The LSU offense could do almost no wrong against Illinois in setting a Sugar Bowl record with 595 yards of total offense. Quarterback Rohan Davey led the way for the Tigers and earned the Miller-Digby Award as the game's Most Outstanding Player. In his final game for LSU, he set new Sugar standards with 31 completions and 444 passing yards.
Wide receiver Josh Reed was again the beneficiary of Davey's accuracy, breaking Sugar Bowl records with 14 catches and 239 receiving yards. Not to be outdone, Tiger running back Domanick Davis – starting in the place of the injured LaBrandon Toefield – put his name in the record book with four rushing touchdowns.
All of the new marks were also firsts in the LSU bowl record book.
"I'm as proud as heck of our team and our players, everybody that had anything to do with winning the last six games in a row, winning the SEC Championship, winning a BCS bowl game and being Sugar Bowl champs," said LSU head coach Nick Saban. "Hopefully, this team will get recognized as one of the top ten teams in the country, which I think they're very deserving of."
LSU improved its Sugar Bowl record to 4-7 using the same formula that sparked its string of wins at the end of the season. On the strength and accuracy of Davey's arm, the Tigers were able to build a large lead over Illinois and keep the Illini at a safe distance.
The first LSU scoring drive began at the Illinois 43 after the teams traded two punts apiece. Davey threw from the shotgun for Michael Clayton on a crossing pattern to convert a third-and-seven play from the 40, and Davey connected with Reed on a hook route on the next snap for an 18-yard gain down to the 15. Jerel Myers got into the act two plays later with a nine-yard gain on a slant pass to give LSU first-and-goal at the 4.
Davey then handed off to Davis, who followed the block of left guard Stephen Peterman and leapt for the end zone. A television replay showed Davis' knee on the ground before he stretched over the goal line, but officials ruled a touchdown. John Corbello's point-after gave LSU a 7-0 lead with 7:22 to go in the first quarter.
Toward the end of the first quarter, LSU was forced to punt and Donnie Jones launched a 50-yard effort that Lavar Johnson downed at the Illini 6-yard line. The ensuing Illinois drive spanned into the second quarter, and quarterback Kurt Kittner tried throwing his way out of poor field position. But pass break-ups from LSU defensive backs Damien James and Randall Gay led to another punting situation that put the Tigers in prime field position.
Davis returned the 50-yard Steve Fitts punt to the LSU 49 but another 15 yards were tacked on when Illinois was flagged for a personal foul. From there, it took only three plays for LSU to go ahead 13-0. After a one-yard run from Davis, Davey hit Reed crossing the middle for 10 yards. On first-and-ten from the 25, Davis found a gaping hole on the left side for his second touchdown of the game. Terrell Washington broke through the line on the extra point and blocked Corbello's kick.
LSU fans sitting in the north end zone, where the bulk of the student tickets were allocated, celebrated Davis' second score by unwisely throwing objects onto the field. The section had received an earlier warning from the public address announcer, and Saban followed with another using the referee's on-field microphone. Although there was much more to cheer for, the students heeded Saban's words and avoided a possible penalty for the Tigers.
The next LSU possession resulted in another scoring drive, this one covering 69 yards in six plays and lasting just 1:31. On the night, four out of the Tigers' seven scoring drives took under two minutes. The longest Illinois scoring drive took 2:03.
The first play of the drive saw Davey find Myers on an out pattern for a 24-yard gain to get into Illinois territory. Facing third-and-15 at the 50, Davey went to the shotgun and found Reed on a post pattern for 28 yards. The Tigers stayed in the shotgun for their next two plays, a 6-yard quick toss to Corey Webster and an 18-yard draw play to Davis that caught the Illini on their heels expecting the pass.
"Because Domanick is so shifty, we tried to spread everybody out and just give him a lane, five him the ball and let him pick the lane he wants to run in," said Davey. "They (Illinois) were a very aggressive football team, especially on defense. They love to pursue and (Davis) did a great job of cutting back and finding the end zone."
The Tigers extended their lead to 27-0 later in the second quarter thanks to a big defensive play. Illinois faced second-and-ten at its 20, and Kittner threw complete to Brandon Lloyd on a short out route. LSU corner Randall Gay was beaten on the throw but, refusing to quit on the play, he stripped the ball loose, recovered it and returned it to the 5-yard line.
