By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
Senior night and Tiger Stadium haven’t always mixed well.
No one knows that better than the seniors of 2017.
LSU’s veterans entered Saturday’s home finale against Texas A&M having watched two of their three preceding classes leave Tiger Stadium with the taste of defeat in their mouth. Just a year ago, LSU fell to Florida in its home finale. Three years ago, the Tigers lost to Alabama to close the 2014 home slate. Only 2015’s departing players had left Death Valley with smiles on their faces – and, in that particular case, a coach on their shoulders.
Ed Orgeron didn’t depart from Tiger Stadium on Saturday hoisted on anyone’s backs. But he did, following a 45-21 drubbing of the Aggies, leave with the most SEC wins the program has enjoyed since 2012, and with pride in a senior class that could’ve called it quits long ago.
“After the Troy game, I couldn’t think but about one second at a time,” Orgeron said through a smile. “I couldn’t look that far. I knew we could get the team together. Looking back after all the things we went through, it’s a remarkable feat by our football team and our coaching staff.”
Since falling to Troy in the fifth game of the year and dropping to 3-2 overall, LSU has won six of seven, finishing 6-2 in the SEC for the first time in five seasons. They capped off that run with a dominant victory on an emotional day.
The deed was done in fitting fashion, too, as seniors led the charge for the Tigers, particularly on offense. Quarterback Danny Etling tossed for 337 yards and three touchdowns, both career bests at LSU. He eclipsed his previous season-high – 227 yards against Chattanooga in the second game of the season – before the end of the first half.
By game’s end, he had spread the ball amongst 10 receivers but allowed his seniors to shoulder the bulk of the burden, with D.J. Chark (86), Russell Gage (81), and Darrel Williams (56) doing most of the damage. All three of his scores went to seniors, too, with connections to Gage and Chark sandwiching a J.D. Moore hurdling of an Aggie defender of which the Tigers’ resident hurdler, Gage, had to be proud.
“He scared me a little bit,” Gage said. “He didn’t jump too high. But the timing was perfect.”
That the points on the boards and yards in the box score would come, largely, from veterans didn’t shock Moore.
“I’m not surprised,” he said, “because that’s the same guys who have been making plays all year.”
With the win, Etling became the fifth Tiger to throw for 2,000 yards in two straight seasons. He also surpassed Tommy Hodson to move into fifth place in school history with 20 consecutive starts.
How will he be remembered? He doesn’t want to answer that just yet.
“We’ll see when it’s over,” he said. “We’ve still got a bowl game left. The hay’s not in the barn yet. We’ve still got some goals left.”
His coach would be more than happy to fill in the blanks, though.
“A winner,” Orgeron said of Etling. “Tough. Hard-nosed. Went through some bumps and bruises, just like we all (do) in life. But he fought through it. For him to stay with this team and win nine games is a remarkable feat.”
Etling wasn’t the only senior to make his mark on the day. Defensive lineman Greg Gilmore, a fifth-year player, finished with two tackles for loss and a sack, while Williams chipped in a team-high 162 all-purpose yards (106 rushing, 56 receiving) with the score. If Etling represents those seniors accustomed to the spotlight, Williams and Gilmore symbolize, for Orgeron, the behind-the-scenes grinders that form the spine of a winning program.
“They’re unbelievable,” Orgeron said. “They’re journeymen. They waited their turn. They’re unselfish players. You love to be around those guys. They’re team players, and they never complain about anything.”
They’re also, as Etling said, not finished. LSU now awaits its bowl berth, and its strong finish means a January destination could await them. It’s a not a great season, as Orgeron points out, but a good one. And considering where it could’ve gone, if not for the leadership of a senior class hellbent on finishing strong, good is a good place to finish.
“We had our backs against the wall,” said Gage. “We were pushed on the mat, but we got up off the mat and fought. We gelled together, and as you saw tonight, we came together and finished it off well.”