A season that started in brilliant September Tiger Stadium sunshine when LSU gave up 44 points in a stunning loss to a Mississippi-based SEC Western Division team was about to end in another defeat in a driving December Tiger Stadium rainstorm when the Tigers allowed 48 points to a Mississippi-based SEC Western Division team.
The three months in between one Mississippi and two Mississippi for LSU have been full of mostly disappointments, aggravation, COVID-19 driven postponed games and the week to week unpredictability of players quitting.
So, it only seemed appropriate in a season that has made little sense, that two precocious LSU true freshmen who weren’t even on the radar in the 2020 opener turned in performances for the ages that allowed the Tigers to dodge their first losing record since 1999.
Quarterback Max Johnson overcame a fourth-quarter interception – “You put it in a rear view mirror,” he said – and wide receiver Kayshon Boutte ignored a twisted ankle – “I was like this is a tough game, I’ve gotta push through,” he said – to hookup for a 45-yard game-winning TD pass with 1:34 left as LSU edged Ole Miss 53-48 Saturday to help the Tigers finish 5-5.
Johnson threw for 435 yards, the most ever for a true LSU freshman. Boutte caught 14 passes, including all three of Johnson’s TD tosses for an SEC single game record 304 yards.
The finale was a microcosm of the Tigers’ season, especially the way LSU coach Ed Orgeron recalled the way he’ll remember the year.
“Just had to go day by day,” Orgeron said, “roll with the punches, throughout the season they (his team) became tougher, our coaching staff became closer, we continued to fight, went through a lot of adversity. There were some games we didn’t play well, but we came back and fought and finished strong.”
LSU’s defense gave up 500 plus yards to the Rebels – 558 to be exact – for the sixth time in 10 games this season as Ole Miss scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives (without its top two receivers Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah who quit the team Thursday) after five of the Rebs’ first 10 possessions ended in interceptions.
And because the Tigers’ offense which produced a season-high 593 yards did just enough to let Ole Miss hang around by settling for field goals on LSU’s last possession of the first half and first possession of the second half, Orgeron’s crew found themselves trailing 48-40 with 8:43 left.
But as Orgeron has discovered the last two weeks, ever since he made the decision to start Johnson at QB after true freshman TJ Finley went 2-3 as a starter throwing 5 TDs and 5 interceptions, LSU finally had the ability to fire back as long as Johnson was adequately protected.
When he came alive again late on the Tigers’ scoring drives ending with his 1-yard TD sneak and his game-deciding strike to Boutte, it inspired two LSU senior defensive standouts to get stops necessary for a win.
First, it was end Neil Farrell’s third-and-12 10-yard sack of elusive Ole Miss QB Matt Corral back to the Ole Miss 13 gave Johnson and LSU’s offense the ball after a Rebels’ 56-yard punt to navigate for the winning TD.
Then, senior safety JaCoby Stevens fell on a Corral fumble at the LSU 27 caused by Ali Gaye to seal the win with 40 seconds left.
“I guess that’s the way to end a (college) career,” said Stevens, one of the Tigers’ veterans who didn’t quit during the season. “When my career is over and I’m 50 years old with kids, I can always look back and say I didn’t quit. Just all the guys who stayed and fought. Those are memories you’ll take to the grave with you.”
Three weeks ago after No. 1 Alabama destroyed the Tigers 55-17 to drop LSU to 3-5, a breakeven record didn’t seem possible.
But like Saturday when beleaguered LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s defense gave up a boatload of yards – Corral had 409 yards alone including 158 yards rushing mostly on scrambles up the middle – the Tigers’ defense and Johnson made enough plays in the final minutes to steal a 37-34 win last week at Eastern Division champion Florida.
It gave LSU hope it could pull to .500, if it could somehow won a scoring shootout at home over the Rebels. The Tigers managed to score 27 points off Corral’s five interceptions, including Jay Ward’s 31-yard TD interception return.
“It’s really a shame, we had them,” Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said. “We’re not going to get too many opportunities like that, certainly not with guys opting out for COVID and playing in an empty stadium at LSU. That’s not going to happen again.”
Ole Miss, even at 4-5, may have a shot at filling one of the SEC’s bowl slots, especially if the league qualifies at least four teams combined in the College Football Playoffs and New Year’s Six Bowls.
Since LSU has a self-imposed a bowl ban hoping to lighten NCAA sanctions, Orgeron’s immediate order of business is trying to retain veteran players, even graduating seniors who have been granted an extra year of eligibility because of this COVID-19 plagued season.
Then, there’s the matter of whether he will make coaching staff changes, particularly if he will jettison Pelini after one season and with two years left on his contract.
“The way we played (defense) the past couple of games,” LSU graduate transfer linebacker Jabril Cox said, “like I’ve been saying throughout the whole year Coach Bo Pelini’s scheme works.
“Especially with the pandemic we’re in, not being able to have spring ball together, summer workouts where there’s a lot of people not there because of certain situations, towards the end of the season is really how Coach Bo’s defense is supposed to be. I hope people see that.”
Orgeron has to weigh those points against one undeniable stat – Pelini’s defense allowed 492 yards and 34.9 points per game.
Dating back to 1952 when LSU started recording such stats, it ranks as the worst in school history in both categories as the 2020 defense became the first Tigers’ unit ever to allow more than 30 points per game and second to allow more than 400 yards each outing.
And ultimately, losing games to Mississippi State and Missouri, allowing 40 plus points in both, put the Tigers’ season in the dump.
Win those two games and do you think wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. and tight end Arik Gilbert opt out? Probably not.
That’s the residual effect of losses that changed the course of what would have been a 7-3 record to the Tigers scrounging to break even.