For those of you who were in the stadium sweating, or in the concourse spending half the game rehydrating after what seemed to many to be the hottest they’ve ever been at an LSU sporting event, we’ve found a commercial-free YouTube edit of Saturday’s 27-23 LSU victory over Auburn. We thought it was worth a watch, so we carved out a bit of the day to have a look and figured a good many of our readers might like to watch it as well. Particularly if you were at the game and didn’t get to hear the commentary by Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson.
Here’s the replay. Some commentary follows below.
After seeing it again, we can pass along three observations.
First, something happened to this team after the Troy game. Like against Troy, and also like against Mississippi State (sort of), LSU came out exceptionally slow and fell behind. But unlike in those games LSU found some heart and some intensity and came back with a fury. Down 20-0, this team outfought Auburn on virtually every play and by game’s end the visitors, whose mascot inexplicably showed up in a Troy costume – that’s an affront to the football gods which was certain to be repaid in misfortune – were a beaten football team.
To get that kind of roaring comeback (to be fair, LSU did mount a comeback of sorts against Troy, but it was halting, sloppy and haphazard) you had to have some leadership show up on this team. You definitely got it – whether it was Russell Gage coming through with a massive 70-yard run with LSU down 20-0 or making that gorgeous diving touchdown catch for a 23-14 game just before halftime, or D.J. Chark’s 75-yard touchdown punt return early in the fourth quarter which destroyed Auburn’s momentum for good, or the LSU defense slamming the door on Auburn for the final 2 1/2 quarters of the game. There were prominent players making plays all over the field and refusing to lose despite the circumstances.
A friend with pretty good insight into LSU football noted that it may be that the outpouring of venom following the Troy game was a good thing, in that it may have brought home to this team how far below the program’s standard its quality of play was that night – particularly coming off a horrible performance against Mississippi State and not much of one against Syracuse (although when Syracuse beat Clemson Friday night LSU’s effort against them started to look a lot better). We’re not sure that’s a correct statement, but there might be some merit to it; the Troy loss was a wakeup call, and since then LSU has been a lot guttier and a lot more determined football team.
Second, what the Auburn win shows is Matt Canada’s offense works. For the first five games of the season LSU’s offensive performance has been spotty at best, and the fans have definitely grumbled about the lack of production. Interestingly enough, though, if you look at the Troy game as a tale of two halves, and you should, you can see something of a turnaround there. LSU had 144 yards of total offense and no points in the first half of the Troy game, which was when head coach Ed Orgeron insisted Canada “simplify” the offense and eliminate the pre-snap motion and shifts, and the Tigers were down 10-0. In the second half, when Canada’s offense returned in full, LSU put up 21 points on 284 yards of total offense and would have won the game but for committing three turnovers (one at Troy’s seven yard line, and another at Troy’s 37).
Since halftime of the Troy game LSU’s offense has shown a little sparkle. The Florida game was no thing of beauty, but on the other hand LSU’s wide receivers ran for more than 100 yards that day and helped key a 218-yard rushing performance which offset a really poor performance by Danny Etling throwing the ball, and against Auburn the offense did a little of everything and put up better than 360 yards against one of the SEC’s best defenses. It ought to be remembered that those two performances have happened with Saadiq Charles and Ed Ingram, both true freshmen, in the lineup and with brand-new players in Austin Deculus (Florida) and Adrian Magee (Auburn) starting at right tackle. You’ll struggle to find an offense which can lose both starting tackles to injury, replacing them with rookies (Magee is a redshirt sophomore who had barely seen the field before this season and Charles is a true freshman) and maybe even getting better in the process.
They’re managing to put together a decent offensive attack despite having a pair of gimpy running backs, too. Derrius Guice hasn’t been himself all season long due to some unspecified leg/knee/ankle injury which has robbed him of some of his speed and a lot of his wiggle, and Darrell Williams has a bad ankle which is limiting him. The one meaningful carry the coaches tried to give Nick Brossette in an attempt to find a healthy option at tailback resulted in a fumble which set the tone in the Troy game, so they’ve got little choice but to try to manage the first-line backs’ return to health. That might be coming; the Auburn game was the best Guice has looked since he came up a little lame in the Mississippi State game.
And they’re also putting this together despite Etling really struggling. The number one problem with this offense isn’t really the injuries and youth on the line, though that’s a major problem, or the gimpy tailbacks, though that doesn’t help either – what’s limiting this group is Etling being so slow to get the ball out and his missing wide open receivers either with bad throws or by not recognizing them in the first place. In the Florida game there was a wide-open touchdown pass to Darrell Williams early in the game on a wheel route, and Etling overthrew him with a bad ball. Then Etling nearly had a pick-six on a pass in the flat for Guice, when behind that play Chark was wide open on a corner route for a would-be touchdown. Etling also missed Williams wide open in the flat on a play where he made a bad pass for Stephon Sullivan. And then there was the underthrown pass to Chark early in the Auburn game that resulted in a fumble; Chark probably scores a touchdown if he’s hit in stride on the play. Not to mention the failure to hit Guice in the flat on that play Etling was called for intentional grounding in the fourth quarter.
