The baby steps are over. LSU took a giant step to end September with a flourish by trouncing overmatched Ole Miss 45-16 Saturday.
Anyone recall the Tigers’ record a year ago today?
The fact LSU has been able to win while improving incrementally is a credit to the foundation it appears Ed Orgeron has been building. In an emotional night under the lights in Tiger Stadium, the team had a breakout moment that suggests it could be a real player in the College Football Playoff race before the next month is over.
There was a somber undercurrent in Tiger nation with the shooting death of Tiger basketball player Wayde Sims the day before on top of the reunion of the 1958 championship team without the program’s icon, Billy Cannon, for the first time. But the team dispatched the Rebels with more of the business-like manner coaches like to see in their players, a sign of maturity.
The offense finally burst out of what seemed like a shell of caution that permeated the first four games. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger unleashed quarterback Joe Burrow as a passer and a runner, and it led to great balance in amassing 573 yards of offense (292 passing, 281 rushing).
The big plays were there in passes to Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall, and the small ones, too, as Burrow connected on a season-high 18 completions with three scores.
Burrow as a runner can be an extremely good weapon moving forward when facing defenses such as Georgia and Alabama. Mobile quarterbacks have been a key to the teams that have beaten Alabama in the past few years, and there aren’t many.
The offensive line continues to astound by seemingly pulling quality depth where none previously existed. If the depth wasn’t there before, it is now with so many reserves getting experience. If Saahdiq Charles comes back healthy in the next game, the line could become one of the team strengths. Orgeron continues to praise first-year line coach James Cregg, and I’m starting to believe him.
The wide receivers are blossoming in rhythm with Burrow and soon the tight ends and running backs will become the part of the passing game we’ve expected since Week One. The running backs have been adequate to good, but will face four consecutive stout defensive fronts in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. That being said, their improvement is showing, too.
The secondary stood up to one of the best receiving corps in the nation and didn’t back down. It’s obvious they took it as a personal challenge after being scorched the week before for 330 yards and three touchdowns by Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith.
Not everything was perfect. The Tigers still hit a third-quarter lull, but this one was not nearly as significant as what happened in the first four games. When Ole Miss closed the gap, the Tigers responded with a knockout punch in the fourth quarter and that is a sign of a maturing football team.
The pass rush was also not up to snuff against a team they knew was going to be throwing the ball a lot. Four quarterback hurries and one sack isn’t good enough. Maybe defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has some gimmicks he’s holding back but the Tigers really miss K’Lavon Chiasson.
An underrated indication of the team’s overall maturity was not getting sucked into the trash-talking and chippy play. There were some confrontations, but LSU players didn’t let it boil over into a flag fest while Ole Miss committed some obvious cheap shots and was penalized 17 times for 167 yards compared to five for 40 yards for LSU.
The play on offense and defense was so good, the reliance on special teams was minimal. The improvement suggests the coaching staff knows what it is doing.
Looking forward, LSU is likely to be favored in five of the seven remaining games, Georgia and Alabama the only exceptions, and it’s possible LSU will be favored against Georgia in two weeks.
This is the crux of the Orgeron’s future as LSU coach. If he goes 10-2 against this schedule, he deserves a raise, and if he gets it, his salary will go up along with the bar of expectations. At some point, 10-2 won’t be good enough. He will have to beat Alabama and whatever other elite teams cross the LSU schedule. An improving Texas is up the next two seasons.
Orgeron at LSU was never going to be as bad as he was at Ole Miss. There’s a wide-open space between that and the top of the profession where Nick Saban resides. But like his team, Orgeron appears to get a little better with each game he coaches. He’s above .500 as a head coach (36-33) but those 69 games represent about five seasons, and when you spread them across three programs it puts a drag on the learning curve. Orgeron is slowly morphing from career assistant to a solid head coach.
October will be an interesting month and the Tigers are well-positioned to continue their run. They’ve handled some adversity and proved a lot of skeptics wrong. Each week they reveal a little something new and the hero work has been spread among several players. There isn’t much more fans could have asked for.