By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Ed Orgeron did not acquire his dream job as LSU’s head coach by conventional means.
Seven weeks into his first season of full-time employment in that role, it’s clear Orgeron will not keep the job by conventional means, either.
Two weeks ago, I and others wrote his team off – for good reason. His Tigers were trounced by 30 at Mississippi State – LSU’s worst loss in the century-long series – and lost by a flattering three points to Troy in Baton Rouge. All the evidence – a mistake-prone defense, a flat-tire offense, uncoordinated special teams, a clashing coaching staff, and a spiritless squad – pointed to the potential for LSU’s first losing season since 1999.
Two weeks later, LSU controls its fate in the SEC West, the SEC, and, yes, the College Football Playoff title hunts.
The credit, like the criticism, starts at the top. Joe Alleva shelled out big bucks to retain Dave Aranda and obtain Matt Canada, partnering two of the highest-regarded coordinators in the country to form a triumvirate atop the program unlike any in college football. Orgeron’s role would be to recruit, motivate, and delegate, to give his coordinators fired-up, talented troops and let Aranda and Canada deploy them as they saw best.
When Orgeron, by his own admission, meddled in Canada’s offense against Troy by requiring he shed his trademark shifts and motions for a simpler attack, it was Alleva who called a postmortem and reminded Orgeron of their arrangement. Orgeron, to his credit, obliged, and LSU has since knocked off two straight ranked SEC foes, both of whom claimed wins over the Tigers in 2016.
Make no mistake: this is LSU football remade in Alleva’s vision. He was the one who fired Les Miles, the winningest coach in program history by winning percentage, and promoted Orgeron. Alleva has, reportedly, been far more hands on with the program this season, spending his Sundays in the office watching film. He may not be calling the plays, but he is calling the shots, and after a terrible September, he’s had an October to remember.
Orgeron deserves kudos, too, even if he won’t accept them. He’s responded to the Troy defeat by regrouping, taking the blame and distributing the credit. He took most of the bullets in the week leading up to the Florida game, but he refuses to accept the accolades. Danny Etling tossed his head coach the game ball shortly after the clock expired on Saturday’s win over Auburn. Orgeron tossed it right back.
“He flipped me the ball,” Orgeron said. “I said, ‘I don’t want it. You got that. I don’t want that.’ It ain’t about me. It’s about them.”
His coordinators, meanwhile, are coordinating their socks off. LSU doesn’t beat both Auburn and Florida without them and perhaps beats neither. Aranda responded to Auburn’s 20-0 haymaker by giving up just 64 second-half yards and 0 second-half points. Canada, working with three freshmen on his offensive line and a nagging injury to his best playmaker in Derrius Guice, called another beauty, particularly in the vital moments of the game. His 4th-and-goal jet sweep to Stephen Sullivan from a yard out for LSU’s first touchdown and the 3rd-and-5 swing pass to Guice to set up Connor Culp’s game-winning field goal were moments of brilliance. The numbers haven’t been mind-blowing, but Canada is squeezing all the juice out of his offense.
The players have responded, too, with efficient ears and efficient performances. They’ve tuned out the outside criticism and let their play speak for itself. The best example is D.J. Chark. The No. 7 shirt seemed to rest heavy on him early in the season, particularly against Mississippi State, but his performance Saturday against Auburn was a meta-microcosm: He overcame adversity in a game in which his team overcame adversity in a season in which his program has overcome adversity.
Chark didn’t let his first-quarter fumble or the week of detractors’ prognostications stop him from racking up 233 all-purpose yards and a game-changing punt return for a touchdown.
“We knew what was being said, how it wasn’t going to be close, we were going to get slaughtered,” he said. “We really learned how to block out the outside noise.”
Chark’s resilience mirrors that of his team, which mirrors that of its head coach. LSU is not a perfect team. It is still full of holes in a game where holes tend to get exploited, eventually.
The margins remain as fine as ever. LSU’s turnaround is indisputable, but it was not inevitable and it could be impermanent. Consider the impact just three kicks have had on LSU’s record this season: Troy’s halftime field goal, which hit the upright and came only after LSU had already left the field for the locker room; Florida kicker Eddy Piniero’s missed extra point that proved the difference in Gainesville; and Culp’s 42-yard winner, which won the game for LSU and which would have cost LSU that win had it missed. One hundred and eighty minutes of grueling football essentially boiled down to ten seconds at the feet of former soccer players.
But credit to LSU for righting a foundering ship. Written off by a majority, they’ve added a wild chapter to a season full of unexpected storylines, and the only thing I’m sure of is they aren’t done writing.