"I was kind of upset because he caught it," said Gay. "The first thing was to grab a hold of it, I jerked and I felt it come out. I thought he was down, but the thing Coach (Saban) always tells us is to never stop on a play. I hurried and picked it up. I thought I was at Brusly again at running back."
The first two plays from the 5 didn't get the Tigers any closer to the end zone, but Davey found Reed running laterally in the back of the end zone on third down for a touchdown with 4:42 to go before halftime.
Illinois answered with its first score of the game and did so in quick fashion, needing just two plays and 55 seconds to cover 75 yards. It showed the Tigers signs of the Illini team that had come from behind to win in five regular season games.
Kittner ran a play action on first-and-ten from his 25 and got a very favorable one-on-one match-up. LSU defensive end Marquise Hill picked up running back Rocky Harvey out of the backfield and followed him down the east side line while Kittner avoided the pass rush. Hill kept up with Harvey for the most part but could not prevent a 43-yard completion that put Illinois at the LSU 34.
On the next play, Kittner placed a fade pass right over the shoulder of wide receiver Walter Young to get the Illini down to the 2-yard line. Staying with the pass, Kittner went to tight end Brian Hodges on first-and-goal on a drag pattern for Illinois' first touchdown. Peter Christofilakos' extra point made the score 27-7 with 3:47 remaining in the half.
The Tigers decided to eat some of that time off the clock rather than risk another quick Illinois score. For that to work, the running game had to take over. With LSU starting at its 27, Davis got the ball for a run to the right that he broke for an apparent 36-yard gain, but Josh Reed was caught holding on the play and the Tigers were brought back to the 31.
Devery Henderson replaced Davis briefly at tailback and wasn't able to make quite the impact, so the Tigers used their passing game to sustain the drive. Davey went to Clayton on a hook play that saw Clayton get most of the 21-yard gain after the catch. The play put LSU at the Illinois 34.
Clayton got the call again on third-and-eight from the 32, catching a pass on a crossing route to get LSU a first down at the 10. On third-and-goal from the 7, Davey took his time in the shotgun and noticed tight end Robert Royal calling for the ball in the back of the end zone. The two seniors hooked up to give LSU to make it a 34-7 game.
"The play is designed for numerous guys to catch that pass," said Royal. "It just so happened that the coverage started off (the line), and I didn't think I was going to catch it. But Rohan had a pretty good play fake that everybody bit on. I just moved over in the back of the end zone and Rohan got me the ball."
Kittner took a knee once Illinois got the ball back and ran off the remaining seconds of the first half. At one point in the first half, he was 1-of-13 passing for just 1 yard. His second completion of the game was the play on which Lloyd had the ball stripped away, and his next three came on the first Illinois scoring drive.
"I don't know what happened," said Kittner. "I can't pin it on one thing. I thought once we settled down we played great football. It was just too tough a deficit to overcome."
Illinois showed signs of settling down and mounting a comeback in its second possession of the third quarter. On the first play of the 70-yard scoring drive, Kittner threw to Young on the west side line, and the 6-foot-5 receiver went over the back of LSU cornerback Demetrius Hookfin to rob an apparent interception. Strong safety Norman LeJeune brought Young down after a 61-yard gain.
A quarterback sack and a false start forced Illinois into a third-and-goal play from the LSU 17, but Kittner dropped deep and found Lloyd in the end zone between LSU defenders for a score. The touchdown pass was Kittner's 25th of the season, breaking a Big Ten record since the league counts stats from bowl games. More importantly, the drive used just 1:54 to cut the Tigers' lead to 34-14.
But it took LSU even less time to answer the Illini touchdown. After having double-teamed Josh Reed for most of the first half, the Illinois defense was forced to respect Clayton and play honest coverage. LSU took advantage of the situation for its first score of the second half.
After Davis returned the kickoff from two yards deep in the end zone to the LSU 34, Davey started in the shotgun and found Reed in the flat for a 13-yard gain. A four-receiver set in the shotgun allowed Reed to get open on a deep crossing pattern for 22 yards. The Tigers then went to their "heavy" two-tight end package on first down at the Illinois 32, but Davey stayed airborne. Reed broke free from man-to-man coverage to catch a perfectly placed post pattern ball from Davey for a touchdown. The three-play drive took just 1:06 and gave LSU another 27-point lead following Corbello's kick.
