LSU’s vanquished its biggest rival at home for the first time in over a decade and travels to a border rival for an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday.
The odds makers in Las Vegas, though, have only installed the No. 7 Tigers (7-2, 5-1 in SEC) as a three-point favorite against Arkansas (5-4, 2-3), not exactly a ringing endorsement for a team that’s won their last three games and is the Southeastern Conference’s West Division leader.
LSU’s first-year coach Brian Kelly doesn’t believe his team will be a victim of the commonly referred “trap” game, a matchup that follows on the heels of an emotionally draining, breakthrough moment. He’s also not excessively concerned of game time temperatures in the Fayetteville area calling for 40 degrees.
“I’ve never bought into that because I think if it’s a trap game, you have not done a very good job with your football team,” he said during his weekly news conference Monday. “In January, February, and March for example, we did not train indoors. We trained outdoors. So weather is not going to be a factor. We’ve been outside in 50-degree, 40-degree weather.
“They know that Arkansas is an SEC opponent that beat them last year,” he added. “Your thoughts affect your actions, that affect your physiological response. We’ve been working on how we think since day one. It becomes a trap game if you’re not thinking right, and we’ll get our guys thinking the right way, and we’ll prepare the right way. This is about a consistency. If they want to be a consistent program, they’ll think the right way about this game.”
Here’s what else Kelly had to say:
“Just a great atmosphere in Tiger Stadium. I think our fans were obviously a great motivating factor to creating one of those environments that you all talk about, but you want to be able to be part of it. I think our players fed off of that and certainly we had talked about it Thursday that when we were in the stadium, that they’re going to be out there, but your performance will dictate the kind of involvement that our crowd has, and it’s going to require play in and play out a sustained effort. I think that sustained effort by our football team created that sustained atmosphere in our stadium. It wasn’t an up-and-down kind of involvement. It was every single play our crowd was active and involved. I think it had a lot to do with the kind of play that our players were involved in, and that was a consistency that was really good to see.
“Our guys got 24 hours to enjoy it, and now our focus is on another SEC opponent on the road, Arkansas. It’s the Golden Boot, another rivalry trophy. Of course, they hold the trophy from last year’s 16-13 win at Tiger Stadium. Obviously playing a team that has a very prolific offense. And in terms of players, it starts with their quarterback. I think it’s the fifth time now we’ve seen a big physical quarterback. KJ Jefferson is 6-3, 240. He is going to be a handful. Another guy that we’ve got to be able to control what he does and get him on the ground. Raheim Sanders, the running back, probably the biggest back that we’ll see at 6-2, 227. Leads the SEC in rushing. Has over 1,000 yards. So that 1-2 combination with arguably the best center in all of college football (Ricky) Stromberg, a very good scheme, accomplished SEC wide receivers. This is a really good offense that we’re going to have to slow down. And Sam Pittman, I have a great deal of respect for him. A very good football coach. He’ll have his football team ready to go. Drew Sanders on defense leads the SEC in sacks with 7 ½ sacks. A really good football player, they do a lot of really good things with him. He plays inside, but they move him to an outside position where he can come off the edge. We’ll have to be able to account for him. They have a couple of former LSU players in their starting defense, Landon Jackson, Dwight McGlothern. Good football players that obviously are playing well for them. And their special teams are really good. They do a lot of different things that we’ll have to be alert for, be on top of, and make sure that we do a really good job. We’re trending better there. We’re going to have to continue to do a really good job. We’ve got an 11:00 a.m. kickoff. So, those things we’re used to. We’ve played early, but we have to obviously be able to focus on our next opponent, which I’m certain we’ll be able to do that with the kind of quality SEC opponent we have in Arkansas.”
On whether Alabama was biggest win of career?
“The biggest one of my career is going to be when we win a national championship. I’m focused on one thing when I came down here, and that’s to win championships. That’s one game. It was an exciting win, but I don’t put it in the category of the biggest. I think I’ve had teams that have achieved great things, and I think this team achieved a great victory because of where we were in January and what we’ve become. So maybe for me probably as satisfying as a win for a group of guys that have committed themselves to a process and in that time have achieved a lot.”
On team’s depth at defensive tackle since Maason Smith’s injury?
“I think that any time you lose a stalwart like Maason, there’s cause for concern, but I think what we’ve done really well is mix up the front. We’ve played some three-down to take the pressure off of losing a player of that caliber and by doing so, have been able to rotate that defensive tackle position with three-down and four-down. By doing so, obviously you’re playing with one nose (guard). I think that’s really helped us a lot. The loss was great, but I think we’ve managed it by being smart and tactical defensively, and those two guys have been outstanding.”
On play of offensive line against a blitzing Alabama defense?
