It is ironic that the final passing yardage total in LSU true freshman quarterback TJ Finley’s first-ever college action in the Tigers’ sorely needed 52-24 win over South Carolina Saturday night in Tiger Stadium was 265.
Which is also exactly how much he weighed as spring practice started and ended after three workouts in mid-March because of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unless the 6-6 Finley wanted to try and duplicate the playing days of late Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzen, a 6-4 lefty with the nickname “The Pillsbury Throwboy” who toted around 260 pounds from 2000 to 2002 and remains the school’s all-time leading passer, the former Ponchatoula High star had to drop weight.
The 20 pounds that Finley lost during the 2½-month quarantine from mid-April to the start of June was evident in his college debut vs. the Gamecocks replacing injured starter Myles Brennan.
Even though the LSU offensive line had its best game of a season and didn’t allow their freshman newbie to be sacked or rarely touched, the now 245-pound Finley had enough burst to get outside the pocket and rocket accurate throws in a 17 of 21 passing performance that included two touchdowns to “TD” Terrace Marshall Jr.
“My weight loss is a huge aspect in this success I’m having right now,” Finley said. “When COVID hit and we went into quarantine, I took it upon myself to trim down. It’s paying off well.”
When LSU had an unexpected open date a week ago Saturday because of a COVID outbreak on the Florida roster postponed the game with the Gators, Finley took advantage again of having extra time to prepare and edge fellow freshman Max Johnson to get the start.
“The two days we had extra knowing we weren’t going to play Florida because of COVID really helped prepare our team and myself mentally,” Finley said. “The extra week is always a plus, just like the bye week before Alabama is going to be really important for us to dive into film.”
The bye week comes after this Saturday’s trip for 2-2 LSU to Auburn where Gus Malzahn’s 3-2 team has benefitted three times this season from controversial instant replay rulings.
And speaking of controversy, if anyone believes LSU has one at starting quarterback involving Finley and Brennan who’s recovering from a torn abdomen, Tigers’ coach Ed Orgeron would like you to slow your roll.
“Everybody is just yearning for it (a controversy), but it ain’t going to be on our part,” Orgeron said. “Myles is our starting quarterback. TJ did a great job. I don’t know when Myles is going to be ready. I do know this. If Myles is not doing well, I can put in TJ and feel good about it.”
There shouldn’t be any question Brennan is the starter. In replacing Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, the redshirt junior became the first player in LSU history to throw for 300 or more yards in his first three starts. His passing yards (1,112), completions (79) and touchdown passes (11) are the most of any LSU QB ever in their first three games.
Brennan, now in his fourth year in LSU’s program, has a more expansive knowledge of the Tigers’ offense than Finley who officially enrolled in January after taking advantage of the NCAA rule allowing early enrollees to participate in last year’s postseason practices.
Finley operated a basic package of plays against South Carolina that offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger knew he could handle.
“Coach Ensminger did a great job of planning all week,” Orgeron said. “He had some different things for TJ if he was in (the game) and some different things for Max Johnson if he were to go in.”
LSU had more third down success with Finley – 8 of 10 – than Brennan, but a large portion of that credit goes to a vastly improved Tigers’ running game.
In LSU’s first three games of the season, the Tigers were 9 of 39 (23 percent) in third down conversions with an average third down and distance of third and 7.8 yards to go for a first down.
Just two weeks ago when LSU was 0-for-10 in third-down conversions in the 45-41 loss at Missouri, the average third-down distance was third and 9.7 yards.
Against South Carolina, the average third-down distance was third and 3 yards.
It’s amazing what happens when LSU’s running attack shows up. The Tigers ran for 276 yards vs. the Gamecocks, which is 14 yards fewer than LSU gained in its first three games combined.
There was more of a commitment to the run because Ensminger felt he had to do everything he could to help his freshman quarterback not be in the position of having to make key play after key play to keep drives alive.
Also credit LSU’s offensive line and running backs Tyrion Davis-Price (135 yards, 1 TD) and John Emery Jr. (88 yards, 1 TD) for making it happen.
“We already had a pass game, we wanted to come out and show we have a run game,” Emery said.
Defensively, the Tigers were considerably better but then again they had nowhere to go but up. Freshman Eli Ricks got a Pick 6 interception just before halftime, D-end Bj Ojulari had three sacks and LSU’s defense bowed up enough to force four South Carolina field goal attempts (one made).
There still remains the nagging problem of allowing too many chunk plays. The Gamecocks had six plays of 32 yards or longer including four 44 yards or longer, totaling 263 yards which was 65.2 percent of USC’s 403 yards total offense.
But at the end of a cool, breezy October Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the 28-point victory over a team coming off a win over Auburn was LSU’s first steady positive step of a 10-game season that reaches the halfway point this Saturday.
“The last three games, I felt like the team was separated, I don’t know why,” Finley said. “Last year, the guys played together. The offense and defense fueled each other.
“I felt like we came together tonight. I feel like we have our swagger back.”
Slow down young buck. It’s encouraging, but it’s just one week.
Repeat the process enough times and then you have swagger with staying power.