I expected to see something different.
That much I was able to glean from the time the media was allowed inside the Charlie McClendon Practice Facility during preseason practice to watch first-year coach Brian Kelly put his stamp on the 2022 Tigers.
The previous two years were an atrocity, particularly the end of the Ed Orgeron era that flamed out in a 42-20 loss to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl where the Tigers limped through with 39 scholarship players.
The more buttoned-up Kelly, certainly one of the country’s biggest splash hires, left Notre Dame after 12 years to chase an elusive national championship at LSU where his three predecessors – Nick Saban, Les Miles and Orgeron – all reached college football’s Holy Grail.
What LSU’s season-opening 24-23 loss to Florida State on Sept. 4 proved was just how big a challenge Kelly had taken on in getting the Tigers’ program back up and running at an elite level.
“I’m proud of the way we battled,” Kelly said afterward. “We need to play better and with a sense of urgency for four quarters, which we did not.”
That LSU was within an extra point of forcing overtime seemed folly.
The Tigers did enough to write their own obituary with an offense that misfired for nearly three quarters, a defense that was particularly porous on third down and a special team’s unit that was dreadful.
Yet, throughout all of those misgivings, Kelly kept his team afloat through the abyss long enough to twice rally from two-touchdown deficits with an opportunity to force overtime at the end.
“We came out flat,” LSU wide receiver Jaray Jenkins said. “We started slow. I don’t know what it was.”
Regardless of the opponent, LSU showed some bite and displayed the kind of traits of grit and perseverance Kelly preached in the preseason.
The Tigers put together consecutive scoring drives of 15 and 11 plays in the last nine minutes of play, electing to give Arizona State transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels the opportunity to push a middling offense into a different gear, a more favorable pace in which they thrived.
“In the second half we found ways to get the rhythm going and that happened a lot,” Daniels said.
Daniels won a competitive preseason battle for the team’s starting quarterback job with redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier. He brought extensive experience to the position with 29 prior starts at Arizona State and with more than 7,000 career yards to his credit, he added a true dual threat capability that made the Tigers more formidable.
Daniels delivered 323 yards of total offense and two passing touchdowns, but it wasn’t until his team’s final two drives of the fourth quarter did you see his true worth. He directed the Tigers with both his legs and right arm on drives of 75 and 99 yards, the second of which was set up by Mekhi Wingo’s fumble recovery at the 1-yard line with 1:20 remaining.
LSU had two timeouts to work with and Daniels went to work, completing his first four passes for 44 yards to reach FSU’s 48-yard line with 29 seconds left.
Following a sack for a five-yard loss, Daniels scrambled for 24 yards and later found freshman tight end Mason Taylor for a 17-yard completion down to the Seminoles’ 2-yard line.
Following a lengthy review of the play to Taylor, and with time for one play, Daniels stood in a clean pocket and delivered a scoring strike to Jenkins in the back of the end zone.
Jenkins tied for team honors with five catches for 46 yards and a pair of scores. Brian Thomas, Taylor and Malik Nabers, who drew criticism with a pair of muffed punts, all had five receptions to offset the subpar effort of All-American Kayshon Boutte with two grabs for 20 yards.
For a program with some of the same players that had endured so much the past two seasons, the Tigers had righted themselves against a wave of adversity.
Kelly said he played the percentages, eschewing any thoughts of a possible two-point play, for the chance to tie the game with Ramos, who had a field goal blocked late in the second quarter.
FSU took advantage of shaky protection to the left side of Ramos with Shyheim Brown getting through and blocking the attempt, sending the Seminoles into ecstasy and Tigers into agony.
“I was stunned. Confused,” Daniels said of the final play. “It’s disheartening because you think you’re going to overtime. But that didn’t define the game. We had 20, 30 plays that could define the game and change the outcome.”
Kelly didn’t hold back in the aftermath.
“Look, I’m not here to say we take any solace in a loss,” he said. “That’s not why I’m here at LSU, to learn about great lessons in losses. But the reality of it is, we’ve got some ‑‑ some learning to do. We’ve got to coach better, and we’ve got to play better.”