Tigers Defense Struggles To Gain Traction In Re-Arranged Schedule
Story By Ron Higgins
It has been nine months since LSU accepted the national championship trophy after blasting Clemson in a Mercedes-Benz Superdome confetti shower.
Heisman Trophy quarterback Joe Burrow smoked a post-game victory cigar and gave one to backup QB Myles Brennan for a future celebration. Tigers’ coach Ed Orgeron hugged his wife Kelly.
First-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady was celebrated as an offensive genius. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, finishing his fourth season, wore a mission accomplished smile.
Former LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., ignoring NCAA rules and common sense, roamed the field like a portable ATM giving $2,000 worth of $100 handshakes to players.
In retrospect, it seems like nine years ago. Since then, it hasn’t been “and everyone lived happily ever after.”
LSU had a record 14 players chosen in the NFL Draft, including five in the first round, who were led by No. 1 overall pick Burrow, taken by the hapless Cincinnati Bengals. Burrow is having a tremendous rookie season, but is absorbing a frightful physical beating weekly playing behind a porous offensive line.
Orgeron filed for a divorce in February, and we’ll leave it at that.
Brady left the Tigers to become offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and Aranda exited to become Baylor’s head coach.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel all college sports in mid-March for the rest of the semester after LSU had just had three spring practices.
Once back at school, the Black Lives Matter movement took centerstage in early August, something all college coaches acknowledged and made a priority with their teams.
And here we are, four games into a re-arranged 10-game schedule of conference matchups only. LSU is 2-2 and trying to gain momentum after embarrassing defensive performances, self-imposed NCAA sanctions (including banning Beckham from LSU facilities for two years), COVID outbreaks, a postponed game, two hurricanes and counting and Brennan being sidelined with an abdomen tear following three straight 300-yard-plus passing performances.
Other than all that, it’s been rather quiet.
When this 2020 season is finally in the books, it will be regarded as a long, strange trip — an ever-changing schedule that began 21 days later than intended and has been played in three-fourths empty stadiums with socially distanced crowds because of CDC coronavirus mandates.
“It sounds like a spring scrimmage,” Orgeron said of playing in front of reduced crowds. “It’s never going to be what a 102,000 are.”
Admittedly, this might be the most difficult season for a college football player to be totally committed to. Because of the social distancing calls and reduced stadium capacity, most season ticket holders everywhere (including 75 percent of LSU’s) have opted out until 2021.
You have to believe teams have felt abandoned by their fan bases and think they are basically playing for themselves.
Also, if you’re a team happy to be at .500 and have looked inadequately prepared for the most part as LSU has (especially defensively), more of your fan base has written you off and may not be back.
With so many more immediately important things in the world — like electricity and waste removal from hurricanes and a second wave of a COVID-19 ramping up, the feeling is any failures in LSU’s 2020 season can be written off to unforeseen forces.
But as LSU finally showed in a 52-28 win over South Carolina in game four on the first Tiger Stadium Saturday night game of the year, the Tigers aren’t quite dead yet.
The offensive line and running backs rallied around true freshman quarterback T.J. Finley of Ponchatoula High, who took his first college game snaps ever.
The O-line protected superbly and allowed no sacks. The running game was magnificent, rolling for 276 yards (14 yards fewer than LSU gained in its first three games combined) and three TDs. A simplified passing scheme helped Finley complete 17-of-21 passes for 265 yards and two TDs.
“It felt amazing,” said the 6 foot, 6-inch, 245-pound Finley, who dropped 20 pounds in the 2½ months when players were quarantined before returning in early June. “I honestly don’t feel a difference than when I played at Ponchatoula High. The speed of the game hasn’t changed. I’ve got guys I can throw the ball to and whatever.”
LSU is ranked third in the SEC and 16th nationally in total offense, averaging 485.8 yards per game (third in the league) and 11th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 42 points.
Sizeable chunks of those stats belong to Brennan — second in the SEC and fourth nationally in passing yards per game, averaging 370.7 yards — and wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., who’s third in the SEC with nine touchdowns.
But since LSU lost 32 players off last year’s roster via the draft, transfers or sitting out, the Tigers’ offensive philosophy has to involve a more dominant rushing attack this season than a year ago if the team wants to build on the South Carolina win.
In its first three games, perhaps because the running game got stuffed and LSU’s easiest avenue to the end zone was Brennan finding Marshall and a host of other talented receivers, Tigers’ offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger put the running game on the backburner.
He couldn’t afford to do that when he was starting a newbie quarterback against South Carolina and did not want to place Finley in too many situations in which he had to make key plays to keep drives alive.
