Brian Kelly’s observation of the final play in a 32-31 overtime win Nov. 5 over Alabama came from a 35,000-foot overview that took him back to the infancy stages of taking over the program.
A month after leaving Notre Dame for LSU, Kelly sat high atop NRG Stadium, and watched from the press box his future team, armed with 39 scholarship players and included a wide receiver playing quarterback, lose 42-20 to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.
It further galvanized Kelly’s first order of business in purple and gold to replenish a roster void of talent and depleted by numbers. The quick fix was to hit NCAA transfer portal to address both areas and put the finishing touches on a freshman signing class that featured quality over quantity.
Fast-forward 11 months and LSU appeared to pull off the improbable, especially from Kelly’s seat at the Texas Bowl. He positioned his Tigers for one play to vanquish Alabama, the Southeastern Conference’s gold standard and one of the nation’s most successful programs.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels’ 25-yard touchdown run on his team’s first offensive play in the extra session put LSU on the threshold of an early breakthrough in Kelly’s tenure. He certainly wasn’t about to try and match the Crimson’s Tide earlier extra point and force a second overtime.
In that instant Kelly went for the win. Two months after eschewing such a decision and suffering a blocked extra point in a 24-23 loss against Florida State, he found validation to push forward. Personally, he was 0-of-2 against Nick Saban in two previous chances at Notre Dame but displayed a certain moxie by imploring his team to do something that hadn’t been accomplished in Tiger Stadium since 2010.
Following a timeout and a change of the original play, Kelly put Daniels on the move to his right out of shotgun formation. He believed only good things could be realized by putting his best athlete on the perimeter, who perfectly delivered a pass that only freshman tight end Mason Taylor could catch on an under route.
Taylor, one of the original commitments in the Class of 2023 that Kelly retained, caught the ball going toward the right front pylon and scored to send a full-throated Tiger Stadium into delirium. For the second time in a victory over a Top 10 opponent, fans spilled onto the turf to celebrate where the goalposts were well guarded and remained up right.
Kelly allowed himself a brief moment of delight. He circled on the sideline in glee and exchanged a hug with senior running back John Emery Jr. before being whisked away for a long-awaited jubilant postgame handshake with Saban. Then it was to meet with ESPN sideline reporter Holly Rowe where the 61-year-old had a hard time composing himself amid the euphoria surrounding him in Tiger Stadium.
“Because that was such a great game,” he said of his postgame tears. “I had never beaten Alabama. Those things are kind of like you want to check the box and move on. And so yeah, you get a little emotional about those and I was emotional. Not for myself, but I was emotional for our team because I know what we looked like in January and to see where we are today. That’s pretty emotional.”
LSU’s the portrait of a contender for a SEC West Division championship.
Let that sink in.
It was three short years ago when LSU was the toast of college football, putting together one of the game’s all-time teams for a 15-0 run to reach the pinnacle of the game, before totally coming apart at the seams. The Tigers had gone 11-12 the previous two seasons because the program imploded from the inside-out, resulting in a culture shift that cost head coach Ed Orgeron his job.
While trying to cobble together a roster that would make LSU competitive in his first season, Kelly’s also building something with staying power. He put together the majority of his current recruiting class BEFORE the start of the season and with the way this year has unfolded, it would be an upset if Kelly’s not holding one of the nation’s top classes.
LSU showed glimpses of being a viable product against Florida State but needed time under Kelly to shed its helter-skelter skin to win again at an elite level.
For the past month that’s what the Tigers have been building toward. Consecutive road wins over Auburn and Florida were an example they were getting close, only to endure a 40-13 setback mixed in at the hands Tennessee which was ranked No. 1 in the first CFP rankings.
LSU was far from flawless against Alabama, but seemingly locked in mentally throughout. The Tigers avoided their patented slow start and matched the Crimson Tide throughout a game where the lead changed hands six times, all in the second half.
Despite yielding a late field goal that forced overtime, and facing its biggest deficit of the game 31-24, LSU didn’t flinch and neither did Kelly. Daniels’ 25-yard scoring run on first down brought Tiger Stadium to its feet, and it was his pass to Taylor for two points and a one-point win that sent many of them scaling the nearest wall to celebrate on the field.
“I’m willing to do anything for this group because I think that they have shown that they’ll make it happen some way,” Kelly said. “And they did again tonight.”