Dropping five Southeastern Conference losses en route to a middle of the road finish in the West brought the Tigers to Atlanta for a date with the hometown Yellow Jackets. And, unlike they had all season, the Bayou Bengals came out swinging from the opening whistle.
Much to the surprise of Tiger fans in the building, the Bayou Bengals looked as if they had not missed a beat since the Bowl Championship Series title game last January as they pounced the Yellow Jackets 38-3 in front of a crowd of 71,423, the 8th largest in the bowl's history.
The game's opening drive saw the Tigers test both the air and ground, and with much success on both parts. Running back Charles Scott opened up the night with a 14 yard carry up the middle, exposing a Yellow Jacket rush defense that would continue to look confused throughout the game.
True freshman Jordan Jefferson, who was getting just the second start of his career, looked like a seasoned veteran at the helm for the Tigers.
The Destrehan-native hit Jared Mitchell, Terrance Tolliver and Richard Dickson on the opening drive en route to starting the game 9-of-9 passing. On their first drive, Jefferson and Co. led LSU 60 yards on seven plays in just over three minutes, seeing Scott punch the 2-yard run into the end zone for the 7-0 lead.
The fireworks shot and the cannons roared in the Dome as the Tigers took the opening lead. And, for the first time in recent memory, the Tigers had given LSU fans a reason to cheer early, and that same feeling would come often on the eve of 2009 for the LSU faithful.
Though he had not thrown more than 100 passes all the season, Georgia Tech quarterback Josh Nesbitt opened the Yellow Jacket's offensive game through the air, passing six times on the team's opening two drives. The only other time that Nesbitt attempted three passes in the first four plays was in the Miami game on Nov. 20, which the Yellow Jackets won 41-23.
On the ground, Nesbitt, Jon Dwyer and Roddy Jones shared the action early, yet the trio was unable to break any major plays on the Tiger defense at any point in the night.
At the culmination of the Yellow Jacket's second drive, Nesbitt and the Rambling Wreck stalled out inside the ten yard line, seeing Nesbitt's third down pass thrown behind Demaryius Thomas on the slant route, where he had beaten freshman Patrick Peterson on his move to the inside.
Johnson's offense would settle for a 24-yard Scott Blair field goal, putting the Yellow Jackets on the board for the first and last time at 7-3 with 7:05 left to play in the first.
After the score, the Tiger defense would decide that the Yellow Jackets would be allowed no more.
A defense that had been embarrassed by conference foes all season, losing defensive coordinators Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory in the process, had stepped up with what appeared to be the perfect game plan.
The Tigers would reel off the next 31 points of the game, silencing the hometown crowd from start to finish.
"To take the lead certainly puts pressure on our opponent," LSU head coach Les Miles said. "Our defense came out and on [Georgia Tech's] best drive gave up just three points. You start distancing yourself from an offense that moves the ball on the ground, and it's not meant to come from behind."
The Tigers biggest impact would come in the second quarter; seeing the Bayou Bengals put up 28 straight points en route to taking a 35-3 lead into the locker room.
Scott's second touchdown on the evening came on the Tigers opening drive of the second quarter, following his blockers up the middle for the four yard score.
The drive continued after the Yellow Jackets jumped offside on third down, giving the Tigers the first down. Jefferson would run and gun LSU down the field before Scott punched the score in. The highlight of the drive came on a Jefferson scramble, seeing the freshman quarterback elude the rush before unleashing the ball to Scott on a left-handed, underarm toss. After taking in Jefferson's impromptu-pass, the junior tailback took the Tigers 12 yards for the first down.
Miles and his team would then catch the Yellow Jackets off guard, seeing Stefoin Francois jump on the loose ball after Josh Jasper's onside kick. Though the Tigers went three and out, the ensuing punt saw the Yellow Jackets fumble the handle, allowing Ron Brooks to come up with the recovery at the Georgia Tech 19 yard line.
"We wanted to use the clock," Miles said. "I didn't want to give the ball back to them. As I recall Georgia was up 28-12 in the second half. We didn't want to give them the chance to come back."
And, the fake would allow the Tigers to do just that. Scott would get five of the Tigers next six touches before high stepping over the left tackle from one yard out to record his third score on the night, giving LSU the 21-3 lead.
"We just came out and played LSU football and did what we had to do to get the win," Scott said. "The defense pinned their ears back and went after them. We've practiced really hard on defending the option and they did a great job out there and put the offense in a great position whenever we got the ball."
