By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
No, LSU’s season is not over.
Even in the wake of a 16-14 loss in Lambeau to unranked Wisconsin, the Tigers still have all their preseason goals within grasp: SEC West title, SEC title, College Football Playoff berth, and national championship.
In truth, were you to pick a game for LSU to lose in 2016, on the road against Wisconsin in the opener would be the least damaging defeat. It doesn’t hurt LSU in the conference title race. It doesn’t help a conference rival. It’s early, leaving plenty of time for national narratives to take their customary twists and turns. As Jamal Adams tweeted after the game, champions aren’t crowned after week one.
You can say what you want… But champions aren't crowned in the first game. God Bless you all!
— Jamal Adams (@TheAdamsEra) September 4, 2016
Yes, LSU can still salvage its season. The Tigers could win out, beat Ole Miss and Alabama at home, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M on the road, the East champ in Atlanta, and two top four teams to hang a fourth national championship banner in Tiger Stadium next fall.
But no, there’s very little evidence to consider that even a remote possibility.
Here are the positives. (This shouldn’t take long – those not appearing in the paragraphs above are few, and far between.)
The defense looks improved, with a chance of becoming elite. Arden Key is still on pace for 20 sacks. Tre’Davious White did his best Honey Badger impression as LSU’s new nickel back with a pick-six that gave the Tigers hope when they should’ve been facing a far steeper deficit than 13-0. Kendell Beckwith flew from sideline to sideline, Duke Riley looks like a superb sidekick, and Travonte Valentine is an actual football player who has played actual football for LSU. Finally.
Add in Dave Aranda’s second half adjustments – LSU’s first-year coordinator made some small tweaks to limit his ex-employer to just 159 yards and zero third down conversions in six tries over the game’s final 30 minutes – and the Tigers could have their best defensive unit since 2012.
Unfortunately, the accolades stop there.
The offense is, as ever, a mess. Leonard Fournette, who had no business cracking the century mark, powered his way to 138 yards on 23 carries. That’s just how good he is, because the line he ran behind did little to help him get there.
The only time I recall a member of LSU’s front five winning a physical battle was when Josh Boutte cheap-shotted Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon after Dixon’s game-clinching interception of Brandon Harris.
Speaking of Harris, a sizeable section of the fanbase will be wishing he’d join the sure-to-be-suspended Boutte on the sidelines for the next few games. The junior quarterback fired high on his first three throws of the game and threw interceptions to conclude each half. In between, he was erratic, mixing in some excellent throws with regrettable ones. He performed worse than his numbers indicated, bailing on plays in panic rather than standing stall and progressing through plays in the pocket.
It’s why the Tigers were an abysmal 2-for-10 on third down, why they couldn’t extend drives and lost the time of possession battle 37-23 (22-8 in the first half), and why they crossed midfield just once in the first half.
It’s no wonder the coaching staff wouldn’t permit the media to record offensive practice during fall camp. They were doing us a mercy.
Those mercies ended Saturday. Media and fanbase alike saw an offense that was all too familiar. Play calling was suspect. (Play action on third and 8?) Variety in formation, motion, and deception were non-existent. Execution? The word has two definitions: to carry out a plan effectively, or to carry out a death sentence. LSU’s offense brought to mind only the latter definition.
As Albert Einstein famously said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results. Under that criteria, LSU’s offense is certifiably loony.
Having Cam Cameron and every other assistant on the sideline did little to help. That magical salve, discovered against Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl, was supposed to save LSU’s offense. Methinks LSU’s offensive outburst vs. Tech had less to do with Cameron’s place on the sideline and more to do with Tech’s lousy defense on the field.
Even the communication issues the sidelining of assistants was supposed to fix were still present. LSU burned two timeouts early in the third quarter — timeouts that would have been very handy in a tight fourth quarter, and timeouts that halted promising drives — because the headsets weren’t working, or something.
“It was a first-game communication issue,” Miles said. “One of them was our headphones dropped and the guy that was doing the signaling did not have headphones and we were communicating and the guy with his headphones off did not get the signal because he wasn’t getting any feed.”
Like the rest of LSU’s offense, there was no contingency plan in place for initial failure.
Worst of all, the things LSU has been consistently good at under Miles — dominating at the line of scrimmage, establishing the run, controlling the ball — were weaknesses on Saturday. The offensive line, the group with whom Miles works the closest, was the team’s worst performer against a good, not great, Wisconsin defense.
Fournette is good enough to overcome mediocre blocking. Harris isn’t. The panic he displayed on the final interception of the game — after making an incredibly athletic play to avoid the pass rush — was the sort of panic a quarterback uncomfortable with his protection displays.
“I really would have to see the film because it seems to me that there were some guys that were not necessarily blocked,” Miles said after the game.
One must question exactly what Miles saw during the game. At halftime, he told ESPN and the LSU Sports Radio Network that his team had thrown the ball well. Harris was 3-for-7 for 38 yards and an interception at that point. Perhaps the film will change his mind.
Knowing Miles, however, it won’t. Not even his near-firing last season seems to have done that. Because the offense we saw Saturday, it’s no different than the one that nearly cost him his job last fall. And the result we saw Saturday, it’s no different than those of last November.
No change was made in November, and so nothing has changed since November.
Now, there’s a real concern that things will get ugly in Baton Rouge. Miles’ players carried him off the field after snapping a three-game losing streak against Texas A&M last season. The fans gave him a standing ovation before and after the game. It would’ve been a beautiful farewell for the winningest coach in school history, a final tip of his oversized hat.
There will be no repeat of such festivities in 2016. The only way Miles will be given a standing ovation is if he’s hoisting a championship trophy. Another loss, however, and he’ll be carried off not by his loving players, but by an angry mob of frustrated fans.
At this point, the latter scenario seems far likelier.
Yes, there’s still plenty of football to be played, and LSU still has its goals within reach. But no, there’s no reason to expect they’ll reach them.