Road for LSU’s football team gets steeper with start of month-long SEC stretch beginning with Auburn

LSU running back Armoni Goodwin (22) gets a lift following the first of his two touchdowns Saturday from teammate Ali Gaye (11). PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

LSU’s 3-1 through the first four weeks of the season and for that first-year football coach Brian Kelly is happy.

But he’s also a realist.

Kelly realizes the Tigers have encountered the least resistant portion of their schedule in which they haven’t had to leave their home state to play a game. It’s included home wins over FCS opponent Southern University (65-14) and Group of 5 member New Mexico (38-0) of the Mountain West Conference.

Wedged in between the two aforementioned games was LSU’s first Southeastern Conference game against Western Division foe Mississippi State, a game the Tigers rallied from a 13-0 deficit late in the second quarter for a 31-16 home victory.

Now the true test begins for LSU (3-1, 1-0 in SEC) when they travel to Auburn (3-1, 1-0) for a key SEC Western Division matchup at 6 p.m. Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

ESPN will broadcast the game which will also be broadcast locally by 98.1-FM.

“I would like to just point out is consistency takes its shape in many ways,” Kelly said during Monday’s news conference. “For us it’s been a football team that has had to do a lot of things differently, and with that comes blind faith. I told our team I was really proud of the way they have just embraced change. It’s hard. It’s hard for everybody to change.

“I’ve been really proud of the way they have embraced change and done the things that we’ve asked them to do to become more consistent on a day-to-day basis, and within our process and their preparation and their mindset, their habits, the way they think,” Kelly said. “We’ve been able to make the progress necessary to have a modest winning streak, and this is modest. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. This month will tell us a lot. We’ve got an SEC slate in front of us over the next four weeks, which will challenge us to a new level.”

LSU’s month of October includes home games with No. 9 Tennessee at 11 a.m. on Oct. 8th and No. 11 Ole Miss on Oct. 22 for homecoming. The Tigers will also follow their road trip to Auburn with a visit to Florida on Oct. 15.

“I think the first thing is that routines will stay the same other than we’re going to get on a plane, we’ll be in a stadium that will not be pro-LSU,” Kelly said. “The first month of the season it was pro-LSU for the most part, so now the enemy is distractions. We’ll have to do a great job of not being distracted, and to be focused on making sure that our guys are locked in on what’s important. We’ll work on that skill this week as well as the preparation that we’ve had all year.”

Here’s what else Kelly had to say:

Opening statement:

“We’ll certainly find out even more about our grit and what kind of football team this will continue to grow to be. We know where our issues are. It’s a team that will fight, but we’re thin in some areas. We’ve got to make sure we keep our team rested. We’ve got to stay away from injuries, things of that nature. There’s no doubt about the fight. These guys will fight for the right reasons. I just wanted to make sure that from my perspective, that this win this past weekend against a New Mexico team, was significant in that we built some consistency with a group that has been willing to follow a whole new pattern. It’s been enjoyable.

(On Auburn)

“Auburn has some talented football players offensively. Both backs are outstanding. (Tank) Bigsby, he is a three-year starter, over 2,000 career rushing yards, 19 touchdowns. (Robby) Ashford at quarterback started last week against Missouri. He, too, is a great runner. That’s going to be our biggest concern, is to keep him under wraps in terms of running the football. He is very capable. He is a transfer from Oregon. Extremely gifted athlete. I think from our perspective, a guy that can throw it, but more importantly, a dual-threat quarterback that is dangerous running the football. Outstanding receiving corps and a defense that has a guy that’s a game-wrecker in Derick Hall. He is a guy that you’re going to have to find. We’ll have to game-plan and make sure we know where he is. (Cam) Riley, outstanding linebacker. Again, a football team that’s playing at home, coming off its SEC win against Missouri in overtime. It will be a great challenge for our football team.”

Do you expect Ashford to start, or are you going to prepare for multiple quarterbacks?

“I think you always have to keep an eye on whether (T.J.) Finley plays as well. Certainly, he gives you the throwing end of things, so we’ll have to prepare for both. We don’t have any firsthand information that one is playing over the other, but we’ll be prepared for either one.”

On health of LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels? Running back Armoni Goodwin, nickel back Jay Ward?

“Jayden, no residual effect from Saturday. He will be able to practice. Jay Ward, feeling really good. I think he is a go for Tuesday. We’ll probably limit his workload on Tuesday, but he should be able to go. Amani, it will be a day-to-day situation with him.”

Have you been pleasantly surprised by your team’s focus?

