"I said to the players coming in that he was the best receiver we've played against all year," LSU head coach Nick Saban said. "The guy is an outstanding player but he also has toughness and competes the whole game. He might be the best football player we have seen all year."
Williams caught only two passes in the first half, but those two grabs covered 126 yards including a touchdown. His first reception came just two plays after the Tigers had taken a 17-7 lead. Longhorn quarterback Chris Simms hooked up with Williams on a 51-yard scoring strike minimizing the Tigers lead to three points. Williams beat LSU corner Corey Webster in one-on-one coverage and raced for Texas' first offensive touchdown of the game.
"He's the best player I have played against this year," LSU senior linebacker Bradie James said. "My hat's off to him."
Williams' second catch of the first half came two possessions later. The Tiger defense shifted around not allowing Williams to line up guarded with single coverage. Williams hauled in a pass from Simms running the same route as on his first reception. Breaking a pair of tackles by Webster and safety Jack Hunt, Williams broke into the open field down the sideline, finally being pulled down from behind by James at the LSU five. The pitch and catch covered 75 yards. Two plays later, Longhorn tailback Cedric Benson crossed the goal line from a yard out giving Texas a 21-17 lead.
"The first two times we didn't double him in the game and roll up and have someone over the top of him he scored touchdowns," Saban said. "One was on a blitz the other we were playing cover one with a man free. We missed a couple of tackles on him but he made two great plays."
Williams showed off once more in the third period when he took a reverse handoff weaving his way through the LSU defense, finding the end zone 39 yards later. The scoring run gave the Horns a 28-17 advantage and began to put the game out of reach.
"On the reverse I thought we had some people in position to make plays," Saban said. "But they just didn't tackle that drive on the ground."
For LSU, the 35-20 loss snapped a string of five consecutive wins in postseason bowls. The Tigers had not lost a bowl game since a 23-10 loss to Syracuse in the 1989 Hall of Fame Bowl. It was the first loss in postseason play under Saban as LSU moved to 3-1 all-time under the three-year head coach (including the SEC Championship Game).
Despite the season ending with a disappointing loss and an 8-5 record, Saban said he was pleased with the way his team played on New Year's Day, facing a talented Texas team many thought could compete for a national title.
"I was really proud of our players," Saban said. "I think they competed in the game. They played hard; they played with a lot of toughness."
While it would be Texas who came away with the win, LSU stole the show early putting on a dominating performance in the first quarter. The Tigers limited Texas to three plays and no yardage in the first stanza. On the flip side, LSU collected 187 yards on 30 offensive plays but only managed a slim 10-7 advantage.
The Tigers took the opening kickoff and marched downfield, mostly in part to three catches by Michael Clayton from Marcus Randall. However, the drive stalled and LSU was forced to settle for a 26-yard John Corbello field goal.
"We really took the tempo and moved the ball well then we got bogged down and had to settle for a field goal," Saban said. " I think it would've helped our momentum if we were able to score. That was disappointing."
The Longhorns weren't able to generate anything on their first possession of the game, negating a 4-yard run by Benson with a pass going for negative four yards from Simms to B.J. Johnson.
The Tigers were pinned deep by a 60-yard Brian Bradford punt, forcing LSU to start their next drive from their seven. Led by Randall, the Tigers worked their way downfield and crossed into Texas territory on the drive's fifth play. Eight plays later, however, with LSU threatening at the Horns 36, Randall was sacked by Texas' Cory Redding jarring the ball loose. Lee Jackson scooped up the ball and rumbled 46 yards for a Longhorn touchdown.
"We got the ball taken out of our hands and they ran it back," Saban said. "We were the ball well that particular drive. We ended up having two great drives and they only had three offensive plays and we're behind 7-3."
"I was blitzing off the edge a lot, coming off the tackle," Jackson said. "I saw Cory (Redding) knock the ball loose and picked it up. All I heard was my teammates saying, ‘Go!' It was a great play for us and I felt like it was a big shift in the momentum early in the game. It gave us hope, life, and we got rolling."
The defensive score didn't seem to bother LSU, who regrouped and took the ball back down the field answering the Longhorn's touchdown.
"Everybody still had a positive attitude," running back LaBrandonToefield said. "We knew it wasn't going to be a perfect game. We had come out over that and overcome that adversity and we did for a little while. We kept competing and playing hard. We just didn't capitalize when we had the chances to so."
