ATLANTA — Two years ago, after a loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, LSU coach Ed Orgeron famously said “We comin’. And we ain’t backin’ down.”
Well the Tigers have come. They didn’t back down Saturday night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, when LSU beat Georgia 37-10 to win the SEC Championship for the first time since 2011 and secure a spot in this year’s College Football Playoffs.
“So proud of our football team,” Orgeron said. “These guys are committed to excellence and great leadership. These two men (Joe Burrow and Derek Stingley) are excellent players, great team players. This is a great win. I’m so proud of our defense tonight. The way they came to play, I thought overall it was our best effort of the season.”
The Tigers did so in what was essentially a road game in Atlanta against the Bulldogs. Orgeron said that LSU is “battle tested” and that’s what makes them ready to compete in environments like this.
LSU’s biggest wins this season have come on the road at Texas and Alabama and in the SEC Championship game.
“We block out the noise,” Orgeron said. “These guys are focused. I think they feed off the energy in the stadium, whether it’s Tiger Stadium or someone else. We feed off the energy. We enjoy going into somebody else’s stadium. We enjoy the challenge. I think our players enjoy it. We don’t talk about it much, but I think we enjoy the challenge.”
Quarterback Joe Burrow went 28-of-38 with 349 yards and four touchdowns on the night, while freshman cornerback Derek Stingley and the defense held Georgia to 10 points and 286 total yards.
The LSU defense played one of its best games of the season. Stingley intercepted Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm twice, while safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Patrick Queen both had a sack each.
Both of Stingley’s interceptions were momentum changers for the Tigers. His first interception came in the second quarter with Georgia trailing 17-3, as the Bulldogs were marching down in the red zone. His second interception came with Georgia trailing 27-3 and kept the momentum with the Tigers and led to a field goal by Cade York.
“This game kind of proved the point because a lot of people, they didn’t really respect us (the defense),” Stingley said. “We came out and played and showed everybody what we’re made of.”
Burrow and Orgeron both praised Stingley as a freshman coming up to make big plays in big games.
“Every game that was played taught me something new,” Stingley said. “Like every week throughout practice, like after watching film, I would either change up technique or change up my eyes. Like every game taught me something.”
The Georgia defense was able to keep the game close to start.
LSU only led 14-3 a few minutes into the second quarter and 17-3 at halftime, but it didn’t take long after that for the Tigers to pull away. A 17-point third quarter, including a 71-yard scramble to Justin Jefferson, allowed the Tigers put the game away for good.
Georgia finally got into the end zone four minutes into the fourth quarter, but it was too little, too late for the Bulldogs.
Burrow said on the 71-yarder, both he and Jefferson improvised after the pass rush got to Burrow and he scrambled out of the pocket.
“Justin ran a six-yard hitch route and saw me scrambling,” Burrow explained. “We’ve got a great feel for each other. I knew exactly where he was going to be when I got out of there.”
Burrow had a number of “Heisman moment” worthy plays against the Bulldogs, the most entertaining being when he caught his own batted pass and took off running for a 16-yard completion to himself.
“In my opinion, he’s the best player in the country,” Orgeron said. “In my opinion, he should win it. In my opinion, he’s going to win it. The best thing about Joe is he’s a team player. All he wants to do is win this game. Individual awards are not high on his list. That’s what makes him such a great player.”
Burrow has been a large piece of the growth of this LSU team the past two years. He said he’s personally seen the Tigers come together and play like a team.
“When I first got, it really felt like you had the offense and defense, now it’s LSU,” Burrow said. “That really started middle of last year. They started really gelling as a team and this is as close as I’ve ever been to anybody.”
Despite everything, Orgeron and the Tigers continue to emphasize that this is not the ultimate goal. All of their accomplishments up to this going are good and fun, but there’s more work to be done for LSU.
“Tonight wasn’t our final destination,” Orgeron said. “We know that. we don’t know where we’re going to play. Wherever they tell us to go, whoever they tell us to play, we’ll be ready to go.
“I told the team it doesn't matter. It don’t matter where they rank us, where they tell us to go. We’ve got to win the next game. That’s all that matters.”