“They did a good job, there’s no doubt. I think (offensive line coach) Brad (Davis) has done a really good job of developing those guys week in and week out. I think our backs have helped. Our tight ends helped in protection. It’s not just those five guys, but clearly the biggest concern we had was their two end pass rushers. You’ve got to give credit to the two freshmen. Emery (Jones) and Will (Campbell) just do an incredible job play in and play out, focus and refocusing, letting the play go and coming back to the next play and just with all-out effort. Sustained all-out effort. It is five guys, but a lot of that emphasis is on o-line awareness. The guards are helping. The center is helping. Again, I would say overall just real good awareness up front in helping each other.”
On status of Armoni Goodwin and running back position?
“He is doing well. He came back from a tough injury. I think when you look at certain games, (running backs) coach (Frank) Wilson has a sense of who he wants to go with, and he felt like he had a 1-2 combination that he wanted to stick with. Much more physical group in there. But Armoni can play physical as well. I think he was more interested in we did so much chipping with those backs. He wanted a bigger presence in there, but we have great confidence and faith in Armoni and expect to see him continue to help us down the road.”
On the running the ball and stopping the run as pillars of success?
“I’ve been doing it a long time, and I know that there are times where prolific offenses certainly get you a lot of wins. This is about not winning. This is about winning championships. It’s my belief that winning championships still have to control the line of scrimmage at the end of the day. Controlling the line of scrimmage and stopping the run, running the football effectively, exerting your will. So there has to be a physicality about what you do. I still think you can win games throwing the football, and we’ll have to win games with that kind of offense. I said that earlier in the year, you can’t win games throwing the ball for 85 yards (versus Auburn). Then we came back and threw it for over 300 (versus Tennessee). But the point I’m making it physicality starts and ends with stopping the run and running the football. We’re doing a better job there.”
On what you’ve seen from Harold Perkins’ success this season?
“Quite honestly, he has the makeup to do that. He is a mature kid. I was talking to a couple of our coaches about him. He is a bit of a throwback, and a throwback in this sense. Just tell me what I need to do. I don’t need all the other things. And I’ll figure it out as I go. It’s kind of refreshing. He doesn’t need to know all the whys. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t give the whys to our guys, and that’s part of coaching today. You’ve got explain a lot of things. He doesn’t need a lot of the whys, ‘just point me in the right direction; I’ll figure it out’. That’s Harold Perkins. He knows he is not perfect, but he makes up for a lot of those things with his athletic ability. I think that (defensive coordinator) Matt (House) has done a great job of kind of meeting him halfway with some of the things that he is not ready to do but leaning heavily on some of the things that he has that are innate traits that can come in and help us win right away. And I think part of it is he is a bit of a throwback in that you don’t have to explain everything. Just line up here, do this, and you’ll be fine.”
Any anecdotes after game Saturday? Surprised at level of buy-in from players?
“I can’t think of anything. I just think I was just so happy for our players. There were a couple of guys that texted me and said, ‘You know, they were happy to continue to do that and have people rush the field, and they would take care of what the costs were’.
“I think more your second question is probably the question I would spend time on answering, and I have said this. The biggest thing this year is that they have jumped in the deep end and really didn’t know how to swim, but they were not going to drown. They were going to find a way to stay above water and kicking and doing whatever is necessary. That’s kind of built this fight in them, this toughness in them. They haven’t been perfect, and certainly we’re not there yet, but they have such a pride in LSU. When we first met, we said, “Look, we finished last, and that’s not the standard. You have a choice to do something about it. You can continue to be bad; you can be average; you can be good’. Everybody in this room is good. Or you can be elite, and they’ve made great choices along the way, so I’m really proud of them.”
On success of running game with Josh Williams?
“I think we’re opportunistic. “We’re about 185 yards a game, which is the top one-third of the league. That’s where we want to be. We’re not where we need to be yet. We’re getting better physically, but I think when you have a multi-dimensional threat like the quarterback, he provides you opportunities in the running game where he stretches the defense out. When he does that, you have to worry about the quarterback where the linebackers have to flow over the top. That creates some seams and opportunities. So, it’s part of the system in itself. We’re not running duo every play downhill and just knocking people back every time, but we’re getting better at that. I think it’s just we’re committed to the run. We ran the ball late with efficiency. I just think there’s a commitment there is why we’ve been effective.”
On the experience after an emotional win and what to say to a team?
“You’re preparing for these moments in the first week. You handle these by being consistent in everything that you do every single day. Nothing changed last week in the way we prepared, and nothing will change this week. I think if we had a lot of fanfare and slogan-isms and changed a lot of last week for Alabama, then maybe you worry about it a little bit, but we didn’t do anything different last week than we did for Ole Miss or we did for any of the other teams. Our team is just evolving, and they’re playing with more of the traits necessary to be a consistent team that plays every snap the right way. I think I would be more concerned if we played with so much emotion that we were drained out, but that’s how we’re going to play. That’s kind of why I went for it. I felt like our football team is going to do this more often. I trusted the way they played, and I trusted that they were going to execute the play that we called, and I trust that they’re going to execute next week because they’ve been consistent over the past five months. I expect them to do the same.”
