LSU’s defense did its offense no favors in season opening loss to Mississippi State

Photo by: Chris Parent / LSU Athletics

LSU’s 2019 national championship flag was raised in Tiger Stadium before Saturday’s season opener.

Four or so hours later, they should have lowered it to half-mast in mourning after being undressed by a graduate transfer quarterback.

The best team won, and the scoreboard that read Mississippi State 44, LSU 34 did not lie.

It could have been worse for the 14½-point favorite Tigers, who became the first defending national champion to lose their home opener since Notre Dame fell to Missouri in 1978.

The Bulldogs beat LSU the same way the Joe Burrow-led Tigers blitzed through 15 opponents last season averaging a nuclear 48.4 points.

Find a Burrow-type QB, one with experience, coolness and savvy. Turn him loose in a constantly attacking offense and watch confidence permeate through the entire team.

Stanford graduate transfer and new MSU starter K.J. Costello strafed new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s 4-3 scheme for the most passing yards ever by one human in an SEC game – 623 yards and five TDs.

Costello turned LSU’s D.B.U. moniker into D.B. “U are easy to throw on.”

 “We do pride ourselves on being DBU but DBU didn’t show up today,” LSU senior safety JaCoby Stevens said.

While the Tigers’ sputtering offense can share some of the blame – LSU’s red zone offensive play-calling by new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan was Cam Cameron-ish (handoff, handoff, pass) – the defense, especially new D-coordinator Bo Pelini gets a big chunk of the blame.

Coaches like to say their jobs are to put their players in the best possible positions to succeed, something which Pelini failed miserably at accomplishing in game one of his second D-coordinating stint with the Tigers.

LSU all-America cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. missed Saturday’s game after becoming acutely ill (not COVID-19 related) Friday. Because Costello attempted 60 passes, the Tigers had to stay in nickel coverage a lot using five DBs.

Most of those DBs had never started a game at LSU. One DB (Jay Ward) had just returned from minor surgery. Grad transfer Darren Evans of Nicholls joined the Tigers a couple of weeks ago.

It was obvious early against Mississippi State that LSU’s DBs could not play man-to-man coverage. The Bulldogs’ receivers ran past LSU cornerbacks much like Tigers’ receivers did last season vs. slow-footed secondaries. 

At least a year ago, defense at least tried to adjust in-game against the Tigers’ Burrow.

Pelini never budged. He just kept on dialing blitzes, despite the fact his depth-depleted DBs couldn’t guard any Bulldogs’ receiver 1-on-1.

“They caught us in man on the crossing routes,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “We just couldn’t cover the guys. Too many guys were running free, too many guys were getting beat one on one.”

Well, yeah. Everybody realized it but Blitzin’ Bo, who never thought about playing zone coverage.

It got so ridiculous that MSU had third down conversions of 3rd-and-13, 3rd and 20 and Costello threw TD passes of 31 yards to Tyrel Shavers on 3rd-and-10, 43 yards to Osirus Mitchell on 3rd-and-11 and a victory-clinching strike of 24 yards to Mitchell on 3rd-and-10.

“There was a point in that game where I felt if it was third and long the entire time we would have scored more points,” cracked new MSU coach Mike Leach, whose “Air Raid” offense put up the big numbers it promised. It was our most effective down. Forget first and second, let’s get to third and long.”

Before State’s final TD to Mitchell, LSU called a timeout hoping to catch its collective breath.

“LSU DBs kept telling us `We’re so tired, we’re so tired’,” Mitchell said. “We were laughing it off, but Coach (Leach) came up to us (during LSU’s timeout). He saw they (LSU) were tired. He knew all of us were in good shape, so he wanted to take a shot. A perfect ball and I ran a good route.”

Touchdown. Ball game.

Costello, who started 25 games in his first two seasons at Stanford being wrecked by injuries last season, loves Leach staying in attack mode.

“I almost feel like every down is third down with Coach Leach,” Costello said. “What he’s willing to call on third down, what’s he willing to do on third down is impressive. As a quarterback on third down (with Leach), you don’t necessarily feel you have your back against the wall and you’re trying to throw it right at the sticks.”

It’s exactly the way the LSU offensive braintrust of coordinator Steve Ensminger and then-passing coordinator Joe Brady called plays last year for Burrow, a veteran who rarely made a bad read or throw.

This year with the Ensminger-Linehan combo, they can’t send in the same plays yet in certain situations for new LSU starting QB Myles Brennan as they did for Burrow.

Brennan threw for the most passing yardage ever by an LSU quarterback making his first start – 345 yards and three TDs – but the lack of game experience for the fourth-year junior was obvious.

He was tentative deciding where to throw and held the ball too long resulting in seven sacks. Two of three scoring strikes were more due to acrobatic catches than Brennan accurately putting the ball on the money.

Yet, he rallied LSU from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to a 34-34 tie in about a five-minute span before the Tigers came up empty the last two possessions of the game.

“We just started slow as an offense,” Brennan said. “The execution across the board wasn’t there. We started slow, and that hurt us. We need to start quicker.”

Orgeron expected offensive efficiency from the get-go, but it didn’t happen.

“It was surprising how out of sync we were offensively, especially the first half, Orgeron said. “We couldn’t get any third downs (conversions). We didn’t protect the quarterback, we were late on some throws. Myles didn’t make some big plays. We dropped too many balls. The offense woke up in the second half.”

The problem was State’s offense was fully engaged after halftime. Unlike last season, LSU could never score touchdowns on consecutive possessions and provide back-to-back stops that could have given the Tigers’ breathing room.

LSU plays at Vanderbilt next Saturday. The Commodores lost by just five points, 17-12, at Texas A&M in the opener.

“I’ve got to coach better,” Orgeron said. “I asked everyone to look at themselves in the mirror, see what we’re doing and let’s get better. Let’s stick together as a team. We’ve got a lot of football left. I believe we have a good football team.”

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Ron Higgins

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