A week after LSU thrust itself into the national spotlight with a dramatic 22-21 victory against Auburn, the Tigers came back down to earth Saturday in a less-than-comfortable 38-21 victory against in-state opponent Louisiana Tech.
The Bulldogs didn’t seem to know that the Tigers were supposed to win by 20 points, even after falling behind by 24 in the first half. Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith showed poise, patience and confidence throughout the game.
After spending much of the first half stalling around midfield, Smith and the Bulldogs offense got comfortable after marching down the field for an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that finally got them on the board late in the second quarter.
At no point did Smith look shaken up by LSU’s defense. In fact, he seemed to get more comfortable throwing against the unit as the game progressed.
It’s the first time this season LSU’s defense has looked that vulnerable, especially in the secondary as Louisiana Tech just seemed to convert on third downs with mid-range passes right at the first-down marker at will in the second half. Even the pivotal turnover on downs in the fourth quarter that ultimately put the game away came after a review overturned what was originally ruled a first down pass.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he was happy with the Tigers’ clean start, but at no point did he or the coaching staff feel comfortable.
“We never thought that we had the game,” Orgeron said. “Against an explosive offense like that, we just never thought that we had the game won. It took everything that we had from our first team.”
Orgeron said he and Dave Aranda saw the warning signs early on watching Louisiana Tech’s first scoring drive.
“I didn’t like the score right before halftime,” Orgeron said. “We were getting pushed back and we weren’t playing good football. Dave (Aranda) talks all the time about finishing, and he was very upset with our effort right there.
“I had to pull the defense aside and talk to them. That’s the first time all year we had to talk to the defense. That was not a good defensive performance.”
LSU defensive end Breiden Fehoko said the Bulldogs simply caught the Tigers off guard.
“The jitters were just running high when they started to drive on us,” he said. “We kind of didn’t expect that. We have to respect our opponent. Everybody’s going to give us our best shot, especially coming here to Death Valley.”
That one drive seemed to give Louisiana Tech the spark it needed to get its offense going as it scored on the opening drive of the second half, then two drives later to get within a field goal of the Tigers.
The Bulldogs did so with remarkable efficiency on third down. They converted on four of their first six third down plays in the second half, the last of which was a 42-yard bomb from Smith to his favorite receiver all night Adrian Hardy.
Hardy had more success against LSU’s secondary than any other receiver all season, and it didn’t matter which corner the Tigers had assigned to him. He caught passes against Kristian Fulton, Greedy Williams and Kelvin Joseph in a career night marked by 181 yards and two touchdowns.
The problems weren’t limited to the secondary, either. While the defensive line proved more physical that Louisiana Tech’s offensive front, that didn’t help the Tigers get to Smith before he made plays.
The Tigers’ only two sacks on Saturday night came on an inconsequential drive in the final two minutes of the game when victory was already assured.
Prior to that, Smith used his feet effectively to evade pressure, extend plays and many times find and hit an open receiver to keep drives alive and moving.
“We’re going to see better competition week by week, and it’s only going to get better,” Fehoko said. “I just feel like we have to finish people when it comes down to it.”
It wasn’t all bad for the defense against Louisiana Tech. The Tigers accomplished their game plan of making the Bulldogs one-dimensional on offense, allowing just 87 yards, nearly half of which came on three rushes.
This forced Louisiana Tech to rely on its passing game. Smith threw 50 passes, and while he had a lot of success, the Tigers new he was going to have to be the one to make plays late in the game. This allowed Aranda and LSU to plan accordingly.
Louisiana Tech isn’t the only high-powered offense led by a capable quarterback the Tigers will have to face this season.
Georgia will come to Tiger Stadium in a few weeks with a sophomore quarterback in Jake Fromme that led the Bulldogs to the national championship game last season. He has completed nearly 73 percent of his passes so far this season.
A few weeks later, Alabama will come to town with Tua Tagovailoa, the quarterback who beat Georgia in last year’s national championship game and who has made Alabama look as good as it ever has under head coach Nick Saban through four games this season.
Saturday’s performance against Louisiana Tech war far from a death knell on LSU’s season. The Tigers still won the game, and as they proved last week, they can compete with the best teams in the nation.
But hopefully it served as a wake-up call because SEC teams won’t be nearly as forgiving as the Bulldogs.
“There are a lot of things we’re going to have to fix on film,” Orgeron said. “Our guys will get to work this week. They came to play, and there was a let down in the second half. Obviously, we didn’t finish the game. But we’re 4-0, and we’re fired up about that.”