Let's make one thing real, REAL clear right off the bat. LSU won that damn game. Shoulda-coulda-woulda all you want. Scoreboard. All that matters.
Now, are we going to talk about everything? Of course. But I want to get that out of the way.
Looking back, this game reminds me a lot of the 2010 season opener against North Carolina. Tigers were overmatched against a UNC team with several key starters suspended. But the little things added up. A crap holding penalty negated what should have been the game-icing touchdown, and then LSU fell apart just enough (I very vividly remember Steven Ridley fumbling after picking up what would have been the first down LSU needed to start kneeling) to give the Tarheels time for a furious rally that fell short on the goal-line in the final seconds.
So what's that mean? Not a goddamn thing. It's the opener, it was sloppy, and there's a pretty good chance the team we see in November will look different from this one. So let's all keep some perspective. Style points are irrelevant in an SEC game.
Besides, LSU was a lot closer to winning this game by two scores than Mississippi State was to winning it.
That said, there's a lot to get to, so let's just go with it:
- We'll start right off with the play-calling. Yes, LSU called just 17 passes (counting called passes that resulted in scrambles by Harris) compared to 45 runs. But they also averaged 5.7 yards per carry and 6.2 on first down. So you tell me, did they do what worked? I'm with Poseur -- it DID. LSU averaged 5.5 yards per play. They do that or better, they'll win almost every game they play.
What this argument ultimately comes down to is the fourth quarter. LSU started the period out at its own 19 and lost six yards on a very ill-advised reverse call. I completely understand wanting to call a misdirection run there, but a jet-sweep that hits quicker would have been much better. That play was far too slow-developing, and State didn't break contain and had it bottled up.
But from there, LSU was behind the chains, in its own red zone, with a quarterback making his second start, a running back that had been dominant and an eight-point lead. Ninety-five percent of football coaches, and just about all of the ones in the SEC, would have done exactly what LSU did in there, which is play field position.
Next fourth quarter possession: again, the run works, as Fournette plows to midfield, and then Darrel Williams breaks a 27-yarder that put LSU in a position to score the back-breaking points, and probably use up most of the rest of the clock, pulled back by an extremely ticky tack holding call. Behind the chains again yes, LSU stayed with the run. They'd had runs of 9 and 17 yards on that series, plus a 14-yard Harris scramble and the negated 27-yarder. Again, isn't that doing what's working? On third-and-seven they passed, and Harris took something of a safe shot to Dupre knowing they'd at least flipped the field (I'd love to see a better angle to see what his options were, but State definitely had him contained, so scrambling again was not an option).
On the final drive, LSU faced a third and three at midfield, and after runs of 6, 8 and 7 yards and one no-gain. They ran it once with Fournette, tried to draw State offsides and then punted, pinning State at their own 11. Conservative? Yes. Out of line with what a lot of coaches do there with a young quarterback? No.
- Formation count (I will try to keep track of this game-to-game): LSU ran 11 personnel (1 back/1 TE/3 WRs) on 24 out of 61 offensive snaps. 19 snaps out of 21 personnel, 4 out of 22 (three in the fourth quarter), and three out of 12 (one back/2 TE). There was also 1 goal-line look and 1 wildcat.
- As for Harris, look he played great, and I would be absolutely stunned if we don't see growth out of the passing game as the season progresses. That was probably the loudest road environment he'll see with the cowbells, and he handled it incredibly well as a manager, getting calls from the sideline, including check-with-mes, and getting in and out of the huddle smoothly. As a passer he did a great job of distributing the ball and going through his progressions. The one complaint I'd have could be on some of the shotgun runs that featured a keep read, but there's no way to know how often he had that latitude. A lot of teams just like to use the action to bluff the backside of the defense without giving the QB the option to keep it.
That said, he timed his keepers very well and gained nice yardage.
- Random play I was asked about: Harris converted a third-and-5 slant to Dural for a first, and some noted Dupre running free behind him. From the reverse angle, you could see the safety fly up reading Harris' eyes, which is what left Dupre open. Interesting to see if we see a pump-fake there later on.
- Leonard Fournette...good God kid. I only have so many superlatives I can use, but he was Jeremy Hill-like in his ability to turn on the jets at the exact moment when he was through the hole. LSU was heavy on the zone-stretch plays, and on Fournette's second TD everybody hit their mark. Jerald Hawkins and John David Moore made an alley for a good six or seven yards and 7 did the rest, making a safety miss and taking off.
- Speaking of running backs, Darrel Williams did his best Kenny Hilliard impression with 45 TOUGH yards. He's going to punish a lot of defenders if he can keep that leg-drive up.
- To get on my soapbox a bit on Fournette's third score: radio in Baton Rouge -- and I'm looking specifically at Charles Hannagriff and Alan Risher on the postgame show -- have been complaining about "toss lead" for years. Not only is it LSU's best play, but they can't even name the damn thing correctly. A lead is an off-guard isolation run with a fullback. LSU ran POWER-O. In fact, what you saw on this play was an example of what happens if the defense tries to play it like a lead play. They got pinned down inside and gave 7 a huge outside alley. Turned on the jets and boom.
- Back to play-calling: Harris saw nine third downs of five yards or more, and that's far too many. Cam Cameron needs to do a much better job of keeping the offense on schedule with some high-percentage throws early on. We saw a little of that with some smoke routes in the second half, but LSU could have called a few more. But if you think what we saw with LSU attempting that few passes is, or will be an every week thing if Harris continues to play like this, you've spent too much time on Tiger Rant. This really came down to timing as much as anything though.
- Fallout from last week: 9 penalties for 95 yards sure seems like something that happens when you go on the road in week 2 and didn't get an opener, but that remains to be seen. What you did see were things like Travin Dural tripping on a smoke throw that probably picks up a first down, or John Diarse giving some ground trying to make a play after the catch. He came pretty close to converting a third and 11, but he might have got it if he'd just put his shoulder down and plowed ahead from the get-go. These, coupled with the penalties, helped kill a couple of drives that might have gone somewhere.
- Holding penalties: the most legit one was the call on Diarse on Dural's 90-yard touchdown. He had two handfuls of jersey on the play side and didn't let go. But the first one negating Dural's wide open TD catch? Josh Boutte hooked a guy getting by him for a second -- you'll see that a couple times a game anywhere else, and it's at best 50/50 on getting called. I can't rake him over the coals for that one. The one on Hawkins in the fourth was a complete joke. He was driving a linebacker five yards down field and the guy clearly flopped.
- However, Boutte still had a pretty rough first half dealing with Chris Jones, and was benched for Maea Teuhema. The freshman pretty much had nothing but highs and lows. He either plowed over a guy or just got straight beat. But that's not unusual for a freshman I suppose.
- Will Clapp's clipping call was horrendous and unnecessary. Harris was well clear of the defender, and from that angle he easily could have wrecked that guy's knee. I'll give a young guy some benefit of the doubt, but I don't want to see that again.
- Defense: LSU did a good job of keeping Dak Prescott off balance early, and using some movement to disrupt State's blocking assignments. That helped set up all three of LSU's sacks, with tackles watching a second-level guy while an end came by them unblocked. And Prescott still escaped at least two more potential sacks.
- Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones both were given a ton of responsibility to get into coverage drops while still eyeing Prescott on scrambles, and they did it well with 23 combined tackles.
- Credit State for finding a smart adjustment with a version of the "drive" concept with a back coming out of the backfield underneath a shallow cross from the wide receiver opening up space with a natural pick. A lot of teams will just have the receiver straight try and block the defender, but to State's credit we didn't really see that. Oddly enough, until the dropped two-point conversion play.
- State was just 3 for 15 on third down, and Dak was forced to attempt a career high 54 passes. That's out of Dan Mullen's comfort zone.
- In the second half, credit a very good quarterback and a veteran receiving group for executing, especially De'Runnya Wilson. Tre'davious White took away the long ball all night, but there's only so much you can do with a 220-pounder on the short stuff. That fade route was text book; White got right up against Wilson's chest, inside of his hands. Wilson couldn't get a good push off.
- Arden Key and Kevin Toliver will only get better, and that's scary. Toliver damn near made a Peterson-esque interception in the second half, but couldn't hold on. On the coverage bust late, it looks like State ran an overload with two deep routes in a two-deep zone, holding Jamal Adams in the middle of the field. I would think there's some sort of pattern check that wasn't made against that set.
- Safety play was outstanding for the most part. Rickey Jefferson and Adams seem to feed off each other, and they blended recklessness with discipline in a way that really prevented State from making big plays. But in the current football climate, they will have to mind drawing some flags after plays.