NEW ORLEANS—Special teams are a special part of my family.
My father was a longtime high school football coach and served as a special teams coordinator for much of his career, one that ended in retirement just a year ago. On Sunday night, he was in Section 645 of Caesars Superdome to watch one of the most disastrous special-teams performances you’ll ever see from a major conference football program.
Naturally, Dad delivered a predictable comment minutes after Florida State secured its 24-23 victory against LSU.
“Don’t tell me special teams aren’t important!” he texted.
The Brian Kelly era kicked off in one of the more wildly miserable ways possible. The Tigers muffed, and lost, two punts. They had a field goal blocked. And, on the final play of the game—with a tie and overtime on the line—they had an extra point blocked. Afterward, Kelly stood at the podium like a man who knew he makes a lot of money ($9.5 million a year) to win football games, and shouldn’t lose them in awful fashion.
He blamed himself. He blamed his staff. He suggested coaches picked the wrong player to return punts (Malik Nabers) and said the position will be “re-evaluated,” which is code for “We’ll have another punt returner in next week’s game.” After a blocked 30-yard field goal in the second quarter, coaches made a personnel change on the left side of the line, from where Florida State was applying the most pressure. On the game-ending extra-point block, guess where the pressure came? “That didn’t work,” Kelly said flatly.
But let’s not gloss over the roller-coaster ride this game provided at its very end. Florida State, leading 24-17 with 80 seconds left, did the one thing it could not. Heading into the end zone for a game-securing touchdown, running back Treshaun Ward lost a fumble at the goal line. Before the turnover, the game seemed enough out of reach that at least one-third of LSU’s fans had already left the stadium and spilled into the humid streets of this fine city.
The Tigers took over and improbably put together a 98-yard drive that featured a 5-minute official’s review that gave Kelly’s team one last snap from the 2-yard line. Quarterback Jayden Daniels, who was on the run for most of the night, threw a dart to receiver Jaray Jenkins for the score, eliciting pandemonium from the Tigers fans who stuck around.
Then, of course, came the kick. Damian Ramos swung his leg, up went the ball, and FSU defensive back Shyheim Brown burst through the left side of the line to block the kick. The Seminoles rushed across the field to celebrate a significant victory for coach Mike Norvell. He needed this one. Florida State needed it badly.
For a fleeting second, Kelly says he thought about eschewing a kick attempt for a two-point conversion. “What we’ve learned is, we’ve got to coach better. I’m accountable for that,” Kelly said.
The game’s maddening finish buried one glaring point from the game: LSU and its new high-priced coach looked like a mess. The first touchdown of the Kelly Era came with eight seconds left in the third quarter. It is quite clear why Daniels, the dual-threat Arizona State transfer, won the starting quarterback job—because he is best at escaping a collapsing pocket. Just as bad as LSU’s special teams was its offensive line—porous during pass-protection and unproductive on designed rushing plays (the leading LSU running back gained 23 yards). One of the nation’s best receivers, Kayshon Boutte, finished with two catches and seemed to lack the intensity the nation saw last season. Kelly waved it off afterward as a kid trying to press too much.
And so began the Tigers’ tutelage under Brian Kelly, the chess piece in arguably the biggest coaching cycle move from a wild offseason of moves. The man who has won everywhere he has been. The offensive guru. The quarterback whiz.
One game isn’t enough to warrant a review of a hire many believe will not work. But it is enough to remind us all of something that we often forget: special teams are important.
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