SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — There’s something different about No. 11 LSU’s 2018 season finale against UCF in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl (12 p.m. CST/11 a.m. MST, ESPN, LSU Sports Radio Network) on Tuesday.
Several things, actually: it’s LSU’s first trip to the Fiesta Bowl and the furthest the program has traveled for a bowl game. It’s the Tigers’ first New Year’s Six Bowl game appearance. It’s the first day of the year, of course.
It’s also the last game of a season in which the Tigers spurned preseason expectations to finish 9-3 in the regular season, giving Ed Orgeron’s squad a chance at 10 wins for the first time since 2013.
To get there, the Tigers will need to knock off the No. 8 Knights, who enter the game winners of 25 straight contests.
A different game requires a different approach.
“It has been different,” Orgeron says. “It started with me. Attention to details from the first practice, demanding, doing things right on a daily basis at practice, having great practice, having team dinners, making them game like, having curfew, demanding everybody is in for curfew. We’ve had 100% attendance at every curfew. Everybody’s been early to meetings. The awareness levels of the competition it’s going to take to win this football game. This is going to be a battle, just like we’ve had many battles this year. We’re going to have to play our best football game. I think we’ve had our best practices, but we’ll see tomorrow.”
New-Look Defense Aims to Slow Down UCF Attack
The Knights are 12-0 under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, who left his position as offensive coordinator of SEC rival Missouri after last season, and finished seventh in the final College Football Playoff rankings. They enter the game with the No. 5 scoring offense in the nation (44.2 points per game) and the No. 3 offense in yardage (545.4 yards per game).
They also boast one of the nation’s fastest offenses, snapping the ball with an average of 18.4 seconds left on the play clock – nearly four full seconds faster than any team in the SEC.
It will be a formidable challenge to an LSU defense that will feature new starters at nose tackle, inside linebacker, and both cornerback positions.
“The speed in which they run the offense and the execution, no one has really stopped them yet,” Orgeron says. “They wear teams out. They make a lot of plays in the fourth quarter.”
LSU’s defense comes into the game with a new look. Terrence Alexanderand Kary Vincent Jr. are likely to start at cornerback, and Patrick Queencould get the start next to Butkus Award winner Devin White (115 tackles, 12.0 for loss, 3.0 sacks) at inside linebacker until Jacob Phillips returns from a one-half targeting suspension. Nose tackle Tyler Shelvin is also in line to draw the first start of his career.
Nagurski Award finalist and Unanimous All-American Grant Delpit (73 tackles, 9.5 for loss, 5 interceptions, 5 sacks) anchors a secondary that ranks eighth in defensive passing efficiency.
The key, says defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, is getting off the field quickly.
“If we can get off the field, we can keep people at the normal spots,” Aranda says. “If we cannot, we’ve got 13-, 14-, 15-play drives, then guys need to play different spots. We’re practicing as if that’s the case and hoping that ain’t the case.”
Offense Putting More on Burrow’s Plate
On offense, the Tigers are looking to build on a record-setting performance in a 74-72 seven-overtime defeat at Texas A&M to close the season.
Quarterback Joe Burrow is coming off perhaps the best game of his career. Against the Aggies, he accounted for 370 yards (270 passing, 100 rushing) and a school-record six touchdowns.
Other players with targets in sight against a UCF defense that ranks 15th in defensive passing efficiency and 25th in scoring defense are running back Nick Brossette, who is 18 yards shy of 1,000 for the season, and receiver Justin Jefferson, who is 12 yards away from 800 receiving yards. Seniors Foster Moreau and Garrett Brumfield are also in line for the final starts of their LSU careers. It’s also the final game for All-American kicker Cole Tracy, who finished as a finalist for the Lou Groza Award after connecting on 25-of-29 field goals and winning SEC Special Teams Player of the Week a record four times.
Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has used the 15 bowl practices to re-tool his offense, putting more trust in Burrow’s ability to make adjustments on the fly.
“It’s amazing what he’s done, coming in during the summer and learning the offense and everything else and taking it over,” Ensminger says. “And, to be honest with you, we expanded some. We’re looking forward to expanding even more, putting more on him, letting him make more checks, and he’s done a good job with that.”
A win in the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl would give LSU that coveted 10th win and serve as a platform for a productive offseason. The Tigers are set to return starters at key positions all over the field and will receive strong consideration as a top-five team in 2019’s preseason polls.
But on the first day of a new year, Orgeron’s focus – and that of his team – is solely on ending the 2018 season the right way.
“This is our first year in a [New Year’s] Six bowl,” he says. “Our guys take pride in that. It’s the first time we’ve come out west. This is a big deal for LSU. This is a big deal for the seniors. I believe these seniors have built a foundation for a championship program. They showed these younger guys how to work, what’s LSU traditions, what’s the right way, what’s the wrong way. I’m very proud of them.”