STARKVILLE, Miss. – If you want to feel good about LSU’s 28-25 SEC-opening victory over Mississippi State here in Cowbell Hell on a perfect fall football Saturday, then party on.
Celebrate the fact that a football program that has finished ranked in the top 10 in recruiting 15 times in the last 20 years (including 8 of the last 9 seasons) had to play a junk defensive alignment that sounds like bingo numbers (a 3-2-6) to hang on to edge a program that has cracked the top 20 in recruiting three times in the last 20 years.
Revel over just more than half of LSU’s total offense yardage came from the Tigers’ four touchdowns while it could manage just 343 yards total offense (including a mere 63 yards rushing) against a defense ranked 10th in the SEC.
Dance the night away knowing LSU (3-1 overall, 1-0 SEC West) was one unfavorable officiating call away from MSU’s offense getting the ball back with plenty of time to win or tie the game.
“Good team win” were the first words out of LSU coach Ed Orgeron’s mouth after his team almost blew an 18-point lead in the game’s last 11½ minutes.
Of course, that’s the only way he had to see it, since injuries mixed with academic ineligibility have reduced LSU’s offensive line and its running backs to rubble.
The Tigers are a one-dimensional offensive team – quarterback Max Johnson having to relocate from a collapsing pocket to throw four TDs vs. MSU – that can do just enough to win while LSU’s defense can do just enough to lose.
That’s pretty much how it should play out the rest of the season unless the Tigers’ O-line injuries get magically healed and the running game suddenly discovers the next LSU stud back in the making.
Like what happened vs. MSU, LSU is going to have to manufacture wins via a handful of crucial offensive and defensive plays because the Tigers don’t do anything presently consistently well to be regarded as anything more than a 7-5 bowl team at best.
The 38-27 season-opening loss at UCLA was such a shock that it threw a tidal wave of reality over the massive preseason expectations.
The best that can be hoped for the Tigers the rest of the season is what happened Saturday against the worst team in the SEC’s Western Division, which is finding solace sifting through the slivers of improvement.
For instance, starting quarterback Max Johnson isn’t the same QB he was on Sept. 4 vs. UCLA when he held the ball too long and fired errant passes under pressure from an array of blitzes.
On Johnson’s first TD pass vs. MSU, an 11-yard strike to Kayshon Boutte, he dodged a blitzing cornerback, relocated to his left and fired a laser to Boutte.
And then there was Johnson’s second TD throw that came at a critical time on the second play of the third quarter after LSU led just 7-3 at the half.
Both Orgeron and Johnson credited Tigers’ offensive coordinator Jake Peetz for calling the right play at the perfect time, a run pass option with Boutte running an intermediate slant route.
“I heard Jake on the headset say `If the safety is coming down we’ll throw it to Kayshon’,” Orgeron said.
Boutte caught Johnson’s strike at midfield and left State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes looking at a vapor trail for a 64-yard TD.
“That play was open the first time we ran it, but he (Johnson) handed the ball off and the safety came down on it hard,” Boutte said. “We ran the play the second time (with Johnson faking a handoff to running back Ty Davis-Price) and the safety did the exact same thing. So, he (Johnson) pulled it (the handoff) and threw it.”
Even when Johnson hit a way wide-open Trey Palmer for a 58-yard TD pass and a 21-3 lead with 3:35 left in the third quarter and on Johnson’s 41-yard TD to tight end Kole Taylor for a 28-10 advantage with 11:32 remaining to play, no one thought this game was over.
State quarterback Will Rogers, who completed 47 of 62 passes for 371 yards, three TDs and an interception, was content to dissect LSU’s defense with short passes.
Which is what Orgeron intended to happen. He didn’t want to get beat on the same deep TD throws that gave State its stunning 44-34 2020 season-opening win at LSU.
So, he and defensive coordinator Daronte Jones installed a 3-2-6 rope-a-dope defense with three linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs.
The Tigers, which led the nation in sacks entering Saturday, had just one sack against MSU. Rogers had so much time to throw that State could have signed someone in the early signing period and gotten him eligible before Rogers got touched by an LSU pass rusher.
Orgeron bet the house using this simple equation.
“If they kept throwing the ball short, I knew there wasn’t going to be enough points, enough yardage to beat us,” Orgeron said.
Mississippi State outgained LSU 486 to 343, ran 34 more plays than the Tigers 88 to 54 and dominated time of possession 35:08 to 24:52.
But the Bulldogs ran out of time and came up one possession short when they were nailed on an illegal touching penalty on the last-gasp onside kick.
Nobody was happier to get on the team bus heading for a charter flight home than Orgeron. It wasn’t pretty or memorable, but for at least one Saturday he found a way to scratch out a win against a substandard opponent.