NEW ORLEANS - It will not be The Big Easy for new LSU football coach Brian Kelly.
That was clear Sunday night in the debut of the winningest coach in Notre Dame football history at the Superdome in The Big Easy. There was a fantastic finish, but LSU lost a 24-23 heart blocker to an equally unranked Florida State in front of 68,388.
Trailing throughout the game, LSU cut Florida State's lead to 24-23 with no time remaining on a 2-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jayden Daniels to wide receiver Jaray Jenkins after a miraculous 99-yard drive in the final 80 seconds.
But Florida State defensive back Shyheim Brown penetrated LSU's weak interior line and blocked Damian Ramos' extra point as the Seminoles (2-0) avoided overtime and exulted in victory.
"There at the end, we had some things that happened that we just can't have," said third-year Florida State coach Mike Norvell, who watched tailback Treshaun Ward fumble at the LSU 1-yard line with 1:20 left when a touchdown would have iced the game at 31-17.
"But the one thing that happened on the last play is what we absolutely needed," he said. "It's determination. It's heart."
Meanwhile, LSU's heart dropped to the Superdome turf in the much anticipated debut of Kelly, who won 113 games at Notre Dame from 2010-21 and reached a national championship game and the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers (0-1), who also had a field goal blocked in the second quarter and suffered two fumbled punt returns by Malik Nabers deep in its territory and four sacks, looked pathetic for most of the game. Florida State failed to cash in on either fumble, though, and also missed a field goal, so it could have won by 41-17.
"Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly," said LSU Radio Network analyst Charles Hanagriff after the game.
"Certainly, mistake after mistake for us, particularly in the first half," a subdued Kelly said. "And, obviously more mistakes in the second half. Any time you have those kinds of situations, you're setting yourself up for a long night."
Daniels, who started the game after no public announcement of a starter by Kelly, led the Tigers on the uncanny 99-yard drive in 11 plays over the final 1:20 with his arm and feet. The junior transfer from Arizona State completed 6 of 6 passes for 63 yards on the drive and rushed twice for 38 yards.
With 10 seconds to play on the Florida State 19-yard line, Daniels completed a 17-yard pass to tight end Mason Taylor, who officials mistakenly said got out of bounds at the 2-yard line with a second left. After a review, Taylor was ruled to be tackled inbounds, but LSU was given one more play because the clock would have stopped after a first down anyway.
And Daniels made the last second and play count - or so he thought. His back was to the play when Brown busted in to block the extra point, but he heard the large contingent of Florid State fans erupt.
"I was stunned and confused," Daniels said. "It's disheartening because obviously you think you're going to overtime."
Daniels was LSU's lone bright spot as he completed 26 of 35 passes for 209 yards and two touchdown passes to Jenkins over the last five minutes around four sacks and perhaps a dozen hurries behind an offensive line that was dominated by Florida State. He also rushed 16 times for 114 yards.
"He's a threat," Kelly said. "He showed patience, and in particular on that last touchdow. He stayed in the pocket and found Jaray Jenkins in the back of the end zone."
But Ramos' extra point never made it to the end zone.
LSU has won three football national championships in this building with relative ease - in January of 2004, 2008 and 2020 by a combined score of 101-63 - and capped its 1958 national title in this city on Jan. 1, 1959.
But on this night all LSU and its $10 million-a-year coach from the Golden Dome could muster until late in the third quarter was a 37-yard field goal. Florida State led 7-3 at the half and by 17-3 in the third quarter.
When the four-point underdog Seminoles, who haven't had a winning season since 2017, took a 10-3 lead on a 25-yard field goal midway through the third quarter, the seven-point advantage looked as large as touchdown leads were when Knute Rockne was coaching Notre Dame in the 1920s.
When the Seminoles went up 17-3 with 4:17 to go in the third quarter on a 27-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jordan Travis to wide receiver Ontario Wilson, LSU's fans were nearly silent as it appeared over. But the Tigers kept coming back.
The Tigers' offense finally showed some life behind short completions by Daniels on an 11-play, 82-yard drive to cut the Seminoles' lead to 17-10 late in the third quarter with a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal by tailback Noah Cain.
Florida State went right back up by 24-10 with 9:04 to play on a 1-yard touchdown run by linebacker-turned-situational-fullback D.J. Lundy. The Seminoles just stuck it to the LSU defense, which was supposed to have an excellent front seven. At least, that's what we heard all summer. Florida State drove 79 yards in 12 plays and ate up 5:59 of the clock.
"We couldn't get off the field on third down," Kelly said.
The Tigers also lost star sophomore defensive tackle Maason Smith in the first quarter to a knee injury that could mean he will miss several weeks or more.
LSU caught up again to within 24-17 with 4:07 to play on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Daniels to Jenkins. But in the end, the Tigers just started playing too late.
The once proud LSU program - 15-0 national champions in 2019 - lost its third consecutive season opener to a very average and unranked team - Mississippi State, UCLA and now Florida State. Mississippi State and UCLA looked great in 44-34 and 38-27 wins in 2020 and '21, respectively, but they finished 4-7 and 8-4. Florida State, which did not look great, was picked to finish fifth out of seven teams in the Atlantic Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
LSU's offensive line looked as bad as it did last year until late. Daniels started at quarterback over redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier mainly because he can run. And he ran for his life most of the night. He was sacked three times in the first half alone and did not even have enough time for a quick, three-step drop and short passes most of the time.
The Tigers do have very good receivers, but that does not matter if the quarterback can't stay in the pocket long enough, or right side up anywhere long enough, to throw the ball vertically. Daniels struggled to throw horizontally and short ... until the end when he got it all together.
LSU's defense played well in spots, but Florida State was able to sustain long drives for points repeatedly - 85 yards in 14 plays for a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, 68 yards in 14 plays for a field goal and 10-3 lead in the third quarter and 57 yards in eight plays for the 17-3 lead in the third quarter.
LSU hasn't lost three straight season openers since 1993-95 when Kelly was in his 30s and at the first of five head coaching jobs at Grand Valley State in Michigan. Through most of Sunday night's game, he surely must have felt like he was starting from scratch all over again.
No SEC team from Thursday through Saturday looked worse than LSU did on this night. And that's not even close.
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers will be in Baton Rouge on Sept. 17 after LSU hosts Southern on Saturday. He completed 38 of 49 passes for 450 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-23 win over Memphis Saturday. Travis completed 20 of 33 passes for 260 yards and two touchdowns for Florida State. Rogers will find many more open receivers. Bank on it.
This could be another long season for LSU, which is 11-13 since the 2020 season dawned. But it must be noted that the Tigers finally showed up at the very end. That could be something Kelly could build on, but it won't be easy.
"What we did well is we battled," he said. "Proud of the way we battled. Obviously, what we need to do better is play with a sense of urgency for four quarters, which we did not. What we learned is we've got to coach better."
That was obvious, too. Often, LSU looked no better than in 2020 when it was 5-5 and last year when it was 6-7.
"We've got to have our kids coached in a manner where they're ready," Kelly said candidly. "And I'm accountable for that. We have to have them tackling better and executing better in all phases."