Aranda MacGyvers a secondary
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Evidently there are fates worse than playing a bowl game with your available defensive backs down to scraps, morsels and emergency fill-ins.
You could try it with Central Florida’s starting secondary.
LSU quarterback Joe Burrow certainly had a good time with it.
All of sudden pass-challenged LSU became the Flying Tigers.
And UCF won’t be claiming any national championships this season.
The one last year was somewhat dubious.
Who knows what wild claims might come from beating a Southeastern Conference team for the second consecutive year in a New Year’s Six Bowl game?
So the Tigers did the nation a favor by beating the Knights 40-32 to end the 25-game winning streak.
No matter what it looked like.
Understand, this will never go down as one of LSUs most artistic victories.
A lot of stupid penalties.
Down 14-3 after an awful start, that had every opportunity into snowball into another Disney World parade for UCF, the Tigers recovered to take charge but never took the game out of reach.
LSU always seemed on the verge of putting the Knights out of their misery, but kept padding Cole Tracy’s field goal numbers until he became the NCAA’s all-time leading kicker.
There weren’t a lot of style points, but a bowl game isn’t about that.
LSU just needed to win this game by hook or crook.
Or defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Considering what he had to work with, this might have been Aranda’s finest four hour.
It was already going to be a struggle with three top cornerbacks out, along with three defensive linemen.
Early on a fourth cornerback, Terrence Alexander was ejected for throwing a punch.
Smart move, there, huh?
Then All-American safety Grant Delpit ran afoul of the targeting rule — another key ejection — though there seemed to be little intent.
So the Tigers’ last line of defense was down to playing guys who’d never before been in crucial action.
“We came in with the ‘next man up’ mind-set, especially for the defense,” All-American linebacker Devin White said. “We knew we were going to be missing a lot of key players. I told them it was a great opportunity to make a name for themselves, and I think a lot of people did that.”
Well, it makes for a good story.
But it looked like Aranda dug into his bag of smoke and mirrors, doing a masterful job of masking the secondary spit-and-baling wire holes with a pass rush LSU wasn’t accustomed to getting this year.
“Dave had a great game plan,” head coach Ed Orgeron said. “He worked tirelessly … This was a great challenge. We blitzed a lot today. We had a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We played some cover 2 when we needed to. He made up some of the coverages.”
The Tigers had a season-high five sacks and UCF quarterback Darriel Mack wasn’t really aware of how many receivers he had had open because the likes of Rashard Lawrence were hanging around his neck like a May pole most of the day.
It’s not the strength of the team this year. When his secondary is stocked with NFL talent, Aranda generally trusts them to hold their own.
That wasn’t going to happen Tuesday. So he found a work-around.
“The difference tonight was the pressure on the quarterback,” Orgeron said. “We had more pressure on the quarterback than we had all year. And I thought for our guys, that made the difference in the whole game.”
Once Aranda had time to adjust at halftime to the further depletion of the secondary, it was a vintage stuff.
Central Florida had pulled to within touchdown when a first-half drive burned the secondary just before halftime.
In the third quarter, this über up-tempo UCF offense known for getting better as the game goes on, did not manage a first down.
You could make the argument that LSU should have won by more. It was the Tigers’ own mistakes more than anything the upstart Knights did that kept LSU from pulling away.
Again, this game isn’t going to hang in an art museum.
It never figured to.
The Tigers beat UCF at their own game.
For all the talk about the up-tempo Knights wearing teams into submission with their never-ending offensive flurry, in the end it was LSU that wore down UCF with an almost 3-to-1 advantage in time of possession.
In the end, you almost wondered what all the fuss over Central Florida was about.
If they couldn’t beat this depleted three-loss SEC team, how much bigger of a national stage do the Knights need?
“They’re a hell of a team,” Burrow said. “But as far as a physical game, we play in the SEC every week. So I’ve played more physical games than that, for sure.”
“Their offense, it was mainly speed, wanting to get to the outside,” said White, this season’s Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker. “It really wasn’t a trench game. I don’t really think they could play in the SEC week in and week out with the style of play they play with.”
Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org