After getting the ball back and going three and out, the Yellow Jackets attempted some special teams magic of their own, attempting the fake the punt from their own 22 yard line. Derrick Morgan was tackled after taking the snap off of the right end, setting the Tigers up once more with prime field position.
And when it rains it pours, as the Rambling Wreck found out the hard way Wednesday night. After an LSU holding call on Brett Helms, Jefferson found Richard Dickson on the 25 yard slant route to put LSU up 28-3 with just over five minutes to go in the half.
The Jackets went three and out once more, and the Tigers found a way to make them pay. After a pair of Jefferson scrambles, Williams would find the hole and break through for the 17 yard touchdown run, putting the Tigers up 35-3.
The Yellow Jackets looked to break the Tiger's hot streak with a two-minute drive before the half, though Chris Hawkins pulled the plug on those hopes after intercepting Nesbitt's deep ball with less than 30 seconds to play.
After finishing the half 11-of-12 passing for 121 yards and a touchdown, Jefferson seemed a far cry from the quarterback play that the Tigers had experienced throughout the season.
"Georgia Tech is a really good team so as an offense we knew we were going to have to execute and put some points up on the board," he said. "I felt more prepared to execute the offense. I am proud of my performance and the team's performance as well."
The second half did not give fans the same explosion the first had, though all remained well in Tiger camp.
The Rambling Wreck took five minutes off the clock with their opening drive, but it ended after a failed fourth down attempt on an incomplete pass by Nesbitt to Thomas.
The Tigers then took almost six minutes off the clock on the next drive that culminated with a fourth down goal line stop by the Yellow Jacket defense after Jefferson came up short on the quarterback keeper play.
Tech went three and out on their second drive of the half and gave the ball back to the Tigers with 3:34 to play in the quarter. Colt David ended the ensuing drive with his only field goal attempt on the night as the senior converted on the 53-yarder. The field goal was the longest of both his career and Chick-fil-A Bowl history, and it gave the Tigers the lead at 38-3, a score that remained the same until the final whistle.
Heading into the game, Georgia Tech averaged 377.3 yards of total offense per game, good for best in the ACC. The team's 282.3 yards of rushing offense per game is also tops in the conference.
Yet, Johnson's triple option could not come to life against the stingy Bengal defense, totaling just 164 yards.
The playmaking trio the Jackets had ridden all season never got the engine started, seeing Dwyer finish with 10 carries for 68 yards, Nesbitt with 16 carries for 67 yards and Jones with nine carries for 35 yards.
"The coaches had a great game plan," said LSU defensive end Kirston Pittman. "We knew it was going to start up front with the defensive line. Everyone went out and did their job and we got it done.
"That's team ball. The offense executed and did their job and we executed and did what we needed to do to put them in position to score. When you play good defense you have a chance to put your offense in a good position."
The Tigers worked off of a short field throughout the night, finishing with 324 yards of total offense behind 163 yards passing and 161 yards rushing.
Jefferson closed out his second career start with the game's offensive Most Valuable Player award, completing on 16-of-25 passes for 142 yards and a touchdown. He also carried the ball ten times for 25 yards.
It was the best work laid out by any quarterback in any LSU game this season, and Jefferson could sense that was the case from the word go.
"I respect Coach Miles and the coordinators and their decisions," he said. "When my opportunity came I had to do what I could do. It felt good that the players and coaches felt confident in me and that the team played well enough to win the way we did.
"It was very exciting. My adrenaline was pumping. I just wanted to put points up on the board."
Dickson, who led the way for the Tigers with four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown, spoke out about the team's ability to step up when the lights were on and an inexperienced quarterback was steering the ship.
"I thought [Jordan] played well in our last game against Arkansas too," he said. "I am so proud of him and the way he stepped up. We know we can do it. We can beat anybody, we just had to come out and put it all together. Things didn't go the way we wanted this year and people didn't respect us. We wanted to come back and earn their respect."
Scott finished the night with 15 carries for 65 yards and three touchdowns, tying Indiana's Trent Green Chick-Fil-A Bowl rushing touchdown record with 8:27 remaining to play in the first half.
The win moved the Tigers to 5-0 all time in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, the last victory coming over the Yellow Jackets in 2000 by a score of 28-14.
Miles pointed to a late-night meeting amongst the coaches and players on the eve of the bowl as a defining moment of the team's season.
"We found there was a great commitment," he said. "There was passion in the room. Our players spoke from the heart. I really enjoy this team. This football team has achieved through struggles throughout the year."