ORLANDO, Fla. — The first celebration was sarcastic.
The next was anything but.
With 1:56 remaining in the first half of No. 14 Notre Dame’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over No. 16 LSU on Monday, junior placekicker Justin Yoon connected on a 46-yard field goal, and the waterlogged Irish fans wrapped in plastic ponchos inside Camping World Stadium unanimously lost their minds.
It was a feverish, uncontainable orgy of hugs and high-fives. Fathers hugged sons; brothers hugged sisters; strangers hugged strangers, basking blissfully in the spitting rain. They celebrated like it was the end of “Armageddon,” and Bruce Willis had just blown up the asteroid hurtling ominously towards Earth.
Notre Dame led 3-0, and the crowd went ironically, sarcastically wild.
And really, could you blame them? They hadn’t had much to cheer for.
At least, not yet.
That all changed with 1:28 left in the game and Notre Dame trailing 17-14, when sophomore quarterback Ian Book — who replaced junior Brandon Wimbush for the majority of Monday’s game — took a shotgun snap at his own 45-yard line and uncorked a high fastball in the direction of 6-foot-4 wide receiver Miles Boykin along the sideline.
“Ian put it in a place where only I could reach it,” Boykin said after the game.
Boykin did reach it — barely, improbably, miraculously — raising his right hand at the 34-yard line and magnetically stabbing the football out of the air. With one hand, he gathered it, side-stepped LSU defensive back Donte Jackson, stopped, allowed safety John Battle to fly by him, then sprinted another 20 yards triumphantly into the end zone.
“Happy New Year … Irish!” ABC play-by-play announcer Mark Jones emphatically roared.
Even happier, in fact, since Notre Dame snapped a nine-game winless streak in January bowl games, dating back to a Cotton Bowl victory over Texas A&M in 1994. Not only that, but the Irish also snapped a six-game losing streak in games set in the state of Florida.
Boykin — who finished with three catches for 102 yards, most notably the 55-yard touchdown — snagged MVP honors in his first start of the season. His presence in the starting lineup was due in part to the absence of six offensive players, four because of suspension and two others because of injury. That Included three of ND's top four receivers.
But, at least for head coach Brian Kelly, Boykin's ability to rise to the occasion was hardly a surprise.
“Miles over here knows the story,” Kelly said in the postgame press conference, with Boykin sitting to his right. “We were in practice, and we knew that we were going to have to get a couple of one-on-one matchups on the outside. And I told Miles, ‘You're going to win the MVP trophy.’ And he looked at me like I had two heads.
“But I felt like he had a chance. He's got the ability, if we could get him the football. And Ian (Book) got him the football, and Miles made a great individual play and, lo and behold, I’ve got the MVP sitting next to me.”
Boykin’s play wouldn’t have been possible, however, if Notre Dame’s defense hadn’t first stacked up a pair of goal-line stands that kept LSU out of the end zone; if Yoon hadn’t connected on field goals of 46 and 49 yards; if Louisiana native Michael Young hadn’t secured the first touchdown of his career against the team he grew up watching; if junior linebacker Te’von Coney hadn’t finished with 17 tackles in what could be the final game of his college career.
Boykin’s catch was an exclamation point at the end of a necessary sentence.
“We fought for every inch,” Kelly said of his team’s defensive effort. “And, quite frankly, it became a game of inches down there where we were able to hold them to the field goals. That was the difference in the game.
“It's a mentality that we've developed within our football program. It's a mentality that we lacked, quite frankly, last year, that we didn't fight for every inch.”
To be clear, Monday’s performance was far from perfect. An LSU punt in the third quarter bounced off Irish safety Isaiah Robertson’s leg, resulting in an ND turnover. Wimbush completed just 3 of 8 passes before being permanently pulled from the game. Book — who completed 14 of 19 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns, while running for another 36 yards — threw an untimely interception to LSU’s Andraez "Greedy" Williams that extinguished a promising drive.
But, unlike the 2016 4-8 Irish, Notre Dame found a way to finish all the same.
“We were in a bad spot last year. We all knew it. All of you guys made sure that we knew it,” said graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey. “We decided after the last game last year that that wasn’t going to happen again. That’s not what Notre Dame deserves. It’s not what our coaching staff deserves. It’s not what our players deserve.
“We made a decision when we came back last January to make a change.”
On Monday, that change smelled like citrus. Standing on an elevated stage, facing half a stadium of damp, delirious Irish fans, McGlinchey and left guard Quenton Nelson lifted the Citrus Bowl trophy — a literal bowl filled with oranges — high into the air. Smoke machines shot out billowing waves of smoke and gold confetti, and Notre Dame’s All-America linemen smiled and soaked it in.
“Just relief,” Nelson said, when asked what he felt in that memorable moment. “It’s been a long season, and all our hard work really paid off. To get 10 wins, that’s a special season for us. It was relief, joy, excitement — all that good stuff.”
After singing the Alma Mater for a final time, freshman right tackle Robert Hainsey lay on the turf, making angels in the gold confetti. The players leaned over railings for hugs and high-fives with freezing family members. Special teams coach Brian Polian stopped at midfield to hug his wife.
The first half looked how a punishing New Year’s Day hangover typically feels.
The postgame celebration was more akin to a New Year’s Eve party — a merry mix of hope and joy.