On talk of having the SEC West in your grasp?
“Our goal is to graduate champions, so part of this is they want to be champions. They know that there are steps along the way in this process of getting there. This week will be another step towards becoming a champion. Let’s do the things that we need to do. It starts with today. You know, being early, being on time, making sure that they’re intentional about everything we do. Yeah, championships are important. That’s what they’re here for. Getting to class today is what they’re here for. We’re not going to walk in with a PowerPoint on the SEC Championship race and who has what and all those things. But, yeah, it’s there. It’s out there. They know what they’re going for.”
On growth of Jayden Daniels the last several weeks? What role has Joe Sloan played?
“I’m with Joe every day, and he is a great communicator. So, what are the really good tenets of great teachers and mentors? He cares about his players. He has great relationships with everyone in that room. They trust him. He provides the information differently for each one as to how they learn. He is knowledgeable about the things that he needs to get across to each one of those quarterbacks. He is demanding; never demeaning. He is all the things necessary to develop quarterbacks, and he has done a great job.”
On Arkansas transfers Joe Foucha, Greg Brooks Jr. facing their old team?
“So, certainly this will be a big thing for them going back to Fayetteville as transfers. But first and foremost, what was appealing to us as we were putting this back together was to have SEC experience and a connection with the state of Louisiana. Both of those guys filled that box and checked that box for us. What it means to them is that they play for LSU, and they have such a pride in being from the state of Louisiana. They want The Golden Boot back. As much as they’ll have friends and former players that they know, this will be much more about them wanting to win for LSU because that’s why they came back here.”
On growth you’ve seen from tight end Mason Taylor?
“So, there’s been growth physically and mentally. As you know, freshmen are growing physically, and the first big thing is he has put on over 20 pounds physically and growing into his body. I think the growth from a mental standpoint has been the knowledge of the game. He has been really good. I would be remiss to not point out the fact that he has been put in a very difficult position where a tight end has to do a lot. We’ve been very fortunate to have an analyst that has great experience at that position in Terry Malone. I think Terry Malone is an unsung hero for us on our staff. Terry was with the New Orleans Saints; he has coached the tight end position. He has been an offensive coordinator. To have an asset like that to assist (offensive coordinator) Coach (Mike) Denbrock on a day-to-day basis has really helped develop Mason, and Terry has done a really good job. Having that mentor, having that person that’s there. He can’t coach him, but he is there as a mentor every single day. That’s really, really big in his development.”
On status of offensive guard Garrett Dellinger?
“Garrett Dellinger looked good. We worked him out yesterday. Much better. I think he is in a great position that he could play this weekend.”
On having the experience against big, physical quarterbacks like KJ Jefferson?
“Each one of them has been a little bit different. I was just jotting down we’ve had five of the guys that have been real big. Even (Ole Miss QB) Jaxson Dart was a big kid, too. It just seems like every quarterback that we’ve run into this year has been a big, physical quarterback. He is a guy that they want to run, throw. He is going to be actively involved in the run game. They’re not afraid to run him at any time. We’ve seen him take off at the 5-yard line in the air. He is a physical player. We’re going to have to do a really good job of containing him.”
On team’s ability to answer and overcome Alabama?
“I just think that I get a pulse of a team, and I don’t think that there’s been a time this year that they haven’t felt like they were going to come out victorious in some fashion. That resolve that resiliency is kind of baked into them, and they just keep playing.Those are the things that you feel on the sideline when you go up and down. We came out of coverage one time all night, and it was catastrophic.I went up to the defensive backs and said, “Listen, it’s not going to happen again because we’re going to score here. So, when we score, stay in coverage. He is going to scramble. Stay in coverage’.They did a great job. They responded well. Again, I just think that their resolve has been remarkable.”
On early interception from Jarrick Bernard-Converse being a turning point?
“He has been invaluable in terms of his ability to do some things for us back that the safety position when we were short-handed in particular. So just steady, right? Every day you know what you are going to get from him. He would tell you that there are some things that he would like to do better, but our observations, he is a guy that has been rock-solid for us and consistent. Obviously, we did a really good job of getting in front of (Alabama QB) Bryce (Young) in that situation kind of screening him, and he threw under duress, and he was in a great position to make a big play.”
On working relationship with defensive coordinator Matt House?
“Collaboration. I like to collaborate with the defense during the game. He has thrown at me thoughts, ‘What do you think? Should we go here? Should we pressure? Do you like zone? Should we drop eight’? Same thing with (offensive coordinator) Mike (Denbrock). I prefer, because I’m in the game, that we’re having collaboration during the game.”