Etling is the guttiest quarterback LSU has had in a long time, maybe since Tommy Hodson. He will give up his body for his team and they are responding to that leadership. But if he could do a better job of spotting open receivers on time and getting a catchable ball to them you might really see this offense begin to click. The design, as it produces open receivers and opportunities to gash the defense, is definitely there. When LSU plays some lesser defenses in upcoming games (LSU has played #3, #4 and #6 in the SEC’s total defense rankings; take #2 Alabama out of the mix and what’s left is #13 in Ole Miss, #8 in Arkansas, #7 in Tennessee and #10 in Texas A&M) with what might be a more cohesive line and some healthier running backs, there will be some opportunities to light up some scoreboards.
Third, what you could see after a few adjustments were made against what’s a very potent Auburn offense with a penchant for getting out early in games (they’re 3rd in the SEC in scoring offense, and in three previous games to Saturday they’d jumped out to leads of 28-0 against Missouri, 21-3 against Mississippi State and 35-3 against Ole Miss), LSU’s defense got nasty. They’ve been a little soft at the beginning of the season, a great effort against an inept BYU team notwithstanding, but LSU put Florida away defensively late two weeks ago and on Saturday for 2 1/2 quarters that defense was absolutely elite against Auburn. Particularly where pass defense is concerned – we can’t remember the last time a defense broke up more passes than it allowed to be completed, but that’s what LSU did against an Auburn quarterback who came into the game completing 71 percent of his passes.
Donte Jackson playing the nickel with two big, physical corners in Kevin Tolliver, who was lights-out against Auburn, and Greedy Williams means LSU has the best shutdown defenders against wide receivers in the conference. And with Frank Herron returning to action against Auburn along with healthier bodies from Rashard Lawrence and Ed Alexander LSU is getting a bit more stout against the run. Add to that the week-by-week improvement of freshmen Grant Delpit and Eric Monroe at the safeties, soon to be joined by John Battle as he returns to health, and top it off with Arden Key who finally looks like he’s coming back to last year’s form, and this might be a Dave Aranda defense after all.
Finally, this team is, strangely, more or less in control of its destiny. No, LSU can’t make the college football playoff – the Troy loss took that possibility out of the mix. Even if LSU was able to go into Tuscaloosa and pull an upset over what looks like an unbeatable Alabama team the Tide would still likely get a playoff bid over LSU if that was their only loss. But LSU can still win the SEC, and having beaten Auburn LSU now looks like the best possibility of anyone left to pull an upset in that game.
More to the point, even conceding the Alabama game – if LSU can play the way the Tigers played in the final 2 1/2 quarters of the Auburn game with any degree of consistency, they can and probably will win the other four games on the schedule. The effort against Auburn would be more than enough to beat Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee and it would likely beat Texas A&M as well, particularly at home. Given that Georgia and Alabama might both be unbeaten in the SEC Championship game – Georgia might lose to Auburn, but otherwise they look like prohibitive favorites over all their remaining regular-season foes – the winner in Atlanta is pretty likely to be in the playoffs and the loser will probably be in the Orange Bowl. That means a 9-3 LSU team which takes care of business in the Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas A&M games would be 6-2 in the SEC and in third place in the conference overall standings, and would likely be the third highest-ranked SEC team. And that means LSU would be in the Citrus Bowl.
Two straight Citrus Bowl appearances with Orgeron at the helm can only be considered a pretty decent start no matter how ugly things may have looked early this year.
Now – to secure that result or something like it Orgeron has to demonstrate a skill he has not yet shown as a head coach. He’s got to show he can bring a team to the field which is prepared to play week in and week out. We know he can get his team fired up to play; they’ve done that in successive weeks against ranked teams. Now he’s got four games in five against opponents who look like they’re in various stages of disarray, with coaches on seats as hot or hotter than Orgeron’s. Last year he dropped a game somewhat like that to Florida, when he had no business doing so – we were sure that loss would have disqualified him for the job on a permanent basis. And this year he lost the Mississippi State and Troy games when nobody thought he was supposed to.
Nobody will be upset with him if Orgeron can’t beat Alabama on the road. What the fans, who will be off his back for now following that inspiring upset of Auburn, want to see is this team play to its capability. That’s unproven so far, and he’s got to prove it this season in those four winnable games.