Championship-caliber teams shake off unexpected adversity

Everywhere LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire walks in Atlanta, he must feel all the eyes staring at him.

Getting off the team bus. Walking across the lobby of the team hotel, the downtown Marriott Marquis. Heading to practice at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Ever since word leaked almost a week ago that Edwards-Helaire sustained a non-contact hamstring injury as the No. 1 unbeaten Tigers resumed practice for Saturday’s College Football Playoffs semifinal vs. Oklahoma in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Tiger Nation has awakened daily in a cold sweat.

On the doorstep of LSU’s biggest postseason game since 2011, the Tigers may suddenly be without their All-SEC first-team running back who arguably is the most versatile offensive weapon in their record setting attack.

Get the tough yardage between the tackles and drag defenders? Hand it to Clyde, who has 1,290 yards and a SEC-leading 16 rushing TDs.

Need a safety valve receiver for Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Joe Burrow? Flip it to Clyde, who has 50 catches which ties a school single season record for LSU running backs.

Block a blitzing linebacker? Clyde stones them more often than not, just as he did on Burrow’s game-winning third-and-17 61-yard fourth-quarter TD pass at Texas.

LSU’s Ed Orgeron, everyone’s national Coach of the Year, offered just enough information on Monday to ease the minds of the Purple-and-Gold faithful while giving Oklahoma’s defensive coaches something to think about.

“Clyde’s a little bit better than we thought,” Orgeron said. “He’s off the crutches and off the scooter. We’re going to see if he can do something tomorrow. It’s going to be a day-by-day deal. But I promise you this, a little bit better than what I thought last week.
“He has a chance to play. I don’t know if he’s going to play, it will be day by day.”

It’s definitely a rock-and-a-hard place situation for Orgeron. He’d love to save Edwards-Hilaire for the Jan. 13 national championship game in New Orleans, but the Tigers won’t make it there without beating Oklahoma.

This is a Tigers’ team that loves a challenge. When they’ve been pushed this season, they’ve shoved back with gusto.

Yet, they haven’t had an ill-timed injury until now.

If LSU is indeed the championship team it has proven to be so far, well, now is the time to confirm what we’ve seen for 13 games.

Great teams brush off adversity and keep on trucking.

Which means for Edwards-Helaire’s understudies – true freshmen Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. and freshman redshirt Chris Curry – the 2020 season has arrived.

This is what it’s going to be like next season after Edwards-Helaire likely declares for the NFL Draft. That trio of running backs are THE men, they now have to carry the load.

They’ve all shown flashes of enormous potential throughout this season. There’s no reason to think why they can’t unleash it against an Oklahoma defense that has created just 11 turnovers this year.

And if the LSU offensive line ever needed a moment to prove why it won the Joe Moore Award as college football’s top offensive line, this is it.

“Doesn’t matter who’s back there, who’s catching the balls, whatever,” LSU all-American center Lloyd Cushenberry said. “We’ve got to do our job. Doesn’t change nothing up front. We’ve got to take care of those guys and get the job done.

“(Offensive coordinator) Coach (Steve) Ensminger told us now that we got it (the Joe Moore Award), we’re the most hated. So, guys will be coming at our neck and we got to step it up even more.”

No doubt that the natural tendency in a situation when you’ve lost a key player is to emphasize everyone else has to raise their level of play.

But with these Tigers, it’s more about doing their jobs because they already understand their focus is to play to what Orgeron, Burrow and others call LSU’s “standard of performance.”

It’s something Orgeron reiterated in the Tigers’ first team meeting on this trip.

“It started with my intensity in the meeting and the focus and talking to them about why we’re here, what we’re going to do, what’s the expectation, the LSU standard performance,” Orgeron said.

“There’s not a lot of free time to where guys are going out and visit the town and stuff like that. We’re here to win a game. We’re going to prepare. I think these guys know how to prepare and today’s been a phenomenal start.”

The Las Vegas oddmakers certainly have faith in LSU.

The Tigers opened as an 11-point favorite, went to a 13 ½-point favorite and it didn’t budge when Edwards-Helaire got hurt.

That’s good for LSU, because the guys setting the betting lines are rarely wrong.

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Ron Higgins

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