Ed Orgeron spent the entire offseason and summer camp reiterating a familiar mantra.
For LSU to get back some of its 2019 national championship form, the Tigers’ head football coach said it was important to return that style of record-setting offense engineered by passing game coordinator Joe Brady and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow.
Orgeron brought in a disciple of Brady’s offense, Jake Peetz, quarterbacks coach with the Carolina Panthers where Brady is offensive coordinator. He was entrusted along with passing game coordinator DJ Mangus to provide LSU with an offense that could strike a balance between running and throwing the football and ultimately score points.
LSU’s first foray under the direction of Peetz left a lot to be desired with the No. 13 Tigers not gaining any traction at the line of scrimmage, its offensive line unable to consistently open holes for the running game. It also gave sophomore quarterback Max Johnson inadequate protection to throw against an aggressive, more physical UCLA defense that helped lead the way in Saturday’s 38-27 victory before a crowd of 68,123 the Rose Bowl in the season opener for both teams.
“They played physical football,” Orgeron said of UCLA. “They’ve got a better offensive line; they’ve got two running backs that are very physical. Tonight, they played physical. That doesn’t mean it’s any excuse for us not playing physical. We should have been better. We should have been better on both sides of the football, and we weren’t.”
LSU was limited to 48 yards rushing on 25 carries or just 1.9 yards per carry. Ty Davis-Price was the leading rusher with 30 yards on 13 carries, but the Tigers were also thin at the running back position with John Emery Jr. (academics) and freshman Armoni Goodwin (injury) out.
Not that it mattered much because of LSU’s struggles in the trenches where the Tigers returned four of five starters on the offensive line from last year.
That unit turned patchwork during the course of the game because of injuries to fifth-year senior right tackle Austin Deculus (who made his 50th career start) and junior Cameron Wire, forcing reserves such as Charles Turner, Marlon Martinez, Marcus Dumervil to see ample playing time, while true freshman Garrett Dellinger also saw time.
“First of all, we’ve got to be more diverse,” Orgeron said of his running game. “We have to have multiple runs and multiple sets which we didn’t do tonight. That’s going to get fixed immediately. We have to be more physical at the point of attack and that didn’t happen tonight from what I could see.”
Without a running game to compliment the passing game and take pressure off Johnson, he encountered the kind of difficulty in his third collegiate start that wasn’t present in his first two starts in wins over Florida and Ole Miss to close out the 2020 season.
UCLA often brought more defenders than LSU could block, getting to Johnson for two sacks and the Bruins also had five hurries that forced the left-hander into making quick decisions that often disrupted his timing.
“I was trying to figure out where they were coming from and other than one time where they got us,” Johnson said of trying to throw quicker, shorter routes. “Other than that, I’ve got to put it on them and let our guys make plays.”
Orgeron said Johnson must become steadier in his play.
“I thought at times he handled the pressure well,” he said. “He scrambled and made plays with his feet but at times he was off. He threw some balls in the dirt. We missed some plays. Hot and cold. He made some good plays, but he wasn’t as consistent as we need the LSU quarterback.”
Johnson completed 26 of 46 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns and an interception, a key mistake that enabled UCLA to extend its 14-10 halftime lead into a 21-10 advantage early in the third quarter.
LSU’s offense, though, appeared to start to come alive at a critical juncture in the game.
Johnson directed the Tigers on consecutive scoring drives – the only time in the game – guiding the team on an 8-play, 63-yard drive that consumed 2 ½ minutes to get back to within 21-17 at the 8:56 mark.
Whether it was planned or not LSU ran wide receiver Kayshon Boutte right off the field umpire, creating a pick where the New Iberia native hauled in Johnson’s pass and scored untouched down the middle of the field from 44 yards out.
Boutte was the team’s most productive receiver with nine catches for 148 yards and all three of his team’s touchdowns, junior Trey Palmer enjoyed a career-high outing with seven catches for 47 yards.
“I felt like coming into the game we started off slow and as an offense we started picking up our roles throughout the game,” Boutte said. “I felt like if we had started faster and got going earlier in the game it would have been a different ball game.”
Boutte felt LSU’s receivers could have helped out their quarterback throughout the game.
“I feel like the 50/50 balls, we’ve got to come down with them,” he said. “We really didn’t make contested catches as we know we should. We didn’t play to the LSU standard of performance. You’ve got to go back into next week and catching jugs (machine) and staying after practice. We’ve got to learn from it.”
The combination of Johnson-to-Boutte worked three times for 34 yards on LSU’s next series where the Tigers went into the drive trailing 24-17 after a field goal. The Tigers enjoyed their longest drive of the game – 12 plays and 60 yards – but had to settle for a 37-yard field goal from Cade York, that made it 24-20 with 1:07 to go in the third quarter.
LSU, which finished with 378 total yards, simply couldn’t keep pace with the more balanced UCLA attack that produced 469 yards.
The Bruins scored on both of their possessions in the fourth quarter to make it 38-20 with 6:31 to play, while LSU punted and the tandem of Johnson to Boutte worked for a 45-yard TD with 4:08 left.
“UCLA did a good job of just playing the run and being in the right spots,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to correct it as an offense and that will be done.”
Because of his toughness and willingness to stand in the pocket under duress, Johnson gained a fan in UCLA head coach Chip Kelly.
“He’s a really good player and I’ll tell you what, he’s a tough son-of-a-gun,” Kelly said. “We hit him, and he just kept getting up. He was as impressive of a guy I’ve seen. He just stood in there. I think that one of the qualities of the quarterback that people don’t talk about enough is their toughness. He just stood in there.
“They even made that play there with four minutes, to [Kayshon] Boutte, that went down the sideline. They fought. It’s fortunate that our offense didn’t give them the ball back. But I believe that if we did give them the ball back, they would have been slinging it again. That is a really good quarterback right now. I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”