By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE – LSU’s unlikely journey to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game ended predictably, but there’s one last challenge to cap Brian Kelly’s first season: the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl.
With Saturday’s 50-30 loss to No. 1 Georgia in the rearview mirror and four losses on their ledger, the Tigers will make their third trip to the Citrus Bowl since 2016, this time against Purdue (8-5) which lost the Big Ten Championship game 43-22 to Michigan Saturday night.
The Tigers and Boilermakers have never faced each other, but that changes Monday, Jan. 2, at noon CST in Orlando.
Purdue didn’t cash in on outgaining the No. 2-ranked Wolverines 456-386, but Michigan needed a second-half surge to secure its victory, posting 29 points after halftime. The Boilermakers settled for field goals on five trips inside the Michigan red zone.
There was much less doubt earlier Saturday in Atlanta. The Tigers had their slim hopes of a major bowl selection dashed by halftime as Georgia led 35-10.
Kelly had an open admission about the defending national champions afterward: They’re just better.
“They were the better football team today. Proud of my team, proud of the fight they gave today,” Kelly said. “We were just a little short.”
The Tigers (9-4) were outmatched by a more veteran squad, but they had the upper hand early until a costly blunder. Georgia’s first touchdown came with 3:33 left in the first quarter when an LSU field goal attempt was blocked by Nazir Stackhouse and returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Christopher Smith. LSU’s players didn’t react after the block as the ball dribbled several yards downfield, assuming the play was dead before Smith returned it with no resistance.
“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. That falls on coaching. That falls on my shoulders. I take full responsibility for that.”
Georgia (13-0) entered the game as one of the top defenses in the nation, and while the defense wracked up four sacks and three turnovers, it was the Bulldogs’ offense that put the game out of reach. Quarterback Stetson Bennett threw for 274 and four touchdowns on 23-of-29 passing, while Kendall Milton eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground with just eight carries. With the addition of a two-touchdown day for Kenny McIntosh on the ground, the Bulldogs kept a usually stout LSU defense on is heels.
The Tigers have faced plenty of good running backs throughout the season and have had good success with stopping the run. That didn’t translate Saturday, as the Bulldogs ran for a combined 255 yards on 44 attempts.
“It’s a challenge every single week going against good O-lines,” defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo said. “We’ve played a great running back almost every week. It was just another bump in the road for us. It was the same preparation throughout the week.”
There were still highlights, though.
Jayden Daniels responded to the special teams blunder with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte. When Daniels exited for good after the first half because he reaggravated his sprained ankle, Garrett Nussmeier turned in the best performance of his career, throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns on 15-of-27 passing. He found Malik Nabers for a 34-yard touchdown in the third quarter and Jaray Jenkins for a 33-yard TD in the fourth, but the three-score lead Georgia built insulated any chance of a comeback.
The loss capped an unlikely scenario where LSU won the SEC West over preseason favorites Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M. Kelly took over the program with just 39 scholarship players, then bolstered his roster with a transfer-heavy signing class. LSU’s offense featured three true freshmen for the entirety of the season in Will Campbell, Emery Jones and Mason Taylor. The defense added another in Harold Perkins, who made waves nationally as one of the best edge rushers in the country.
“As I told them in the locker room, we’ve got a great foundation. It’s a young football team that will take this lesson and build off of it. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to coach them,” Kelly said.
Now, there’s one last chance at a 10-win season, something that was unthinkable in September but was almost a lock two weeks ago before a titanic loss to struggling A&M.
That, nor the pageantry of a bowl game, changes much for Wingo.
“I would say we just finish off the right way,” he said. “Get back to it, get back to our process. Going at it in the weight room, going hard, just practicing, paying attention to the small details. Just end the season on a good note and send the seniors out right.”
Contact Ryne at email@example.com