In a .500 season with so many differing emotions, it's difficult to find the bright spots. Usually there's plenty of locker room turmoil and in some cases, a coaching change that dominates the headlines from on the field production.
But on Saturday, LSU put that all to the side and was able to send this senior class and Ed Orgeron out of Death Valley with their head sheld high. Here were three of the big takeaways from the Tigers' unforgettable regular season finale.
Damone Clark Caps Off Season With Strong Case for Butkus Award
It was another strong performance for the LSU senior, who closed out the regular season with 10 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss against the Aggies. The highlight of the evening were his two game clinching sacks on quarterback Zach Calzada in the waning seconds of the contest.
Clark's turnaround this season has not only been one of the best stories on this team but in the entire SEC. The senior linebacker has not only dramatically improved his draft stock through his play but has made serious pushes at All-SEC, All-American and Butkus Award watch lists.
"What a story and to see the the type of football he is playing," Orgeron said. "He came to me a year and a half ago and said what's going on? I said you gotta get better at using your hands, better point of attack and he said, 'Coach I'm gonna do it.' I'm so proud of him, he's a great young man, wore 18 for two years, he's an outstanding young man."
Still leading the country in tackles, Clark finishes the regular season with 135 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, four passes defended and an interception. For a player who undoubtedly will be a high draft pick, Clark still wants more as he will follow his team and play in a bowl game.
LSU Offense Overcomes Past Late Game Demons to Deliver Clutch Drive
This LSU offense knows what it's like to have opportunities late in games and not capitalize. Two of the most glaring instances came in the fourth quarters against Alabama and Arkansas, two winnable games that were lost when the offense just couldn't get the ball across the goal line.
So with just under two minutes to go and trailing 24-20, there wasn't much confidence this offense could string together a winning drive. That was particularly the case when quarterback Max Johnson took a sack on second-and-five that lost six yards and the clock continued to tick.
Instead, Johnson and this offense didn't panic. An 11-yard completion on fourth down to Jack Bech kept the drive alive. A 31-yard completion to Jaray Jenkins down the sidelines followed, setting the Tigers up in Aggie territory. And four plays later, facing another third and long, Johnson delivered an absolute dime to Jenkins down the sidelines for a 28-yard score with 20 seconds left.
It's the kind of drive, the kind of momentum this offense can build off in the future with so many weapons expected back next season.
"It was pretty special for our guys, especially coach [Jake] Peetz. He's gone through a lot this year and really all of us have," Johnson said. "It was special to end that way, especially our last game in Tiger Stadium. Our guys fought hard and found a way to win."
How Should This Team Be Remembered?
Perhaps Orgeron put it best after the game but the way he's going to remember this team is one that never gave up, even when the losses began to stack up and a hostile locker room could've been very possible. This team found ways to lose in crushing ways throughout the season and on Saturday night in the finale, got one to break their way.
But for Orgeron the results weren't all that mattered as he also wanted to see a team that stuck together.
"Fortitude, backs against the wall, keep on fighting," Orgeron said. "Think about all of those guys who had injuries, all of those guys who fought. They stuck together, the coaching staff stuck together so I'm happy about that."
Center Liam Shanahan would go on to say after the game that it felt like there were four or five games this close that hadn't broken LSU's way. Certainly Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas all come to mind. But with one game remaining and Orgeron not with the program, the players finishing 2021 on another right note with a bowl win is just one more positive sign to stack on top of what's mostly been a lost season.