ATLANTA — Once the halftime whistle sounded, very little had gone right for LSU football.
The Tigers (9-4) were getting their butts handed to them by No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on the way to a 50-30 loss. They had just surrendered a 28-3 run to finish the half down 25 points.
Making matters worse, quarterback Jayden Daniels reaggravated his ankle injury in the second quarter, finishing the final drive of the first half without his agility and speed. So in came backup redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier, trailing by four scores against the best defense in the nation.
"My name was called. I was ready," Nussmeier said. "That was my whole mindset."
Well, Nussmeier's mindset was a productive one.
Nussmeier, who attempted all but one of his throws in the second half, finished with 294 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception. And although No. 14 LSU lost, his performance was the driving force behind LSU outscoring Georgia in the second half, 20-15, and setting the SEC Championship Game record for passing yards with 502 (Daniels threw for 208).
"When (Nussmeier) went on, he knew that we had to throw the ball and we to take some chances," Mason Taylor said.
Nussmeier's one pass attempt in the first half fell incomplete after he replaced Daniels after he initially reaggravated his injury. Daniels came back to finish the first half but was done for the night after leading LSU on a field-goal drive in the final seconds.
To start the third quarter, Nussmeier completed a 20-yard strike to Kayshon Boutte before hitting Malik Nabers in stride over two Georgia defenders for a touchdown. Then, following a three-and-out forced by the LSU defense, launched his best throw of the night, hitting Nabers again on a 59-yard completion to set up the Tigers at the Georgia 14-yard line.
The drive ended on a failed fourth-and-1, but the sudden offense gave LSU its only sliver of hope in the second half, as a touchdown on that series would have cut the deficit to just two scores with roughly a quarter-and-a-half to play.
Even with the squandered opportunity, the highlights didn't end there for Nussmeier. He went on to complete five more passes of at least 20 yards, including an acrobatic 33-yard touchdown throw off one foot and against the grain to Jaray Jenkins.
"It's not a mindset of, oh, I'm about to rip it deep," Nussmeier said. "I know that Malik is going to win on a deep route. I know that Jaray is going to win. I know that (Brian Thomas) is going to win. I know that Kyren (Lacy) is going to win, Kayshon is going to win, Jack (Bech) is going to win.
"It's just we have so many playmakers that it's easy to trust that they're going to make a play."
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Nussmeier's performance didn't come without flaws. He threw an interception into double coverage in the end zone in the fourth quarter and fumbled on LSU's final drive, holding onto the ball for longer than he should have.
But considering the circumstances and how poorly he had played in relief in his few stints earlier in the year, it was hard to view Nussmeier's performance as anything but promising.
Ironically, there's a chance that Saturday was Nussmeier's final game in the purple and gold. Jayden Daniels could return to LSU next season, resulting in Nussmeier potentially entering the transfer portal before the Tigers' bowl game.
But if Daniels enters the NFL Draft, LSU will know that Nussmeier will be ready.
"I've always had confidence that I could play football against any opponent in any stadium at any stage," Nussmeier said. "And that didn't change for me tonight."
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.
This article originally appeared on Lafayette Daily Advertiser: LSU football may have lost to Georgia but Garrett Nussmeier stepped up