Daniels rallies LSU as Tigers’ defense surfaces in second half at Mizzou

LEAP AND A PLAYER: LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels, shown leaping over a Missouri defender, led a rally from 15 down to victory Saturday. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The entertainment value of the 2023 LSU football team is undeniable and unpredictable.

Midway through this season after six games, the Tigers and their opponents are averaging 1.26 points per minute.

In other words, don’t dare take a bathroom break or visit a concession stand. It’s not over until it’s over and probably even then it’s not necessarily a done deal.

On a picture-perfect fall Saturday afternoon, the No. 23 Tigers found themselves in a 22-7 deficit at No. 21 Missouri, then re-took and lost the lead twice before closing with a 14-0 run in the game’s final three minutes for an emotionally and physically exhausting 49-39 SEC win.

It wasn’t until LSU safety Major Burns scored on a 19-yard interception return with 34 seconds left for the final margin of victory that the only remaining cheers in the Faurot Field crowd of 62,631 were from the purple and gold faithful who made the 11-hour trip north.

“Collectively, this was just a mindset of a tough football team going on the road, when they’ve been absolutely beaten up (by critics) about how bad they are (after losing 55-49 at Ole Miss last Saturday), and they respond against a really good football team,” LSU head coach Brian Kelly said.

“The real story here is (LSU quarterback) Jayden Daniels. He’s a warrior. . .he’s got the heart of a champion. He’s been inspirational showing toughness. He’s a game-breaker. He does so many things to hurt defenses. You don’t get too many chances to coach a guy like that.”

Burns’ Pick-6 not only clinched a victory, improving LSU to 4-2 on the season and 3-1 in the SEC West, but it assured that another virtuoso performance by Daniels wasn’t wasted.

Not only did the senior dual QB wizard account for 389 total offensive yards – 15 of 21 for 259 passing yards and three touchdowns as well as 130 rushing yards and a TD on 15 carries – but he led the Tigers on TD drives of 92 and 75 yards in final 11:23 after leaving the game bruised and battered from a blow he absorbed on a TD run that was nullified by a penalty.

On those possessions that respectively ended with Daniels’ 35-yard TD run on a QB draw for a 35-32 lead with 7:54 left and with his 29-yard game-winning scoring strike to Malik Nabers for a 42-39 advantage with 2:58 remaining, he completed 5 of 6 passes for 86 yards. He also rushed for 96 yards on seven carries.

“They (Missouri) did a good job early in the game taking away our explosive plays in the passing game,” Daniels said. “But I committed to everybody just staying the course, not getting out of whack and trusting the coaches.”

Ranked second nationally in total offense, there wasn’t a doubt LSU’s offense would turn from sporadic sparks to a bonfire after punting twice and scoring a TD in its first three series of the game. The visiting Tigers scored five TDs and two field goals on their next seven possessions.

LSU did it with 20 more running attempts (43) than passing attempts (23). The Tigers outgained Mizzou 533-527 in total offense yardage on the strength of 274 rushing yards. Though Daniels repeatedly killed the home team defense escaping the pocket on scrambles and on designed plays, running back Logan Diggs led all rushers with 134 yards and 1 TD on 24 attempts.

The game’s first 24 minutes looked like last week’s LSU debacle at Ole Miss.

Missouri QB Brady Cook completed 13 of his first 15 passes for 202 yards and two TDs to wide-open receivers Luther Burden, Mookie Cooper and Theo Wease. LSU defenders played 10 yards off receivers. There were numerous missed tackles.

But on his 17th pass attempt, Cook’s SEC record streak of 364 attempts without an interception was snapped when LSU linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. dropped deep into coverage and picked Cook at the Missouri 45.

LSU cashed in the mistake on Daniels’ 3-yard TD pass to Mason Taylor with 1:59 left in the second quarter to cut Mizzou’s lead to 22-17.

Though Missouri placekicker Harrison Mevis ended the first half with a 50-yard field goal for a 25-17 halftime lead, Perkins’ interception and then his near-block of Mevis’ missed 44-yard attempt on Mizzou’s second-half opening possession awakened LSU’s slumbering defense.

“Coach (Kelly) always talks about discipline through all four quarters, and we did that,” Perkins said. “We had to stay on business in the second half.

LSU recorded two sacks, three QB hurries and four of its five tackles for losses in the final two quarters. Meanwhile, Mizzou had no answers for stopping Daniels, Diggs, wide receivers Nabers (6 catches for 146 yards, 1 TD) and Brian Thomas 4 for 66, 1 TD) and tight end Taylor (4 for 27, 1 TD).

“You’ve got to tip your hat to them (LSU),” said Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz, whose team suffered its first loss of the season (5-1 overall, 1-1 SEC East). “They’ve got some elite players. Jayden Daniels played as well as any quarterback I’ve ever gone against. We knew going into the game he was going to be a tough out.” 

After playing four of its first six games away from Tiger Stadium, LSU now plays its last five of six contests at home starting with Auburn next Saturday.

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com