John Amis/Associated Press
ATLANTA — It was a day of tears and touchdowns. Heartbreak and broken records. Incredible sadness because a life was lost too soon mixed with football jubilation following one of the most emphatic statements in the sport’s history.
It was an emotional day here, where a football game was played amid a tragedy that rocked the LSU program at various points throughout the day.
The Tigers throttled Oklahoma 63-28 in the Peach Bowl—a game that felt over eight minutes after it began. But the emotions that seemed to pour out of Mercedes-Benz Stadium as LSU secured a spot in the national championship game were not because of the outcome or the many records that were broken but something that occurred before the game began.
Tragedy struck Saturday morning when a plane crashed in Lafayette, Louisiana, killing five passengers. One of those passengers, Carley McCord, was a Louisiana sports reporter and the daughter-in-law of LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
McCord, who was 30 years old, was a graduate of Northwestern State University and LSU. She spent time working in Ohio before returning to Louisiana, her home state, where she worked for New Orleans television station WDSU.
She served as a digital media reporter for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the in-game host for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. McCord was traveling to the Peach Bowl.
“We are devastated by the loss of such an amazing talent and valued member of our WDSU family,” Joel Vilmenay, WDSU president and general manager, said in a statement. “Carley’s passion for sports journalism and her deep knowledge of Louisiana sports, from high school to the professional ranks, made her an exceptional journalist.
“As we reflect on her impressive body of work, we offer our deepest condolences to her family.”
John Bazemore/Associated Press
Head coach Ed Orgeron delivered the news to Ensminger around 12:30, having been given word about the tragedy from an LSU administrator. While it was unknown as the news broke whether Ensminger would coach, Orgeron said his offensive coordinator wanted to be there for his team.
“There was a tragedy that happened in Coach Ensminger’s family today,” Orgeron said following the win. “I was the one that had to tell Coach. I told him what happened, and here’s what he said: ‘Coach, we’re going to get through this.’ Obviously, he was distraught, but he called a great game today.”
The vast majority of the players were unaware of the situation and its impact on their coach. Some found out early on, hugging Ensminger during pregame as he stood on the field largely by himself.
Others found out after the game through interviews that were taking place on the field or in the locker room.
“We didn’t know,” said running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who played with a hamstring injury he suffered during practice. “They wanted us to be in a certain mindset. And the way Coach E is, he wouldn’t want to put himself in front of our team. Right now, I know I want to do everything I possibly can to bring happiness into his life.”
In terms of football, the LSU offense was brilliant and polished—as it has been all season—unleashing a performance for the ages. As the game progressed and as the touchdowns were scored one after the next, the records fell.
John Amis/Associated Press
Burrow finished with 493 passing yards and 22 rushing yards and accounted for eight touchdowns—dissecting a playoff team with a kind of smoothness and grace that was overpowering from the start. He became the first FBS player to be responsible for eight touchdowns in a bowl game.
His 493 yards were the most ever in a College Football Playoff game. He also tied the single-game SEC touchdown record…in the first half.
His favorite target, Justin Jefferson, caught 14 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns, the most in a CFP game. LSU’s 63 points were the most in a CFP game.
“It was a little easy,” Jefferson said. “But we still have one more game left.”
By the end of the night, the stands were half-empty. Sooners fans had given up hope long before. Many Tigers fans stayed around to revel as the band played and the players celebrated after securing their spot in the title game, which will be played Jan. 13 in New Orleans. Others left early to enjoy the occasion with the result comfortably in hand.
As the team celebrated, Ensminger walked down from the booth and onto the field. He held a purple T-shirt in his hand, looking onward. He accepted hugs and condolences from coaches and teammates and others drenched in purple and gold. His wife, Amy, wrapped her arms around Orgeron, and they hugged as the celebration went on around them.
In the moment, the outcome of the game felt small. The result, as historic as it was, felt almost insignificant. The joy felt by so many throughout the stadium and the state of Louisiana—a joy that will build into anticipation over the next two weeks—felt complicated given what transpired leading up to that moment.
Danny Karnik/Associated Press
But the program was there for Ensminger. The coaches and the players could feel his pain. At the very least, they wanted to share the burden with him and provide any comfort they could.
“Just the fact that he still stuck with the game and still called a great game just means a lot for the players,” Jefferson said. “I feel bad for him. I’m sorry for his loss. But we’re all with him.”
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.