“I think it was important to point out that in anything that you do, when there’s change, it requires a commitment. Even though this is a modest winning streak of three games, it should be noted that these guys are doing everything possible to make sure that LSU football regains its place. They’re working really hard at it, but there’s still a lot of work ahead of us. I just wanted to make sure that it was dually noted that there’s going to be some tough days ahead of us, and we’re going to have to grind through it, but they are giving us all that they have.”

What challenges is the secondary presented with this week?

“You would like a little more continuity. I think Matt (House) and (safeties coach) Kerry (Cooks) have done a good job of communicating what we need to do back there. I think it’s going to be a little bit easier with Joe Foucha in terms of, he is an experienced player. It was a little bit more difficult when we had to move Jarrick back there because you didn’t have an experienced safety. As we move forward now with Jay Ward probably coming back this week and being healthy and getting Joe, you’ve got experience back there. In one instance we would like a little more continuity, but on the positive side with Brooks, Foucha, and Jay Ward, you’ve got experience.”

On monitoring Hurricane Ian throughout the week?

We’ve talked about a game plan in terms of what it might look like. Hopefully that’s going to pass through. We’re going to get probably some rain of some kind, and that will be our first time in that kind of element. It’s a grass (Jordan Hare) situation, so you put those plans together relative to what that would look like if, in fact, we did get hit with some severe rain.”

On performance of Jayden Daniels against New Mexico?

“There are a couple of things. Decisiveness is starting to be part of the vocabulary instead of being hesitant, and that comes with knowledge of the offense. I think the other thing is that he has become a lot quicker in his setup. Quick feet but slowing down and not rushing through progressions. I think one of the bigger plays in his development was the dig (route) that he threw to Jaray Jenkins in the red zone. That was his fourth receiver through a progression. Those are the kind of things you’re looking for in terms of development of a quarterback, and we’re starting to see that as well as the screen to Malik Nabers. How quickly that ball comes out. I think a little bit of everything was coming together, and the word I would use is just he is becoming more comfortable and more decisive.”

Has team exceeded your expectations through four games?

“I guess the setup was we’re going to find out now. This first month was kind of like, let’s put this together and these guys have worked really hard to do exactly what we’ve asked them to do. They’ve put themselves in a position. They have followed a process, and they’ve been consistent with it. Now we’re going to have to apply it to the SEC, and that is a step up. The next month there’s going to be some good days, and there’s going to be some bad days. They cannot try to do things differently. You know the old Mike Tyson line, ‘Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth,’ right? We’re going to have to stick with our plan and stick with our process every single day because we’re going to get hit in the mouth, and we’re going to have to trust it and keep going.”

On handling conditions if game’s affected by weather?

“I’ve been in two remnants of hurricanes. One at North Carolina State, which was abysmal. I think the other one was at Clemson. They affect the game conditions. You have to plan accordingly in terms of your passing game, running game. Kicking game is affected dramatically. Field position, tactically how you call a game. You just have to have wrap your head around it prior to and prepare for it and then, quite frankly. You have to react accordingly during the game. I’m not making too much of it. I’m not going to put too much on our players. Our players just need to play. As coaches we’ll adapt accordingly during the game.”

How would you grade Jack Bech’s performance at punt returner?

“Fearless. We’ll work on a couple of things where fearless shouldn’t be always the No. 1 criteria for returning punts. We want some decision-making in that as well, but that’s how Jack plays, right? He is at his best when he is not worried about any factors other than competing and getting the ball in his hands, and it’s fun to watch. That’s just the kind of player he is. You can see what kind of impact he can have in our punt return game. Look, the trickle-down is the other 10 guys, they want to block for him. That is an added incentive when you have a punt returner that can break it. It adds a great energy to the entire group.”

Expectations for Arkansas transfer Joe Foucha who makes his LSU debut?

“He has been actively involved. He has been involved in any articulation between our offense and defense that hasn’t involved game plan, which is quite a bit. Every day we’ll have some 11-on-11 work where there is. We’re getting ready for New Mexico or we’re getting ready for Mississippi State, and he is involved in that. He is in our defensive structures. When we got ready for team time for our opponent, he would come over on to scout (team). He was a pain to deal with because he was so good, playing so hard as a scout team member that he made us better. I have been able to firsthand see his action on a day-to-day basis, and he will be ready to play right away.”

On return of Kayshon Boutte for this game?

“Yes.”

On not trying to force the issue with a specific wide receiver?

