GLENDALE, Ariz. – He has talked about it — how he wanted a passing game like the one USC had when he was an assistant coach there, and the Trojans were winning national championships early this century.
He thought he hired the man after the 2016 season who would bring it — rising offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Pittsburgh, though that was not exactly the type of offense he ran.
Then Orgeron fired Canada after the 2017 season and brought back his original, interim offensive coordinator from 2016 — then-59-year-old Steve Ensminger, who had not been an offensive coordinator full time since 1998 at Clemson. Ensminger had definitely shown some flashes in 2016 as the Tigers 634 yards in a 42-7 win over Missouri, 459 in a 45-10 win over Southern Mississippi and 515 in a 38-21 victory over Ole Miss. But there was a 10-0 shutout oNo. 1 Alabama and just 125 yards and only one touchdown and some Les Miles-like confusion at the end on the goal line in a 16-10 loss to Florida.
And Ensminger’s passing offense struggled throughout 2018 with only some brief glimmers of hope. At Auburn, transfer quarterback Joe Burrow threw for 249 yards and expertly directed LSU to a walk-off field goal for the 22-21 win. He threw for 292 yards and rushed for another 96 in a 45-16 win over Ole Miss and totaled 266 yards passing and rushing in the upset of No. 2 Georgia. But then there was the second straight shutout loss to Alabama in three years and second in a row with Ensminger, whose offense was only so-so in wins over Mississippi State and Arkansas.
The bright spot of a 74-72, seven-overtime loss at Texas A&M was Burrow throwing for 270 and three touchdowns and rushing for another 100 and three touchdowns.
Then on the first day of 2019, just about everything in the LSU passing game clicked as if it was a LSU tailgating demonstration.
Burrow completed 21 of 34 passes for a career-high 394 yards — tying for third best in LSU history — and an LSU bowl record tying four touchdowns as the No. 11 Tigers defeated No. 8 and previously 25-0 Central Florida, 40-32, in the Fiesta Bowl at State Farm Stadium.
Freshman wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase finally played for a whole game as he was advertised to do so during recruiting season a year ago as he caught a career-high six passes for 93 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore wide receiver Justin Jefferson was dependable as usual as he caught four passes for 87 yards and two touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Stephen “Now You See Him, Now You Don’t” Sullivan re-emerged with three catches for 76 yards, and junior Derrick Dillon, who also disappears and appears, caught two for 86 yards with a touchdown.
“It was exactly what I have always dreamed about our passing game being at LSU,” Orgeron said. “I’ll grade the passing game an A-plus. It was exactly what we wanted.”
It was against UCF of the American Athletic Conference, though. The Knights came in 86 in the nation in total defense with 423.6 yards allowed.
“And again, we had 30 days to get ready,” Orgeron said. “But Joe was on the money. We had some tremendous receivers. We want to run a spread offense, create space, put the ball in our play makers’ hands. And that’s what we did. It looked like the passing game we’ve wanted.”
LSU’s offensive line allowed just two sacks of Burrow.
“The passing game always starts with the protection,” Burrow said. “Those guys did a hell of a job. They played their asses off for me.”
And most of those same posteriors will be in front of Burrow next season as the Tigers lose only starting left guard Garrett Brumfield. Left tackle Saahdiq Charles, center Lloyd Cushenberry, right guard Damien Lewis and right tackle Austin Deculus will all be back, unless Lewis decided to enter the NFL Draft as a junior. Three other returning offensive linemen — Adrian Magee, Badara Traore and Chasen Hines — started six games combined at three positions. And there is the significant signing addition last month of the nation’s No. 1 guard in Kardell Thomas of Southern Lab.
Amid this protection, Burrow and Ensminger adjusted to UCF, which played to stop the short passing attack early. OK, said Burrow.
“Yeah, at the beginning of the game, they were kind of sitting on our short routes, so we had to start throwing it deep,” he said. “We hit a couple and then we got them to back off. So that opened up the underneath game. We really were clicking on all cylinders in the passing game.”
Burrow has big dreams himself for LSU’s passing attack in 2019 as Chase, Jefferson, Sullivan and Dillon will all be back as will top 2018 signee Terrace Marshall, who struggled with an ankle injury in 2018 and never showed what he can do.
“So, all of those young receivers got a lot better throughout this bowl practice and throughout the season,” he said. “I haven’t seen a group of young receivers as advanced as those guys in my time in college. And those guys have a ways to go. They’re really good right now. So they’re going to be special next year. Chase, Terrace, Jefferson, those guys are going to be special.”
Burrow took the offensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl and continued to impress Orgeron. After just arriving at LSU in June after graduation from Ohio State and not inheriting any proven wide receivers, tailbacks or much of an offensive line, Burrow put together probably the best season for a dual action quarterback in LSU history as he threw for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns while rushing for 399 yards and seven touchdowns, which tied the LSU record for a quarterback.
“Joe is an excellent quarterback,” Orgeron said. “We believe in him. He’s got excellent leadership skills. He comes to practice and works every day. He’s exactly what we feel like an LSU quarterback ought to be.”
The Burrow-Ensminger combination in 2019 will mark the first time since 2010 that LSU will return the same starting quarterback and offensive coordinator since Jordan Jefferson and Gary Crowton returned in 2010. And Jefferson is a far cry from Burrow.
Although Burrow (No. 65 in the nation at 133.2) was not close to the passing efficiency numbers of former LSU quarterbacks like Zach Mettenberger in 2013 (No. 4 in the nation at 171.4) or JaMarcus Russell in 2006 (No. 3 in the nation at 161.0), he is more of a team leader than either of those.
The toughness Burrow shows in his running — particularly how he bounces back up like a sand-bottomed blow up after some vicious hits — has a tendency to get every player on his side, including linemen.
“It’s very important for the leaders to exude toughness throughout the entire game,” Burrow said after the win over UCF. “It doesn’t start during the season. It starts in the weight room in the off-season. And if your best leaders aren’t your best workers, than you’re not going to be a very good football team.”
Sounds like a coach, which is what his dad Jimmy does at Ohio University as its defensive coordinator.
It also helps when your best leaders are also your best players, which is the case with Burrow. The last time LSU had a quarterback as good as Burrow who was also a leader was Matt Flynn in 2007, and the Tigers won the national championship.
That would be a stretch in 2019, but LSU will finish closer to that goal in 2019 than in its previous seven seasons.
“I think we’re going to be real special and do some great things,” Burrow said.
Look for LSU to open the season ranked in the top eight and lose no more than two games in 2019.
FINAL GUILBEAU POLL: 1. Alabama (14-0, 8-0 SEC). 2. LSU (10-3, 5-3). 3. Georgia (11-3, 7-1). 4. Kentucky (10-3, 5-3). 5. Texas A&M (9-4, 5-3). 6. Florida (10-3, 5-3). 7. Auburn (8-5, 3-5). 8. Mississippi State (8-5, 4-4). 9. Missouri (8-5, 4-4). 10. South Carolina (7-6, 4-4). 11. Vanderbilt (6-7, 3-5). 12. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6). 13. Ole Miss (5-7, 1-7). 14. Arkansas (2-10, 0-8).
QUOTE OF THE YEAR: ”I know this, we were very close to getting into the playoff this year – a game or two away. If they do expand, we’re going. But other than that, we’re going to work to get in the top four.”
— LSU coach Ed Orgeron when asked after the Fiesta Bowl about a possible playoff expansion from four to eight games.