Ron Higgins: There hasn’t been much peace in the (Death) Valley this season

LSU punter Rip Van Rosen. . .uh, Zach Von Rosenberg was casually asked how he was doing before he plunged into a Tuesday Zoom teleconference with a horde of local media.

“I’ve been better,” said the 30-year-old Von Rosenberg, currently the oldest active player in college football. “This time last year we were on a path, we were rolling. I think yesterday was the Georgia game last year.”

Yes, December 7 was the one-year anniversary of LSU handling Georgia from start to finish in the SEC championship game, a 37-10 victory in which quarterback Joe Burrow threw for four TDs and answered the questions of any undecided Heisman voters.

The next week, Burrow, the Tigers and head coach Ed Orgeron were the toast of college football winning major award after major award, capped by Burrow’s runaway Heisman Trophy win and his emotional acceptance speech.

A year later, the LSU football program is simply toast, a 3-5 collection of individuals puttering towards the 2020 COVID-19 Season of No Reason checkered flag with parts falling off every few feet.

Eight games into the season for two straight weeks on the day Orgeron calls “Tell the Truth Monday,” two of LSU’s biggest offensive threats basically told Orgeron, “To tell the truth, I don’t want to play another down this year.”

First, it was junior wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., a possible first-round draft choice who has always had the dream of earning life-changing NFL money for his family.

Marshall, playing with two green and growing freshman quarterbacks throwing passes over and behind him and with an offensive line tied for 98th in the nation with sacks allowed per game, figured his draft stock would improve if didn’t attend February’s NFL Combine in a wheelchair.

Then, this past Monday, news began leaking that prized freshman tight end Arik Gilbert from Georgia wanted out because he’s homesick and told Orgeron his body is hurting.

Gilbert didn’t need that excuse when he made his departure official on Tuesday . All he should have said is, “This isn’t what I signed up for last December. I signed up for an innovative Joe Brady offense. I signed up to be in an offensive system designed to annihilate defenses for years to come, no matter who is plugged in at quarterback.”

LSU’s offense could have been a lesser yet effective form of 2019 if fourth-year junior starting QB Myles Brennan hadn’t been sidelined for the rest of this season after tearing abdominal muscles vs. Missouri in game three.

But it happened, just like so many other downers that have occurred in 2020, one of the worst years in the history of mankind because of the COVID-19 pandemic which keeps getting a second and third wind every few months.

A good week for LSU football this season is when a key player doesn’t quit.

Or when LSU isn’t docking itself scholarships for the future, hoping the NCAA doesn’t drop the hammer on the Tigers because a rogue booster diverted funds from a children’s hospital to the father of a former LSU offensive lineman who lasted two years in the NFL.

Or when a national newspaper isn’t revealing a trail of nine LSU players who have been reported to the police for sexual misconduct and dating violence the last four years under Orgeron and the university has basically ignored it.

Or when the program is the laughing stock of college football for self-imposing a bowl ban for a team, with whatever players remain, that would have approached bowl practice and another game like a prison sentence.

And that’s before Saturdays of the off-on-off-on season when a Tigers’ team with almost all new starters on both sides of the ball and few experienced reserves are given game plans that are so dumbed down they don’t have a chance of working against teams with any sort of experience or brain cells.

How did LSU make the tried-and-true penthouse to outhouse swan dive in two consecutive seasons?

There are so many reasons, theories and excuses in what former LSU center turned sports radio talk show co-host T-Bob Hebert accurately describes as the “roux in this crappy gumbo.”

Yes, the loss of 34 players and counting from last year’s team, with 14 NFL draft choices including five first-round picks, has been a killer. The COVID-19 outbreak that cancelled spring practice and 2½ months of on-campus football training certainly worked against an inexperienced team learning new schemes. Switching to a conference-games only 10-game schedule removed winnable non-conference matchups in which young teams could make mistakes without likely losing games.

There’s also the preseason issue of some of the Tigers’ african-American players angry at Orgeron for his less-than-enthusiastic reaction when the entire team skipped practice to conduct a protest march across campus to the President’s office.

But there would not be the feeling the program is about to implode had LSU won two early season games in which it was heavily favored, averaging 37.5 points in losses to Mississippi State and Missouri. Certainly 5-3 feels much less gloomier than 3-5.

As bad as LSU’s offense has been, it has scored enough points to win more games if the totally confused Tigers’ defense hadn’t decided to lead college football allowing 11 completions of 50+ yards this season. That’s one more than the Tigers gave up in the previous three seasons combined (10 in 41 games).

From the season-opener when LSU allowed a Mississippi State quarterback (who has since been benched) to throw for an SEC record 623 yards to the 55-17 game 8 loss to Alabama when the Tigers became the first LSU team since 1948 to lose by more than 30 points twice in the season, Orgeron’s hire of Bo Pelini as defensive coordinator looks worse and worse almost every snap. That one-season marriage appears headed for a divorce.

“I don’t know the last time that I’ve felt a defensive coordinator has been directly responsible for two losses as Bo Pelini was against Mississippi State and Missouri,” Hebert said. “Look at how those losses have colored the season and it’s made all the difference.

“I don’t know how you could have proven you are more out of touch with the modern game than what (Missouri first-year coach) Eli Drinkwitz did to Pelini.

“But still the more inexcusable one is Mississippi State. The recipe to handle Mike Leach’s offense has been laid out. When he was at Washington State in two games against (University of Washington coach) Chris Petersen, Mike Leach offenses threw for zero touchdowns, five picks and 300-something yards. Because 80 percent of the time, Washington rushed three and dropped eight.

“It’s the height of hubris to ignore that when creating a game plan and say, `We’re LSU, we’re going to do what we want to do.’ It’s already the height of hubris to enter the game with that game plan, but then to fail to make even a single adjustment in that game plan just speaks to gross incompetence.

“The Pelini hire is looking really bad and honestly the (passing game coordinator Scott) Linehan hire is looking quite uninspired as well. The best friend of the Linehan hire is the Pelini hire because it’s the vacuum sucking up all the attention in the room. It doesn’t look like there is any fixing with Pelini. If the Alabama game isn’t a reinforcement of that, I don’t know what will be.

“Now, you’re just going to oversimplify what you do. That’s all well and good and leads to some improvement. But Alabama used that oversimplification to make you look like fools Saturday. You’re so easy to manipulate defensively at this point with your base man coverage, they’ve got you running all over the field pre-snap. You’re frozen when the ball is snapped and you have no idea where the ball is going.”

Orgeron, who smashed his headset and raged at Pelini when Alabama receiver and Louisiana-grown talent DeVonta Smith caught his second TD pass running past LSU’s befuddled defensive backs, has a difference of opinion with Pelini on why the defense hasn’t substantially improved.

Pelini, who was hired by Orgeron to run a 4-3 defense compared to previous D-coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4, said the personnel recruited under Aranda doesn’t fit the 4-3.

“We have guys that were recruited to play in a 3-4, it’s not exactly the type of personnel you would recruit to play in a 4-3,” Pelini said in an in-house weekly LSU radio network program a week before the Alabama game. “It’s really foreign to those guys as far as the understanding of linebackers playing off the football. Your down guys are playing different techniques and gaps, and it takes some time. And it takes some time for us as coaches to learn what your guys can do and what they can’t do.”

When Orgeron was told what Pelini said, his response was “I thought our personnel had fit more of the 4-3 scheme than the 3-4, so I don’t think that has much to do with it.

“There’s a lot of new guys in live action, missed assignments and explosive plays. A lot of it came down to technique and fundamentals that we just weren’t ready to execute at a high level. A lot of it came down to communication. And we could’ve called some better defenses and better coverages and could’ve made some better adjustments.”

There has been a record number of could haves this season out of Orgeron’s mouth. He’s needed to adjust his coaching style this year from being a cheerleading CEO to be more involved in live game-decisions, but it hasn’t happened.

LSU all-American defensive back Derek Stingley Jr. should have been guarding Alabama’s Smith as soon as he got off the team bus. The fact Orgeron didn’t notice Stingley wasn’t assigned to Smith until the latter part of second quarter or didn’t question Pelini about it in real time is inexcusable.

In the meantime, the team is watching all these layers of drama unfold, with varied mindsets depending if you’re a newbie or returnee. Fewer and fewer players aren’t buying into what they’re seeing and hearing from their coaches.

“When you don’t have that rhythm of winning, it’s a different environment for the players returning from last year who’ve been on 15 straight wins,” Von Rosenberg said.

“For the (incoming) freshmen, they got pitched a dream last year on recruiting visits and said certain things like `it’s going to be this way or that way.’ But all that came to an abrupt halt when the pandemic occurred.

“We have guys who are still trying to figure out who they are. We have so many young players, it’s difficult to say (why LSU is losing). Some games just could have been a game plan, in some games it could have been mental mistakes.”

Two Saturdays from now, the nightmare will be over after the 2:30 p.m. regular season finale vs. Ole Miss in Tiger Stadium. Orgeron has to make some coaching staff decisions starting with Pelini. LSU, which is estimated to lose $80 million this season because social distancing has limited crowd size at games, would owe Pelini $4.6 million for the last two years of his three-year contract if he’s fired.

There also could be more player defections, but Orgeron believes he can quickly flip the program back into become a title contender again.

“I still think there’s fight,” Orgeron said earlier this week. “I still think we have a great recruiting class. I love the freshmen we have on this football team. I think with one or two recruiting classes, we will build championship teams again. I feel like we can do it.”

Hebert agrees, but believes it’s not going to be easy.

“Instead of saying it was COVID or look at how young we are here or this guy opted out or this guy is not good, that there’s all these external forces,” Hebert said, “this LSU program and staff has to be willing to honestly and fully engage the question of `What did I do to cause this to happen to this program and how do I fix it?’

“There is value this year for this team getting its ass kicked. Maybe you came to LSU and thought you were just going to roll the ball out and win championships. This shows you how hard it is to reach that level. It shows you how far you have to go and how hard you have to work if you want to get there.”

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for this open and honest inside story concerning the total disaster this season has been. I’ve been a LSU football devote ever since i was a Boy Scout ushering at football games in Tiger Stadium and this year has been the most painful of all. I could not imagine how in the world LSU football could drop so far in one season. From the very first game of the year I’ve been wondering what it the world could have gone so wrong. It doesn’t make it better but at least I have some answers to my questions. I’m also an LSU Alumn, which has made it even worse.

  2. Great analysis, though it omitted how tough Coach O is with those way too many player suspensions. Could it be that Coach O needs to loosen up a bit? Could be that his players may regard him as a hopelessly out-of-step fuddy duddy?

    Coach O’s reaction to the players conducting a BLM march was also unfortunate. Unlike Saban, Kiffen, ancient Mack Brown at UNC, and other coaches who embraced and supported their players in their BLM marches, and even marched with them, Coach O was completely missing in action. That’s like skipping your best friend’s wedding! He’s out of step with his players, and if he doesn’t change very soon, his goose may be cooked as captain of LSU’s football ship.

  3. I knew it, I knew it. The truth Monday in real words.
    I mentioned Coach O seat would start heating up if LSU have another bad season like this one next year.
    Folks wanted to hang me. Sounds like he’s having more than a DC coaching problem. Yes Pelini ass need to go, but Big O better address social issues going on in this country and become part of change if he wants to continuing recruiting the best ball players in this country. That’s that only way he’ll continue to win championships. If I had a 5 star as a son, I definitely would not allow him to play for a coach who’s not sensitive or don’t care about all the social unrest in this country. As we all know, Saban is a smart man. He knows who pay the bills in his house whole and win championships. Coach O better wise up. I hope he does.

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