BATON ROUGE, La. — People were everywhere. They were on one another’s backs. They were sloshing through mud, hurdling 4-foot high barriers and collapsing on hard concrete. They were waving their arms furiously and chanting wild things, most of them in water-logged shirts and dirt-stained pants. They were fist-bumping and high-fiving. They were pushing one another closer to the main event, and they were pulling each other away from it—an inebriated tug-o-war.
It reeked of sweat and booze, the scent of any French Quarter street on Fat Tuesday. Music filled the air, its notes entrenched deeper here than the thousands of oak tree roots digging into the Louisiana swamps. They sang loud and they sang proud.
The Mardi Gras mambo, mambo, mambo
Party Gras mambo, mambo, mambo
Mardi Gras mambo
Down in New Orleans
Mardi Gras got moved up, to a Saturday in October, and it got relocated, to a college football cathedral in Baton Rouge. The reason still flickered on this program’s giant videoboard well after the event’s conclusion: LSU 36, Georgia 16. The Tigers did to the nation’s second-ranked team what the Cajuns do to their famous gumbo roux: whipped ’em. Their fans celebrated by storming the field at Tiger Stadium for the first time in four years, parading around in a party fit for this state’s most popular holiday creation. “It was crazy,” says linebacker Michael Divinity, stuck in the purple-and-gold madness like so many LSU football players.
The 12th-ranked Tigers, a touchdown underdog, toppled the Bulldogs in resounding fashion in front of a sold-out venue of more than 102,000, their first home win over a No. 1 or No. 2 ranked team since beating Steve Spurrier’s top-ranked Florida squad in 1997. They jumped out to a 16–0 lead and, when things got their tightest (UGA pulled within 19–9 late in the third quarter), they finished by scoring 17 fourth-quarter points. They out-classed Kirby Smart’s defense, running for 275 yards, ripping off runs of 59 and 47 yards and hitting passes of 50 and 37 more. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense scrambled Georgia and quarterback Jake Fromm, holding the Bulldogs to 322 yards and picking off Fromm twice.
The Tigers offense did it in stone-cold style: Their head coach, Ed Orgeron, decided to attempt four fourth-and-ones, and his team converted them all. “Pissed” at himself, he says, for passing on a fourth-down attempt late in a loss at Florida last week, Orgeron took out a week’s worth of frustration on the defending national title runner-up. “We were going for it as hard as we can. Throwing out the kitchen sink, man,” Orgeron said. “All week we talked about being aggressive.”
In a weekly team meeting Monday—they’re known here at LSU as “Tell The Truth Mondays”—Orgeron stood at the front of the room, expressed his regret for the previous week’s game and made a promise to his Tigers. “He told us. ‘LSU, we won’t back down for nothing. We’re going to take shots. Got for it on fourth. Send blitzes,’” linebacker Devin White says. “He told us that on Tell The Truth Monday. He told the truth, and he did it.”
“He said, ‘We’re going to be LSU this week,’” tight end Foster Moreau recalls. “A couple times last week, we weren’t LSU. ‘If it’s fourth down, we’re going for it.’”
Just two miles from the closest Mississippi River casino, Orgeron did some gambling Saturday at Tiger Stadium. Three of the calls came in the second quarter and two of those on the same drive. The Tigers scored a touchdown on quarterback Joe Burrow’s sneak from the one and picked up a first down on running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s 16-yard jaunt, but, before that, came the most risky of them all: a fourth-and-one from LSU’s own 38 that Burrow converted with another sneak.
The risky calls resulted in some players defending their coach afterward. Don’t judge him based on his past transgressions, the losses when he was head coach at Ole Miss or that unusually gravelly voice, they say. “He knows what he’s doing,” Moreau said. “He makes those decisions. He made all the right decisions tonight. He has for a very long time. … Best way to defend our head coach is win football games. We love him. We fight for him.”
Afterward, Orgeron’s face scrunched up like a wrinkled orange when a reporter asked him, “You going to the casino tonight?” LSU’s head coach is only a gambler on the field—not off it. And his entire family got to see their breadwinner stun the Bulldogs with his risk-taking. His twin sons, both players at McNeese State, had a bye this week. They watched from the field while mom Kelly looked on from the coach’s suite as her husband made some of the biggest calls of his life in his signature win. Her response to the fourth downs? “Let’s go!” she said afterward. Moreau, this team’s unquestioned senior leader, was on the field for each of the four attempts. “You got to go. It’s a statement play,” he said. “That’s what you call a power play. It’s you one-on-one against him.”
It was the most fourth-down conversions since the Tigers made good on five in a historic win over Florida in 2007, when Jacob Hester bashed the Gators up the gut in what many would deem Les Miles’s greatest victory in Tigerland. Is this the one for his replacement? It was an emotional affair. One of the program’s greatest players, fullback Jimmy Taylor, passed away earlier in the day, a few months after the death of the school’s only Heisman Trophy winner, Billy Cannon. “It’s tough, but we rebound as a family,” said Orgeron, born and bred about 90 miles southwest of New Orleans. “We’re tough. Here in Louisiana, we have hurricanes, adversity and we work through it. That’s the type of people we are and we’re proud of it.”
His team’s maligned offensive line got a big push all day, his quarterback made smart plays and his defense stood tall, all coming a week after the 27–19 defeat in Gainesville that saddled LSU with its first loss. They overcame more adversity, too. They shook off a Thursday practice that Burrow said was the worst this season, spoiling the trip for Georgia’s 15,000-plus traveling fans.
A wild student section celebrated before the final buzzer with chants of “We want Bama!” and then they gathered against a black iron gate guarding the field in the waning seconds, thundering over it as Burrow took his final snap. Mardi Gras ensued. LSU support staff members and law enforcement officers were needed to lead players through the madness and back to the locker room. In moving through the crowd, Orgeron clutched wife Kelly close by his side, both of them smiling wide, as officers cut a path to the tunnel.
Minutes before that, as the final seconds ticked off the clock, long-time LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette stood on the field, his son Max at his side. “I saw people coming over the wall,” Bonnette recalls, “and I told Max, ‘Run!’”