If we just do a little bit better job on a field goal situation, you know, take seven off the board, it’s 43 points,” Kelly said. “And then, you know, maybe we convert that, it’s 37. You know, you’ve got a one-score game going into the fourth quarter and we get stopped on a fourth-and-inches, that’s a pretty close game.”
Georgia marched 95 yards on eight plays capped off by a Kenny McIntosh two-yard touchdown run to extend its lead to 42-17.
Williams ripped off a 47-yard run to put LSU right back in the red zone, and Noah Cain’s one-yard touchdown run cut Georgia’s lead 42-23 with 1:46 left to play in the third quarter.
Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, though, Georgia’s McIntosh scored on an 8-yard scamper and then the Bulldogs tried to snuff out any resilience LSU might have left by going for two. Bennett ran a reverse to Adonai Mitchell, who then threw a pass to Washington wide open in the end zone.
LSU still would not quit.
With 7:12 left in the game, Nussmeier scrambled right and fired across his body 33 yards to Jaray Jenkins breaking free in the deep in the end zone, to make it 50-30 following Ramos’ point after.
So, the apparent divide is not that huge.
“But we’ve got work to do, as I told our guys,” Kelly said. “And it’s 24-7. It’s not just on the field, it’s how we do things away from the building. It’s every day – in the classroom, in the community, all the things that are going to allow us to be better communicators and have an attention to detail in all those areas.
“We’ve got to continue to develop our football team,” Kelly said. “But this foundation is really strong, and we’ll continue to be able to build on it. But I do believe that gap is something that we can’t continue to close and that we can get back here next year. And that’ll be our goal, to get back here next year to win it.”