GLENDALE, Ariz. — LSU entered the 2019 Fiesta Bowl in an unusual position — the defense was lacking depth.
The LSU defense was lacking up to eight starters at some points of the game, but the team's "next man up" mentality never stopped Dave Aranda's group from helped secure a 40-32 win for the Tigers.
"That's one of the strengths of our team, leaning on each other through tough times," said junior defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence. "We've been through a lot on and off the field and its pretty easy when brothers that you love playing with week-in and week-out to just lean on them. We don't like to complain too much. It does get tough, but we have each other and we push them."
LSU coach Ed Orgeron commended Aranda and the defensive staff for working tirelessly to offset any issues the defense might face in the Fiesta Bowl and coming in with a solid gameplan.
The LSU secondary was already without All-American cornerbacks Greedy Williams, who skipped the Fiesta Bowl to prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft, and Kristian Fulton, who was recovering from surgery. Backup cornerback Kelvin Joseph also didn't play due to suspension because of a violation of team rules.
The already depleted secondary got even more shallow in the first half after cornerback Terrance Alexander and All-American safety Grant Delpit were ejected.
Alexander was ejected for throwing a punch after a UCF turnover, while Delpit was ejected for targeting in the second quarter.
The defensive line did fare much better. It was already missing edge rusher K'Lavon Chaisson after a season ending injury in LSU's win over Miami, and Ed Alexander, Neil Farrell and Breiden Fehoko all missed the Fiesta Bowl.
But as the game went on and the offense pulled away, the defense continued to step up against UCF's high-power, face-paced offense.
LSU held UCF to just 250 total yards, its lowest in a game since 2016. The secondary — which had Jontre Kirklin and Kary Vincent playing for most of the game — held the Knights to 120 yards passing.
Safety JaCoby Stevens sealed the game for the Tigers with an interception with less than a minute remaining in an eight-point game.
Linebacker Devin White said the the Knights' offense was more speed than strength up front and LSU dominated in the trenches all day.
White and fellow linebacker Patrick Queen ended their seasons on a high note, leading the team with nine and eight tackles apiece. Lawrence had perhaps his best game of the season, totaling two sacks and four tackles for loss.
"Big man [Lawrence] finally got to the ball and the quarterback," White said of the Defensive Player of the Game. "He had two sacks in the game, it all started with him up front. He's the leader on that d-line. When he plays well, the whole d-line, the whole defense, plays well. It starts with him. That was something that came with it today."
Orgeron said that the difference in today's game was the pressure on the quarterback that changed the momentum. In the back half of the season, Lawrence worked on his pass rush and was able to take advantaged of one-on-one situations against UCF.
Everybody wondered what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda could do without so many key players against a dynamic offense, but the LSU defense proved that it could step up from top to bottom.
"Lot of guys," Orgeron said. "Grit. We talk about grit all the time. Our guys have grit, they practice with grit. Block out the noise. The amount of adversity. There was going to be no excuses. We were going to put 11 men on the field and fight like Tigers."