Mostly utilizing several hard runs by Toefield and a few key passes by Randall, LSU drove 77 yards on 10 plays and regained a 10-7 lead on a 20-yard TD pass from Randall to Toefield, the first touchdown reception of his career.
"What I was really proud of is that it didn't faze our players," Saban said. " We played through it, which I think says a lot about their character. We came back and put together a long scoring drive. We had bad field position and we came out and a put a drive together to go back ahead 10-7. It was what I alluded to in saying that as well as we played in the beginning of the game, we didn't score enough points. That includes the fact that they took the ball out of our hands and it was an easy score for them."
"I thought they did a great job of preparation for us," Texas defensive coordinator Carl Reese said. "It wasn't so much that they showed us something new as it was their execution early in the game. They were well prepared."
Texas picked up its first, first down of the game on its initial drive of the second quarter. Benson rambled for 14 yards on the first play of the second period, but the Longhorns stumbled again and were forced to punt back to LSU.
Facing poor field position once again, the Tigers responded by sending what looked to be a message to the Longhorns. After tossing an incomplete pass in Jerel Myers direction, the sophomore signal caller took off on a designed quarterback draw. Eluding most of Texas' defense, the Longhorn's Nathan Vasher finally forced Randall out of bounds 76 yards later.
"Coach made that call," Randall said. "It was a draw play all the way. I saw the hole and Rob Sale made a good block for me on their linebacker. I just took off running."
A pair of runs by Davis followed ensuring LSU's second touchdown of the game. The second scamper covered 10 yards to the goal line putting the Tigers on top 17-7.
"We came out trying to get things rolling early, and we did that," Randall said. "We moved the ball on them three drives in a row. Coming out in the first half I felt real comfortable. Everything was working the way we wanted to. We were well prepared for the game."
But just as LSU seemed to grab the momentum, Texas smothered the Tigers hopes with 14, second quarter points and took a lead they would not relinquish. Just two plays after Davis crossed the goal line for a 10-point LSU advantage, Williams was dancing down the sideline going the other way cutting the lead to only three.
"When we got the ball at the start of the second quarter, I knew we had to do something to help our defense stay off the field," Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. "The guys responded well and we got a score out of the drive."
The Tigers had another opportunity to put points on the board in the second quarter. However, a 36-yard Corbello field goal attempt sailed wide right. On the downside for LSU, Williams made his second big play of the game, a 75-yard reception setting up the Horns next TD.
"We just needed a chance to get on the field and get into a flow," Simms said. "We gave them some match-up problems and after the first big play to Roy (Williams), they never went to a single safety defense again."
Following the halftime intermission, the Tigers struggled mightily to sustain the offensive consistency they showed in the first half. Although LSU out-gained the Longhorns 441-382 in the contest, the Tigers offense generated only 131 yards of offense in the final two quarters of play. In all, after a 17-point first half, LSU mustered only three points in the second half, offset by 14 more by Texas.
"It was a lack of execution on our part," Randall said. "We stopped making plays like we were in the first half."
Saban said he felt as if Texas' pass rush was a bit more severe in the second half, which affected the play of Randall.
"Texas does an outstanding job on loose play downs of affecting the quarterback with a lot of their zone blitzes and pressures," Saban said. "It affected Marcus a little bit two ways. I think he was confused at times and threw the ball to the wrong side of the formation a few times as well he got hit a few times. I think it also affected him having to get an IV at half time because he was cramping up. That affected him a little bit in terms of how he felt."
Redding felt as if the adjustments made by the Texas coaching staff is what allowed the Longhorns to size control of the game.
"LSU made some great plays today on offense," Redding said. "They're a very tough offensive team. Our coaches settled us down at halftime and told us to focus more on the run. We just huddled together after that first quarter and said, ‘we're here to have fun and let's not let this get us down'. Making big plays and having fun is what it's all about."
Williams' winding 39-yard run in the third quarter put the game out of reach for the Tigers' struggling offense. An 8-yard TD reception by Ivan Williams from Simms in the forth quarter pounded home the fin al nail in LSU's coffin.
The only bit of excitement made by the Tigers in the second half was an 8-play, 42-yard drive put together by LSU. Trailing 35-17, Randall completed a trio of passes to three different receivers. However, the drive came up short and resulted in a 39-yard Corbello field goal.
Having the game within two scores down 35-20, LSU recovered an onside kick but failed to turn the possession into points. The Tigers turned the ball over on downs their final three possessions.