"We didn't play as well in the second half as we did in the first," said Reed, "but we did enough to get the job done. We (the wide receivers) weren't trying to do anything special out there. We just go out, run our routes and hopefully the quarterbacks will make the right reads."
Undaunted after LSU's score, Illinois put together its second straight touchdown drive of the third quarter. Starting from the Illinois 22, Kittner worked the play-action pass again for 23-yard completion to Carey Davis. The Tigers also bit on the fake on the next play, setting up a 27-yard pass to Young that got the Illini down to the LSU 28.
Kittner was on the mark again on third-and-seven from the 24, throwing for Aaron Moorehead in the end zone from a four-receiver set. The ball was within Moorehead's grasp, but LSU corner Travis Daniels bear-hugged him on the play and was called for pass interference.
The penalty gave Illinois first down on the LSU 12. On second down from the 10, Kittner showed play-action left, rolled to his right and threw to Lloyd at the 5. Lloyd outran the LSU defense and snuck the ball over the goal line before rolling over the pylon out of bounds. It was the tenth touchdown catch of the season for Illinois, which tied a single-season school record.
"They (Illinois) are not the Big Ten champions for nothing," said LSU linebacker Trev Faulk, who led the Tigers with seven solo tackles. "They have had five comeback victories during this season. We did everything that we could to stop them in the first half. It would only be a matter of time before Kittner gets going in the game."
After scoring 14 points in the third quarter, Kittner kept it going in the fourth. Using a three-wide set, he moved the Illini 54 yards on six plays. A 14-yard run from Harvey got Illinois to the LSU 40, where the drive appeared stalled until Kittner drilled Lloyd on a third-and-ten slant pattern. Gay was burned going for the ball and Ryan Clark didn't tackled Lloyd until he reached the 17. On second-and-ten from the 17, Kittner completed a fade pass to Young in the end zone to make the score 41-28 with 11:53 left in the game.
LSU wanted to go in the ball control mode at this point, but the blitzing Illinois defense would not allow the Tigers to keep the ball on the ground. After stopping Davis for a 3-yard loss on the first play of the next LSU drive, Davey had to go back to the pass. His third-and-seven pass to Reed picked up 42 yards and put the Tigers at the Illinois 19. Two plays later, LSU used a shuffle pass to Reed for the first time this season and it was good for 12 yards down to the 4-yard line. Davis got the call next and covered the distance up the middle for his fourth touchdown of the day. He finished the game with 28 carries for 122 yards in place of injured starting tailback LaBrandon Toefield.
"There was not pressure on me," said Davis. "Early on, I had told the team I was going to make the most of my opportunity. I basically took the approach that I was going to go out there and have fun."
A victory for LSU looked like a certainty as long as the Tiger defense kept Illinois from getting a quick strike and Davey kept the offense on track.
The defense did its part, forcing the Illini into another three-and-out on its next possession. And it looked like the LSU offense was on the way to another score when opportunity struck for Illinois. Davey found Clayton crossing the field for a completion on third down, but Washington struck again for Illinois, forcing Clayton to fumble on the play. Safety Bobby Jackson recovered the ball and returned it to the LSU 40.
Needing a quick score, Illinois went to its trick bag and found a winner. Kittner handed off to Lloyd on an apparent end around that brought the LSU secondary in. But Lloyd had no intentions of running and scrambled long enough for Young to get behind coverage and catch Lloyd's pass in the back of the end zone.
A two-point conversion failed but the Illini drew to within 13 with 5:41 left to play. Holding LSU was the obvious priority, and Illinois got some help when LSU was called for holding on the subsequent kickoff and forced to start its drive on the 9-yard line.
Henderson took over from a spent Davis and carried on the first two plays of the possession for a net of five yards. Facing third-and-five, Davey hit Webster on a slant for 8 yards and a first down.
After Henderson picked up another eight yards on a counter delay, Illinois had to start using its timeouts. Henderson got the ball on the next six plays and picked up 33 yards and three first downs. The Illini burned its final two timeouts and watched while Davey took a knee for the last two plays of the game. If not for the loss of eight yards on those last two plays, LSU would have had over 600 yards of offense.
"They say all good things come to an end," said Davey. "I really did not want it to come to an end. But if I could pick a way to go out, this would definitely be it, going out and playing well in my final game…"
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