The best player in college football was facing the best defense he had faced all season on Saturday at Tiger Stadium.
And, for the entire first half of the game, one might have thought Jayden Daniels was literally watching his Heisman hopes go up in smoke.
But the smoky air cleared out in the third quarter and LSU and Daniels proved they are who we all thought they are.
Daniels, the frontrunner for the sport’s most prestigious award, the one who averaged more than 400 yards per game total offense all by himself through 11 games this season, and the one who was halfway finished with his final regular season college football game – and quite possibly his final college game, period – had only had 52 yards passing to show for it.
Daniels did have 59 yards rushing in that abnormal-for-him first half, but LSU trailed Texas A&M 17-14, and the Aggies’ Top 10 defense seemed to have the Tigers and Daniels more than handcuffed.
Honestly, the smoke from the two cannons of fireworks that fired when LSU ran through the goalposts onto the field to start the game almost two hours earlier lingered in the air the entire first half.
So, it is quite possible, Daniels, who if he ever does get frustrated on the field during a game though he certainly never shows it, quite possibly could have stared heavenward at any point in the first half on Saturday, and wondered to himself what the heck was happening and thinking everything was going up in smoke.
But those weren’t Daniels Heisman hopes going up in smoke, after all.
It was just a little smoke on the water.
But, knowing Daniels, he was probably more concerned that once Texas A&M took the opening kickoff of the second half 75 yards in seven plays and Mark Nabou, Jr. broke the plane on a 1-yard run to put the Aggies up 24-14 with 11:04 to left to play in the third quarter, the most crucial concern for LSU, and thus Daniels himself since he always puts his team first, was that the Tigers’ goal for a 10-win season was going up in smoke.
LSU coach Brian Kelly started talking to his defensive players.
“Someone’s got to make a play,” Kelly told them.
But as he has done all season – hell, virtually every game since he arrived at LSU in 2022 – Daniels started by taking matters into own his hands.
Facing a fourth down and four at the LSU 47-yard line, Daniels dropped back to pass, went through his progressions and saw Texas A&M’s corner squatting on the receivers running the routes he has routinely completed to them all season; he had very little choice.
“I was trying to see if I could hit Brian (Thomas) on the slant. But I saw the the DBs playing with good leverage. So, I kind of just, you know, saw an opening (and took off),” Daniels said.
In other words, Daniels did what That Kid has been doing more effectively than anyone in the country else does.
Daniels headed left, broke contain – with ease, as usual – then sped, or glided, if you will, past several Aggies down the sideline, eluding the spy.
Fourty-Nine yards down the sideline.
Just when LSU really needed it in the worst kind of way.
Demani Richardson pushed Daniels out of bounds at the four-yard-line.
But, just like that, that pregame smoke that had been lingering above Tiger Stadium from the fireworks was gone. It had dissipated into thin air.
Three plays later, Josh Williams crashed in from a yard out, and LSU was alive, having cut A&M’s lead and its stronghold on the Tigers’ prolific offense, all in one swift motion.
Down 24-21, LSU needed some other things to happen, too, though, because on this day even though Texas A&M was without its infamous head coach, Jimbo Fisher, its interim, Elijah Robinson, the Aggies third-string quarterback Jaylen Henderson, and an old offensive coordinator and nemesis named Bobby Petrino had so far this game put together the perfect gameplan against LSU’s – uh – let’s just call it, “conversion defense.”
Yes, conversion defense.
Nine of 13 times in the first half, Texas A&M converted on third down. It didn’t matter the distance because the Aggies would convert.
That type of consumption degenerates opposing teams and tends to win games for the team doing the consuming. Not to mention, it did something else for the Aggies.
Nine of 13 third-down conversions in the first half chewed up a lot of clock for those College Station-folk, and produced the other bi-product that was beneficial to the Aggie cause – it kept the ball away from LSU’s offense, as in out of Daniels lethal hands and feet.
To make matters worse, on those four times in the first half where Texas A&M failed to convert on LSU’s conversion defense, they decided to try again on fourth down.
And guess what?
The Aggies converted on three of those attempts.
Now, with LSU showing signs of life, Texas A&M went back to work.
With 7:43 left in the third quarter, Texas A&M began a 13-play drive. The Aggies marched down to the LSU 14-yard line, converting on one third down and one fourth down during the drive before LSU’s defense did something it seldom does. It put together a stop, a much-needed one.
First, on first-and-10 from the LSU 12, Sa’vion Jones and Jordan Jefferson stood up running back David Bailey for no gain. On second and third down, Harold Perkins, Jr., rose up – putting a strong hurry on Henderson and forcing an incompletion to Anias Smith in the left flat, and then on third-and-10, Perkins was spying Henderson and rushed him up the gut of Aggies defense and forced a two-yard loss.
On fourth-and-12 with 1:16 left in the third quarter, Randy Bond missed a 31-yard field goal wide right.
The announced attendance in Tiger Stadium was 101,178.
Of course, there were not nearly that many fans in attendance, that’s the number of tickets that were sold. Not the same thing.
But the point is, the 80,000 or so fans that did show up for the 11 a.m. kickoff to bid 16 seniors including their Heisman frontrunner quarterback and two Biletnikoff finalist receivers (Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas – both underclassmen playing most likely their last games at LSU, at least in Tiger Stadium) started to sense the tide turning as Bond’s field goal sailed wide right.
Okay, bad choice of words, but you catch my drift.