LSU had 54 rushing attempts versus the Gamecocks: more than it had in any game in the last two seasons. But because Tyrion Davis-Price ran for 135 yards and John Emery Jr. added 90, the Tigers positioned themselves for dramatically improved third-down conversion success (8 of 10) to keep drives moving.
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 7.8 yards to go. Several 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 3rd and 9.7 yards. Against South Carolina, the average third-down distance was 3rd and 3 yards.
“I’m proud of my O-line and I’m so happy they stepped up big-time,” said Emery, a sophomore who got his first college start boosted by his off-season improvement thanks to the weight room and LASIK eye surgery after it was discovered he was legally blind in one eye. “We already had a pass game,” he said. “We just wanted to come out and show we had a run game.”
Even with a run/pass imbalance in the first three games of the season in which LSU was a 14½, 21 and 14-point favorite over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and Missouri respectively, the Tigers scored enough to win all three games against inferior opponents.
But new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s switch to a 4-3 defense and his love for man-to-man coverage and blitzing resulted in two of the worst defensive performances in recent memory in losses to Mississippi State and Missouri.
Pelini, who was defensive coordinator for LSU’s 2007 national championship team before leaving to become Nebraska’s head coach, was given a ringing endorsement by Orgeron just prior to the season opener.
“We are so much better on defense right now than any part of the season last year,” Orgeron said two weeks before the season opener. “Bo Pelini has come in and brought a new energy, a new excitement. Dave Aranda did a tremendous job for us, but I’m glad we’ve moved to the 4-3 (alignment). We’re more of an attacking style of defense. Bo is a very good game-caller.”
Until the games started.
Stanford graduate transfer and new Mississippi State starting quarterback K.J. Costello strafed Pelini’s 4-3 scheme for an SEC single-game record 623 yards and five TDs in LSU’s stunning 44-34 season opening loss in Tiger Stadium.
“We do pride ourselves on being DBU (Defensive Back University) but DBU didn’t show up today,” LSU senior safety JaCoby Stevens said.
It was obvious early against Mississippi State that LSU’s DBs could not play man-to-man coverage. The Bulldogs’ receivers ran past LSU cornerbacks much as the Tigers’ receivers did last year. The difference is, a year ago opposing defenses at least tried to adjust in-game against then-LSU QB Burrow.
Pelini never budged. He just kept on dialing blitzes, despite the fact that his depth-depleted DBs couldn’t guard any Bulldogs’ receiver 1-on-1.
Two games later, in the loss at Missouri, the optics were even worse.
A Missouri offense without two starting WRs against LSU and three of its top five WRs because of coronavirus quarantine made an LSU defense full of four and five-star signees look like a bunch of chumps recruited off a playground 10 minutes before the game.
A Mizzou freshman redshirt quarterback, making just his third college start after he ended last season tearing an ACL knee ligament, threw 406 yards and the first four touchdowns of his college career.
Too many last-second defensive personnel groups and play call changes by Pelini led to Missouri receivers running so open and free on some of their routes that they could have made catches reclining in a chaise lounge chair.
“We couldn’t stop anybody; we have to get it fixed,” Orgeron said. “It was a really poor showing on defense… we couldn’t stop the run. Receivers wide open downfield. It was embarrassing… it’s just not LSU defense, we’ve got to play better… too many missed assignments; too many missed calls and missed tackles.”
As it turned out, Pelini had two weeks to simplify his defensive strategy as Orgeron requested (“If we have to play one defense, I’d rather play one defense and get it right,” he said) because LSU’s Oct. 17 game at Florida was postponed to Dec. 12 because 22 Florida players tested positive for COVID-19.
The Tigers’ defense, which leads the SEC in sacks, tackles for a loss, fumble recoveries and turnover margin, was somewhat better against South Carolina. Freshman cornerback 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).
Yet, there remains the nagging problem of allowing too many chunk plays. The Gamecocks had six plays of 32 yards or longer, including four of 44 yards more, totaling 263 yards, which was 65.2 percent of USC’s 403 yards total offense.
LSU’s upcoming trip to Auburn marks the halfway point of the schedule. An open date follows and then it’s a home game against unbeaten No. 2 Alabama to start a five-game run of two home games and three road contests to end the regular season. At this point, LSU knows what it must do to win, likely without Brennan for a second straight week: replicate the balanced offensive performance it executed against South Carolina with long, grinding time-consuming drives to keep its defense off the field.
The thing is that Auburn plays the same way. That’s why LSU has won three straight games over Auburn by just a combined eight points.
“Auburn and LSU is always a great matchup,” Orgeron said. “Sometimes comes down to the last play.” And that last play may eventually decide whether LSU has enough wins to qualify for a bowl or watch its 20-year streak of winning seasons and consecutive bowl bids end.