LSU didn’t elevate to a College Football Playoff level in 2023, but it ended the season on a high note with a 35-31 comeback win — the largest in program history — to beat Wisconsin in the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa.
With Jayden Daniels opting out, Garrett Nussmeier made the first start in his three-year LSU career. After a slow start for the offense, Nussmeier ultimately impressed, throwing for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns.
Brian Thomas Jr. was the star in the passing game as Malik Nabers sat most of the contest, but he did play long enough to break LSU’s all-time career receiving yards record, previously held by Josh Reed.
As Brian Kelly ended his second season by reaching the 10-win threshold once again, here’s everything he said addressing the media after the victory.
Exciting football game. I thought Wisconsin played outstanding football today. I thought as an opener today at noontime, an exciting game to watch. I don’t know if my comments were heard over the loudspeaker. Our team was down at the half, you could tell that it was probably one of the lowest points all season. I could sense that and we had to take it as a learning moment and what kind of adversity we were under, let’s see if we can bounce back from this. This would be a great learning experience for a lot of younger players, especially on the defensive side of the ball and a quarterback who’s obviously taken over for a Heisman Trophy winner. So there was a lot to prove in the second half, and I thought they did a great job. We out-scored them 21 to 10, had some key stops. I thought we controlled the play in the last six minutes, which is, when you’re looking for the margins of victory in close games, obviously, you want to be able to control the end of the game, and I thought we finished strong. So, really proud of our football team in a game where two teams really wanted to win the football game. There was no doubt about whether these guys wanted to be here or not. Both teams wanted to be here. Both teams wanted to win.
On avoiding panic with early deficit
I think you know what I told our football team and I continue to echo it is there’s different pieces to a football team that you look at, and one of them is you have to have a consistency in your performance and you got to keep playing and it’s one play at a time. It was uneven at times. But if you just keep playing and you just trust your process then eventually it’s going to come together for you. And they didn’t panic. They didn’t get outside the lanes, they just kept playing. They played one play at a time and the tide started turning for them.
On what changed for Garrett Nussmeier
I think when he felt much more comfortable, I thought Wisconsin did a great job of changing up coverages, I think when he really started identifying some of their trap two and three, and the mixtures. Did a really good job with protections. He was clean all day. I don’t know if he was sacked at all. But I think once he got a good sense of what was going on out there, the speed of the game, you saw him later in the game, he made some really good checks, he changed protections, and it just took some time for him to get there. And I knew eventually he would, it was just a matter of we needed to slow him down on defense, and we did, and he was able to get our offense going. Obviously, the big throws down the field, the 98-yard drive was the big one where that’s what he can do. He can get the ball down the field.
On what bowl win means for Nussmeier, team
It’s huge. I mean, I can’t underestimate how important this win is for not only him but our entire football team and our defense. They needed some confidence, and they needed some key stops. All of this builds towards confidence and evaluating what you need to do in the offseason to be the kind of defense and offense to win a championship.
On the 98-yard game-winning drive
Look, he hasn’t had many of those rehearsed situations. I think our two-minute drill puts him on the 35-yard line with less than a minute to go in the game with a timeout and he’s going against his own teammates. This is a little bit different. And so his ability to manage the moment, his ability to be calm in those situations, speaks of a guy that is going to only excel and get better as he plays more football.
On importance of winning 10 games again
Well, I think it really stabilizes the program, stability within your program, stability within the ranks of your recruitment. So for us, it’s been recruiting, development and retention. And you do that, but you can’t do it really effectively when you’re, say, 3-9 or 4-8, but when you have back-to-back 10-win seasons and you’re doing it with bowl victories, as well, that build on it going into the offseason, it certainly helps a lot.
On evaluating staff
Yeah, we’ll evaluate. Now that the season is completed, I’ll do a full evaluation of all of our staff members. Obviously, we’ve got to make some decisions on offense, where we are. We do not have an offensive coordinator, as you know, and then full evaluation of our defensive staff. I wanted to finish up recruiting. I wanted to finish up the season. I felt it was most important that we maintain continuity through the bowl game and we did and get a victory, which we did. And now my focus will be on 2024, and 2024 will be the staff and putting our staff in the position to take this team to a championship level. So that’ll be my focus moving forward.
On similarities between Daniels and Nussmeier
Again, I don’t think you win a game on athleticism. You have to have the things necessary to overcome a deficit, overcome being a first-time starter, you can’t just get by on arm talent. You’ve got to be a guy that is confident in your ability, has a great process that he trusts. So he’s got a lot of the same traits that that Jayden does. Obviously, he doesn’t run and has the escapability, you didn’t see any of that today where Jayden created a lot of yards for us there. But Nuss can do it in other ways. And I think he’s going to continue to do that for us.
On Joe Sloan and Cortez Hankton calling plays
I think it’s Joe (Sloan) and Cortez (Hankton) and really the whole staff. Today was really about a cohesive group. Brad (Davis) had great suggestions on adjustments on the offensive line. Frank (Wilson) is doing a great job, you saw his rotation of backs in there. That all feeds into what you’re doing offensively. It doesn’t fall on one shoulder or shoulders if you will, the plays came down from the box. There was an input and I thought Joe and Cortez managed that end of it really well. And then we had great adjustments from our entire staff to be an efficient offense in this transition.
On defensive adjustments in second half
So, we got out of our dime and nickel package, we got back into some base. The guys were wanting to get into some base, we got into some base defense and got into some trail coverage, made it difficult for them to have anything available. And really our base four-man rush got home. The last play was our wind blitz, where we overloaded blitz at the end of the game because we knew it was one throw and we’re not going to let them stand back there. So that was an overload blitz to make sure that, again, they didn’t have time to get the ball off.
On Malik Nabers breaking all-time receiving record
First of all, here’s a guy that — I’m not up here to evaluate the receiving corps going to the NFL, but I think he’s the best receiver in the country — plays in this game. And he wanted to do it for his teammates, he wanted to do it for LSU and he wanted to do it because he wanted to break the record. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I think that’s awesome. And once he got the record, I told him, ‘That’s it. You’re done. You’ve done everything and more than we’ve asked you to do.’ So, he fought me a little bit on it and that was an easy decision.
On where the program stands after Year 2
A team that’s won 20 games over the last two years, has a good foundational base of what an LSU football team’s expectations are. This is a team that year in and year out should be competing for championships. And you can’t do that when you come in with 35, 36 scholarships, but you have to stabilize it and then you have to build that from within. I think we’ve done a really good job the first two years of stabilizing, put a strong base on it. Now I think it’s as we go into 2024, I feel really good that this program has stabilized and now ready to really ascend as we move forward.