As fans scrambled for cover in the middle of the first quarter, you couldn’t tell if they were fleeing from the rare rainfall in Death Valley or averting their eyes from the sloppy mess playing out on the field below.
In a day and age when football increasingly resembles basketball on grass, this was more like rugby in the mud.
LSU wanted to pay tribute to the 100-year anniversary of the “silent” season — context: LSU didn’t play football in 1918 because students were fighting in World War I — with alternate uniforms. Perhaps LSU and Mississippi State should have just went all in and honored 1918 by doing away with the forward pass for the night.
LSU had 15 yards of total offense at one point in the second quarter and still led 7-3 by virtue of a Mike Divinity interception that set up first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The two starting quarterbacks were a combined 5-of-12 for 34 yards with three interceptions in the first quarter.
For the first time all season, LSU couldn’t find any traction with its running game. To compound matters, Joe Burrow turned in one of his shakiest performances to date. Burrow threw a ghastly interception in the end zone and was under fire all day from Mississippi State’s defensive front.
Aside from a couple broken runs, the LSU defense matched the Mississippi State physicality, and once the Bulldogs were forced into obvious passing situations, the defense teed off on Nick Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald had only eight completions in the game and was intercepted four times.
The difference in the game turned out to be the fact that LSU’s offensive ineptitude was temporary while all that ailed Mississippi State was incurable. LSU forced four turnovers and Cole Tracy kicked four field goals as the Tigers pulled away for a 19-3 win in Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“I’m not going to tear this thing apart,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said in summation. “This is a good football team that we just beat.”
LSU managed to survive a woeful start offensively because defense and special teams picked up the slack until Burrow and Co. found some before halftime. They head into a much-needed bye week at 7-1 before hosting No. 1 Alabama in a battle for SEC West supremacy.
However, LSU’s chances of winning that game took a substantial hit on Saturday night.
Star linebacker Devin White was flagged for targeting against Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter. The call, once confirmed, meant that White was ejected for the rest of the game and would be suspended for the first half of the Alabama game in two weeks.
“I’ve just got to look at it,” Orgeron said. “The call is the call. They told us they reviewed it and it was definitely targeting. I didn’t see anything that would suggest either way.
“Targeting is targeting. You can’t use the helmet.”
There is no appeals process for overturning a targeting suspension after the fact. The league even released a statement affirming that the call was properly reviewed and confirmed.
Don’t count on anything happening between now and Nov. 3 that would change that. People will boo, tweet and maybe call the league office to vent their frustrations, but the fact of the matter is LSU will have to play the first half against undefeated Alabama and its incredible offense without the heart and soul of their defense.
The ejection and looming suspension seemingly marred the entire result from an LSU perspective. How else can you explain a chorus of resounding boos raining down at Tiger Stadium throughout the fourth quarter of a 19-3 win?
But Orgeron — and by extension, his players — chose to stay focused on the positives instead of contributing to the feeding frenzy with a pointed comment about the officiating or the league. Credit to Orgeron for recognizing that fair or not, publicly questioning the officiating wouldn’t help.
“We celebrate all wins,” tight end Foster Moreau said. “We celebrate all wins, and we’ll deal with that when we come to that, but my heart goes out to Devin. I know he’s upset about it, but we’re going to have to press on.”
“It’s definitely going to be tough because he’s the leader of our defense,” cornerback Kristian Fulton said. “We’ve just got to be next man up. I’m sure whoever is behind him will step up big time. We’re going to talk to him and let him know it’s going to be a regular game.”
Safety John Battle understands better than most what White must be feeling in the aftermath of Saturday night. Battle was ejected in the second half of LSU’s 22-21 win at Auburn, meaning he was in the locker room during the decisive moments and had to sit out a half the following week.
“It’s just a next-man-up mentality,” Battle said. “It sucks that it happened. I think that rule is kind of harsh to suspend a guy for the whole half. I got it versus Auburn and I know the feeling he’s going through right now, but I know the person he is, so he’s going to lift his teammates up.”
Battle continued: “Just stay mentally focused. Stay in it. Don’t beat yourself up. You’ve got two weeks to dwell on it, but I think he’ll look at it tomorrow and be over it. Just try to help your backup get prepared to step into that role.”
LSU will have a bye week to figure out how it’ll replace White for 30 minutes against an offense that’s been absolutely machine-like this season.
The Crimson Tide are averaging 54.13 points per game while only allowing 15.88. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, has 25 touchdown passes and no interceptions through eight games despite hardly taking a snap in the fourth quarter of games.
“Can I enjoy this win first?” Orgeron quipped when asked how LSU will adjust to life without White. “Maybe I’ll give you the game plan on Tuesday.”
Orgeron will be without his leader for half of the biggest game of the season, but at least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor.