Now, that was a big win.
LSU scratched out a 45-38 victory at No. 9 Texas Saturday, overcoming a tough defensive second half thanks to a breakout performance by Joe Burrow and no less than three receivers – a school record – racking up 100-yard days.
It was an amazing night, and one virtually no Tiger fan was truly prepared for. Sure, winning a road game against a highly-ranked opponent is nothing new for this program. Just last year LSU knocked off Auburn, then ranked No. 7, at Jordan-Hare Stadium, for example, and in a pair of neutral-site games the Tigers beat a pair of teams ranked No. 8 at the time: Miami to open the season and Central Florida to close it.
But winning a pure road game against a Top 10 opponent outside of the SEC? That hadn’t ever happened until Saturday. It didn’t feel like a new achievement for this program, but it was.
And how the Tigers managed the feat was truly novel. Winning a shootout before a national audience in which almost 900 yards of passing offense was gobbled up? That’s not normal. Not normal at all.
So here are five observations about the game…
1. Joe Burrow and LSU’s new-look passing attack are for real, and they make this a much different team than the nation is used to.
It really ought not be too much of a shock that Burrow has emerged as a dominant passing quarterback this year, but after Saturday, when the Tiger senior quarterback ripped through Texas’ secondary for a 31-of-39, 471-yard, four touchdown performance, there can’t be any doubt he belongs on the national top tier with the Justin Herberts, Tua Tagovailoas and Trevor Lawrences of the world. For the season Burrow is completing better than 80 percent of his passes (81.8 percent, to be exact; 54 of 66 throws), for 749 yards in two games and a 9-to-1 TD to interception ratio. Those are monster numbers, but they’re really something of a continuation of Burrow’s last four games of the 2018 season when he had a 70 percent completion ratio, 1166 yards and a 10-1 TD to interception ratio. He’s better now, of course, but by the end of last year Burrow had been showing lots of signs that he could do what he’s doing now.
But while Burrow’s improvement might be unmistakable, the new passing playbook LSU’s first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady brought from the Saints has played a major role in creating the juggernaut Burrow is heading up so far this season.
In two games, 15 different LSU players have caught passes, and eight of those have caught more than one. This level of distribution of the ball is something Saints fans recognize and LSU fans do not. The current passing game uses all five of the skill positions, and to devastating effect. LSU is converting 54 percent of its third downs so far this year, and has turned 12 of its 23 possessions into touchdowns (another five have ended in field goals, with only one turnover and five punts). Getting points 74 percent of the time and getting touchdowns 52 percent of the time after having played two teams who combined for 20 victories a year ago is awfully good.
And of course, the three-headed monster of Justin Jefferson, JaMarr Chase and Terrace Marshall, who have hauled in 34 passes for 572 yards and nine touchdowns in two games, has to rank with Alabama and Clemson among the best wide receiver groups in the country. That isn’t much of a surprise, either; Chase and Marshall were both five-star recruits out of high school and are now sophomores, while Jefferson’s sophomore year last year rivaled that of past Tiger greats like Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, Early Doucet, Brandon Lafell and Reuben Randle in terms of numbers he put up.
Throughout the offseason, Burrow, the receivers and the coaches, not to mention LSU’s defensive players, have been warning that this offense is turbocharged – and lots of fans dismissed those statements as something we’ve all heard before. Well, this time the advertising isn’t false. The passing game really is this good, and what it does is to make LSU a far more legitimate national championship contender than they’ve been since 2011.
2. LSU isn’t supposed to wilt in the heat, but they definitely did on Saturday.
It wasn’t just that so many of the Tigers’ defensive players lay on the Darrell K. Royal Stadium turf during the second half of Saturday’s game, each one drawing some classless boos from the 98,000 in attendance. Some of those incidences were laydowns in order to stop Texas’ hurry-up offense, and those laydowns are a perfectly legitimate tactic in order to keep an offense’s tempo from overwhelming a defense.
But a lot of them were for real, and the number of cramps LSU’s defenders succumbed to, while nobody from Texas cramped up, was disconcerting.
Worse than that was the clear wearing down of LSU’s defense late in the game. We noticed several Tiger linebackers and defensive backs who had lost much of their top-end speed late in the game, presumably from fatigue.
That’s how LSU went from a great defensive performance in the first half, giving up only seven points and claiming a pair of goal-line stands which ultimately won the game, to surrendering 31 points in the second half and requiring the Burrow air show to work its magic to win.
We understand no IV’s were taken at halftime, with Orgeron saying his players felt fine. It was Texas’ 19-play drive in their first possession of the third quarter which changed that. Fair enough, but if LSU wasn’t giving defensive players IV’s then there sure needed to be some gallon jugs of Gatorade or Pedialyte or pickle juice or whatever the new source of hydration and electrolytes might be these days passed around. It definitely looked like Texas held up to Saturday’s heat better than LSU did, despite the fact they had no answer for Burrow and the receivers.
That was about as hot a football stadium as a college team can play in, so the screaming about conditioning and hydration shouldn’t be too loud. But it is worth questioning whether all that could have been done to keep the players ready to play, was.
3. Cade York is money.
When Cole Tracy finished his one season in a Tiger uniform having knocked through 29 of 33 field goals and all 42 of his extra points last year, there was great concern over the question whether he could be replaced as LSU’s kicker.
So far that concern is misplaced, because true freshman Cade York looks like he’ll give this program four years of what Tracy offered a year ago.
Maybe more. Tracy’s range only extended to about 52 yards; something which has interfered with his being able to land on an NFL roster. York doesn’t seem to have that limitation. York knocked in a 40-yard field goal against Texas which had enough mustard on it to be good from considerably longer, and that was also true of the 48-yard field goal he nailed in the George Southern game the previous week. So far York has hit all five of his field goals and all 11 of his PAT’s, which gives him a Tracyesque profile. What we notice, though, is how many of his kicks aren’t just good but uncanny in how they land in the exact middle of the net. He’s amazingly accurate so far, and one more weapon on a team which is loaded with them.
4. Texas is every bit the No. 9 team in the country.
Watching the game, it was very tempting to complain about LSU’s defensive performance – and there is no doubt defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and his staff and players aren’t going to look back too fondly about their results in Austin – but that needs to be kept in check.
Because the other team is coaching and playing, too, and this particular opponent was no joke.
Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns’ quarterback, came into the game touted as a star. He is most certainly that. Ehlinger got off to a slow start with a few inaccurate passes, but once he locked in Ehlinger put on a show to rival Burrow. After hitting only nine of his first 19 passes, Ehlinger was 22 of his next 28. That’s a competitor who won’t quit.
Ehlinger’s receivers are also legitimate. Devin Duvernay, the senior slot receiver, showed off some blazing speed and serious physicality after the catch; he owned LSU’s secondary in the second half. And the outside receivers Brennan Eagles and Collin Johnson are giants with speed. LSU largely controlled Johnson, the best NFL prospect of the group, but Eagles was a problem. That crew will murder some opposing secondaries for the rest of the season.
No, Texas’ defense isn’t great. But with an offense like that it doesn’t have to be. Only Oklahoma is left on their schedule as a team the Longhorns should struggle to beat if they play like they did Saturday, and with home games against Rice and Oklahoma State before a trip to West Virginia looming prior to the annual tilt with the Sooners in Dallas, it’s a good bet Texas will re-enter the Top 10 in advance of that game. They checked in at No. 12 Sunday, falling only three spots with the loss to LSU. It’s questionable whether they should have even fallen that far.
5. The LSU schedule starts to look quite advantageous for a while.
There are three games on tap in the next four weeks for the Tigers, none of which present anything even remotely similar to the threat Texas posed. As such, it’s reasonable to expect the Joe Show to wreak even more havoc on defenses, while LSU’s own defense will have a shot at getting well.
Starting with Saturday against a Northwestern State team which isn’t just an FCS opponent but a particularly bad one to boot. Saturday the Demons found themselves on the wrong side of a 33-7 score at the hands of Division II Midwestern State in which they gave up 323 passing yards, and that came after NSU was blown out 42-20 by a Tennessee-Martin team Florida annihilated 45-0 on Saturday. Northwestern State was only 5-6 last year, though they did manage to close with three wins in their last four games. There is no line on the game yet, but it’s likely to be one of the largest point spreads for an LSU game in recent memory – and whatever the number the Tigers might be a good bet. NSU’s quarterback Shelton Eppler is a senior who threw for more than 2,600 yards and 26 touchdowns last year, but a Division II team held him to only 177 yards and no touchdowns on 28-of-42 passing last week. That means a whole lot of short passes with receivers tackled for little or no gain will be in store, and NSU attempting to control the clock to keep the score down. Whether that works depends on an angry LSU defense creating negative plays and turnovers, which it’s a good bet will happen.
LSU then takes on Vanderbilt in Nashville, and in recent years that’s been a credible test for SEC teams. But Georgia, a team LSU looks to share a similar level of play with so far, crushed the Commodores in their own stadium two weeks ago by a 30-6 score, and on Saturday Elijah Sindelar threw for more than 500 yards as Purdue routed Vanderbilt 42-24. That doesn’t suggest this Vanderbilt team is as competitive as previous clubs have been, and with that game LSU’s SEC opener the Tigers will be loaded for bear. If Purdue hung 500 yards and 42 points on Vandy’s defense, the Joe Show could wreak absolute havoc in Nashville.
Then following an open date LSU takes on an opponent the Tigers won’t want to sleep on. Utah State was 11-2 last year, finishing the season ranked in the Top 25. They’re not quite at that level yet this year, dropping a 38-35 contest to Wake Forest in the season opener before blowing out FCS opponent Stony Brook 62-7, in a game that saw USU ring up 717 yards of total offense. They’re averaging 656.5 yards a game of total offense and their quarterback Jordan Love is a legitimate NFL prospect, so whatever improvement LSU’s defense makes in the next two weeks of getting well will be tested. But Utah State’s defense gave up over 400 yards passing to Wake quarterback Jamie Newman in the opener, meaning Burrow and his receivers will definitely have an opportunity to feast.
Following those three games will be the monster tilt in Tiger Stadium Oct. 12 with Florida coming to town, but with LSU checking in at No. 4 in the AP poll Sunday and three likely lopsided wins to come, it will be a 5-0 LSU team wedged into the playoff picture playing host to the current No. 9 team in the country – and Florida will be up against Auburn the week before after a scary game at Kentucky this coming Saturday, then easy games with Tennessee and Towson.