With the third quarter winding down, the winds appeared to be shifting in LSU’s favor.
The LSU students must have sensed it even before Bond’s missed field goal attempt because early on in that drive while the Aggies were still slicing up the Tigers’ conversion defense, they started chanting “STTD” like they are prone to do.
Never mind the fact that LSU was losing. Details. Don’t bog yourself down in the details.
In the fourth quarter, Daniels, who again, only had 52 yards passing in the first half as Texas A&M kept him off the field, caught fire, passing for 163 yards and three touchdowns.
“You may get Jayden for a little bit,” Kelly said, “but you just can’t keep him down.”
But this was still the third quarter, and the Aggies still had 1:16 to keep That Kid down if they could.
Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper, who had been keeping tabs on Daniels with his own brand of Perkins-esque espionage, went back to work along with the rest of “the best defense we’ve played all year,” according to Kelly.
The fourth quarter opened with LSU facing a third-and-11 from its own 19. Cooper hurried Daniels, who fired over the middle to Nabers and missed. LSU had to punt.
Jay Bramblett’s punt sailed 46 yards and as it came to rest in the arms of Smith on the Aggies 35, where the strangest occurrence, well, happened. LSU long snapper Slade Roy, who had outrun everyone else down field, laid Smith out with the best tackle you’ve seen from a Tiger defender this season.
Only Roy, of course, doesn’t play defense for the Tigers. At least not yet.
LSU students started chanting “STTD” again.
Again, it seemed inappropriate, as it always does. But they must have some form of extra-sensory perception, LSU’s students. Perhaps it’s chemically induced.
Either way, five plays later with A&M marching again and facing a third-and-seven at the 50, which translates into a likely a conversion when you’re playing LSU’s “conversion defense,” Henderson dropped back to pass, rolled left, and was hurried by Maason Smith. He hastily fired over the middle and Greg Penn III snatched it out of thin air at LSU 39 for the interception that changed the game for good.
At that point, Daniels had 110 yards passing and 110 yards rushing, or 94.8% of LSU 232 of total offense to that point. (I threw that stat in for all those Bo Nix people out there. I call them Nixers.)
Three plays and 59 seconds later, Daniels fired a 23-yard touchdown pass to Thomas and LSU went ahead of the Aggies 28-24 – and for good at that point.
As if it had a great want (ode to Les Miles) to give Daniels some real support as a going away gift, LSU defense began to play non-conversion defense for a few more possessions.
On first and 10 on the Aggies next possession following the LSU kickoff, Greg Penn III, possibly still high from his recent interception, sacked Henderson for a two-yard loss.
On second and 12, Smith stood Henderson straight up for a two-yard gain on a scramble. And then on third and 10, Perkins and Da’Shawn Womack converged on Henderson’s face and entire body seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and planted his face in the turf.
That’s two sacks in three plays, fellas (ode to Charlie McClendon), and with 9:44 to play A&M had to punt from its own 11. Punter Nik Constantinou’s 52-yard punt sailed into Gregory Clayton, Jr.’s hands at LSU’s 37 yards and Clayton, Jr. did not fair catch it. He instead returned it 10 yards, nearly breaking it for a second.
The smoke had cleared, the wind had definitely shifted and it seemed like it was still shifting.
Four plays, 53 yards and 1:03 later, Daniels connected with Nabers on a 21-yard thing of beauty in the left corner of the end zone for a touchdown that will live on in LSU highlights for as long as they play football at LSU.
Most importantly, 8:25 remained in the game and LSU led Texas A&M, 35-24. LSU defense had begun a true metamorphosis into something resembling a major college defense, and, oh yes, Daniels’ Heisman hopes and frontrunning status were back in order.
Daniels, at that point, had accounted for 92.281879 percent of LSU’s offense after the highlight TD pass for the ages to Nabers (285 of 298 yards).
But three plays later, a full one minute and five seconds, and Henderson connected with Max Wright for a 51-yard pass and run to make it 35-30. LSU stopped the Aggies two-point conversion.
And, at this point, Daniels was clearly feeling like his old Heisman front-running self.
On first down at the LSU 25 following the kickoff, Daniels promptly zinged one over the middle to Nabers on a crossing route going and Nabers, who had only moments before become LSU all-time career reception leader with 186 catches, ran down the LSU sideline 75 yards for a touchdown and into the record books as the Tigers all-time career reception yardage leader . . . until it was yanked away from him by a spot penalty at the Texas A&M 35.
Kyren Lacey was caught holding.
Nabers, for his part, would have to defer his second school career receiving record until the bowl game that LSU will no doubt accept a bid to on December 3.
After the game, a joyful and wet-eyed Nabers confirmed he would play in that bowl game. Daniels, however, is not so sure yet. Daniels said he had to think about it and discuss with it with parents.
But, just for good measure, Daniels hit Lacy a few plays later on a 15-yard touchdown pass that rivaled the Nabers highlight from earlier in the game.
LSU, however, still had to figure out how to stave off the Aggies for the 4:15 second eternity that remained, even though it led, 42-30.
And that’s when the LSU defense did what? It put together another stop – it’s fourth one of the second half.
Daniels, Nabers and Thomas then ended their LSU careers at Tiger Stadium in the victory formation on the A&M five-yard line after milking the final 2:48 of the clock.
ESPN asked Daniels on the field after the game about, what else, the Heisman.
In the postgame press conference, when a reporter asked Daniels if he felt like he made his case for the Heisman, Daniels replied: