Tigers hope everything comes up roses in Saturday’s season opener at UCLA

LSU sophomore quarterback Max Johnson, who closed his freshman season last year starting and winning vs. Florida and Ole Miss, opens the 2021 season as the starter Saturday at UCLA.

PASADENA, Calif. – Normally, college head football coaches shy away from emphasizing season openers or key cross-sectional matchups as a “statement” game.

But not for LSU’s Ed Orgeron, whose 2019 15-0 national champions took a mighty tumble to 5-5 last year.

And not for UCLA’s Chip Kelly, whose team has never won more than four games in his first three seasons yet won a season-opener for the first time last Saturday in a 44-10 home blowout of Hawaii.

It’s why the 13th ranked Tigers (a 2½-point favorite as of Friday) and the Bruins both have messages they’d like to deliver in the first-ever meeting between the SEC and Pac 12 schools here Saturday in Rose Bowl Stadium at 7:30 p.m. CT on the FOX Network.

“This game is probably the most important starting game I’ve had since I’ve been head coach,” said Orgeron, who’s starting his fifth full season leading the Tigers. “Our team knows that. For just to get on the right foot, to get to where we want to be, we have to start well.”

UCLA rarely gets a shot at an SEC team, much less a ranked one, in the regular season. It’s why for an extremely experienced team with 18 graduates and 16 players in graduate school, it feels a win could put UCLA in the Top 25 for the first time since September 2017.

“It’s a huge game,” Kelly said. “You get an opportunity to see a really, really good football team in LSU,  It’s going to have talent every step of the way, whether it’s at wideout, running back, offensive line. They have two of the best corners we’ll see this season.

“I think we’re off to a good start, so it should be a great game. I’m excited by this challenge.”

It’s a matchup that certainly is more daunting for LSU than it was at the start of preseason camp.

That was before senior starting quarterback Myles Brennan broke his left arm in a freak accident the weekend before preseason camp. Also before the Tigers had a laundry list of camp injuries, even before they were allowed to suit up in pads and have contact.

Four of LSU five running backs missed time, including returning juniors Ty Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. The offensive line has had so many nagging injuries that its starting unit hasn’t practiced together any, if at all.

“The offensive line is going to take time to jell a little bit because we haven’t had our starting offensive line the whole camp,” Orgeron said. “That’s the area where it’s going to have to jell but it’s going to have to jell fast because UCLA looked pretty good on the defensive front.”

Also, with the loss of Brennan, LSU is extremely inexperienced at quarterback where sophomore Max Johnson is the starter and true freshman Garrett Nussmeier is the backup

Granted, Johnson is 2-0 as a starter after ending his freshman season last year with wins at then-No. 6 Florida and Ole Miss. But it is only two starts of college experience and he must show immediate improvement in the areas of reading defenses and spreading his passes to different receivers.

“We had a lot of workouts in June and July,” Johnson said. “We’d bring all the offense out on Saturdays and go over the signals, the plays, the concepts, where the receivers are going to be on their breaks. . .going over the things that will happen during the season.”

As much as Johnson would love to throw to sophomore wide receiver Kayshon Boutte – 20 of Johnson’s 48 completions for 416 of his 674 yards and 4 of his 6 TDs vs. Florida and Ole Miss were hookups with Boutte – he needs progression in his reads to find other receivers.

There’s also the fact Boutte, now a known commodity, expects to face more defensive double-teams

“I know a target is on my back coming into this season,” Boutte said. “I’ve got to be better.”

Boutte is confident he will improve on his final numbers from last season (45 catches for 735 yards, 5 TDs) because of the fresh injection of offensive philosophy from new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz and new passing game coordinator DJ Mangas.

Yet, Johnson, Boutte and the rest of the receivers will be as good as the Tigers’ offensive line allows them to be, either through pass protection or opening holes to establish a consistent running game.

As much as Orgeron wants elements of a record-breaking 2019 offense, he realizes it’s not going to happen quickly. It’s why earlier this week he talked about wanting to have a 50-50 balance between run and pass for a variety of reasons.

On the other hand, judging from UCLA’s 244 rushing yards in the 34-point blowout of Hawaii, along with the scattershot passing of Bruins’ QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson (10 of 20 for 130 yards and 1 TD), it would serve LSU’s defense well to first stop the run.

Last Saturday against the Rainbow Warriors, Michigan transfer and California native Zach Charbonnet had a spectacular debut. The 6-1, 220-pound junior ran for 106 yards and three TDs on just six carries. Senior Brittain Brown added 78 yards and a TD on 13 carries.

On the defensive side of the ball, UCLA allowed Hawaii 26 rushing yards, the lowest given up by the Bruins since Sept. 17, 2016 against BYU (23 yards). Hawai’i had minus 17 rushing yards in the first quarter.

“We’re running similar things from last year, but guys are more experienced, they are more comfortable and understand how the whole defense works together,” UCLA senior linebacker Bo Calvert said. “You saw that last Saturday that offenses are often confused by the looks we’re giving them simply from the movement we’re doing and the different pressures we can bring.”

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