“I think that’s a great point. So, I think there was only one time that I really alluded to the fact that after Week 1, that we needed to get him (Jack Bech) going a little bit. Other than that, I think we have to be able to let the game come to these guys naturally. We moved some guys around, obviously. You saw Nabers into the short field and you saw Jack playing the slot a little bit more. Other than moving guys around a little bit, I think that’s all you’ll see from a manipulation standpoint. Other than that, the offense has got to come to you, and when you get your opportunity, you have to make plays because there’s so much depth there.”

On performance of freshman linebacker Harold Perkins Jr.?

He is going to flash because of his skill set. I mean, he is twitchy. He is fast. He has all those tools that are going to allow him to show. Then, Matt is doing a great job of keeping it in the easiest form within a defense. He has just gotten here, so to give him the entire playbook is not fair to him, So Matt has given him pieces of the playbook that allows him to go play fast because that’s his best trait, but he is learning. I’ll tell you what, he is so coachable. That’s the great part about it. He comes to the sideline; he wants to know what he needs to do better each and every snap. We’re really pleased with his progress, but I think what we’re more pleased with is what he is doing off the field in the classroom and then how coachable he is.”

On play of offensive line the past two weeks?

I don’t know that it was our banner day this past weekend. That’s a tough defense. They’re standing up, they’re moving around. There’s so much movement. O-linemen want to know that what they see, they’re going to hit. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. The guy in front of you wasn’t going to be there on the snap of the ball. That takes a little bit of the aggressiveness away from your offensive line. We won’t have that this weekend. They’re going to have to put their hand in the dirt. They’re going to have to get off the ball. They’re going to have to move people against their will, and I think you’ll see a good indication over the next month of this offensive line really having to get after it.”

Confidence level in starting center Charles Turner?

“I think it’s a really good question. First of all, he is a great communicator. He knows what he is doing up front, he is getting people in the right place, but it’s going to get harder. The competition is going to be such that he is going to be in the mix each and every week. He knows, and he is up for the challenge. I think we’re putting him in a situation where he has two guards next to him that are big guys. Big, physical guys. The center is always working in combination. Most centers today are not the biggest. They’re usually the smartest, and they’re usually guys that can move, and Charles can do those things for us.”

What type of person is Jaray Jenkins?

“I’m proud of the fact that he got his degree because there was a time there where he was considering going to the NFL, and he would not have had his degree. I think from that perspective, making the decision to come back and get his degree and then play in the season, that stands out to me. I think the other thing is that he has gone about this year in a manner that I think can be modelled for all of our other guys. A veteran guy that has done everything we’ve asked him to do. Never been a special teams player, but now is involved in special teams. He is doing the other jobs and has quietly put together as consistent a performance of any player that we’ve had on this team. I just think the maturity that he has shown and the decision-making as well as being able to model him based upon doing other jobs and being selfless has been, we can really push him out front and say, “Look how 10 is doing it’.”

Does having Daniels help prepare you for Auburn’s running QB?

“They run a very similar defense, so we’ll go against each other quite a bit this week. We didn’t go against each other very much because the defenses don’t match, and the offenses certainly didn’t match. This week we’ll go No. 1s versus No. 1s quite a bit this week because there’s so much carry-over, and we’ll be able to keep the speed up with Jayden going against our defense or their defensive structure (along) with having BJ Ojulari at Jack like their Jack. There will be a lot of carry-over where we’ll be able to go against each other and really assimilate that game speed from both sides.”

Thoughts on playing in SEC venues?

“The Georgia atmosphere was terrific. It didn’t finish the way I wanted it to. When I was at Central Michigan, I played at Kentucky. I don’t know that Kentucky’s program was at where it is with Coach (Mark) Stoops today, but when you are at Central Michigan, and you play in an SEC environment, it’s all big at that point. Those are I believe the SEC venues I have been in. But like I said, I’ve played in so many different venues that capture your attention. Just excited about the challenge of playing at Jordan-Hare.”

On your confidence in kicker Damian Ramos?

“I have full confidence that he will be our field goal/extra point kicker. You saw that we went and made a change (true freshman Nathan Dibert) on kickoffs, and that might be the case. I haven’t made that decision yet. I’ll talk to Brian (Polian) as the week goes on because that obviously impacts a redshirt situation. We’ll see how that plays out during the week, but I have the utmost confidence in his ability. There’s some technical things that he has to clean up. He gets a little bit too fast to the ball on his kickoffs. He gets his shoulders over himself. Those are technical things that we can clean up, but he has a great mindset for his PATs and field goals, so I have 100% confidence in him.”

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