LSU held off a late rally for a 23-20 win in their SEC opener over Mississippi State, in what proved to be a game that had a little bit of something for everybody. There was a frustrating second-half shutout that displayed a number of the “yeah but they won’t be good enough to beat [insert better team]” issues that have justifiably frustrated everybody since the season opener with Wisconsin. Danny Etling looked even better, and may be an honest-to-goodness, SEC-ready quarterback. LSU’s defense allowed just one third down in 12 attempts and racked up six sacks, including a game-clincher that really shut-down State’s final rally attempt. Special teams even had its best day thanks to Josh Growden punting so well , although State was consistently able to use it to flip field position in the second half, and yet another kickoff out of bounds.
It’s both a sign of improvement for a team that’s a quarter through its season, and a demonstration of just how far this team has to go if it does want to seriously contend for a championship. If you follow any of us on twitter, you might have noticed Dan and Poseur arguing the point a bit and well…I’d say they’re both right.
In some ways, this game reminded me a bit of LSU’s win over Auburn in 2013, in which LSU jumped out to a comfortable lead, but never really landed a kill shot and allowed Auburn a chance to try and rally. State was able to get much closer, but in the end the Tigers made the plays they had to make. The crowd on that night also filed out of the stadium in the third quarter as well, although in 2013 at least there was a rain excuse. I’m not sure what this year’s had other than beating traffic.
Ultimately, this game is as a data point for this team, but there’s still a lot more to the picture. Next week’s trip to Jordan-Hare, to face what could be a very desperate Auburn squad, should show us more.
On to the re-watch…
- I’ll start with what’s the biggest story out of this game, and it’s that it sure does look like LSU has found itself a quarterback in the Purdue transfer Etling. He carried through with all of the best things he showed from his action against Jacksonville State. Poise, good feet and strong decision making. Etling bounces through his progressions well, and while he did take a few shots in situations where he could have easily laid up with a checkdown (including on a third down that resulted in a drop by D.J. Chark), he was relatively careful with the ball.
- That comfort extended into play-calling, where you had a strong sense that Cam Cameron feels much more comfortable with the whole playbook at the moment. LSU threw it on first-and-10 nine times in this game, including on its own goal-line. But whereas Brandon Harris was much more intent on pushing the ball down the field, Etling is comfortable coming down to a tight end, running back or a slot receiver.
- One of the best examples of Etling’s poise came on LSU’s second possession, with this quick scramble and shovel pass to Travin Dural on a shallow cross.
With the pocket collapsing, Etling just climbs the pocket and finds his window. Live, I thought it was a sack from my seat until I saw Dural on the run. Great ad-lib play.
- It looks like Cameron took my advice from the pre-game with a real focus on occupying State’s backside defenders with a big emphasis on reverses. So naturally, State’s players did the right thing every time to defend them properly. I appreciate the theory, but in practice it would have been better to just use the action of the reverse to get that same affect. It’s just tough to fall behind the chains like that.
- Second-half play-calling will draw some complaints again, but I don’t agree with the idea that anything “went into a shell.” Until the final drive, LSU’s offense started each possession inside its own 30, with three starting inside the 15. You have a 20-point lead and Leonard Fournette. I think leaning on the run is a pretty smart move there. And with the exception of the final three-and-out, the other drives were shorted out by penalties or turnovers. That may not make you feel much better. Struggles are struggles after all. But I don’t consider that going into any kind of shell.
- And even with that, LSU put together what should have been a masterpiece of a game-killing drive. Backed up at their own one-yard line. Thirteen plays, 65 yards with seven minutes of clock devoured. A huge chop-block penalty put the offense in a second and 22, and Etling found Malachi Dupre for a very nice 17-yard gain. It eventually led to a fourth-and-one, and right when it looks like Fournette is about to break loose and ice things, he coughs the ball up. LSU recovered, but on review it was ruled, somehow, that Fournette fumbled before crossing the line to gain, and you can’t advance a fumble.
- As for that call, I’ll just leave it to Mike Patrick -- if you have to look at a replay for 5 minutes, the call is obviously not conclusive. Yes, that Mike Patrick was the voice of reason on this. You let that roll around in your brain pan for a minute.
- Sure, Fournette’s two fumbles (and the first one was questionable as well as to whether or not his forward progress had been stopped) might have turned the game, but don’t say the guy still didn’t give us something to remember.
Brandon Bryant is a 215-pound safety by the way.
- The first touchdown pass to Chark from Etling came on a three-level concept down the middle, with Chark running a seam route over the top of a shallow and deeper crossing route. Fournette does a fantastic job picking up a blitzing linebacker, and Etling lets it fly to the one-on-one matchup with the middle of the field open. It’s not a perfect throw, but there’s just enough air for Chark to get to it and he does a great job of getting two feet down and holding on.
- On the second and third touchdown runs, the offense did a good job of mixing up some counters, traps and other misdirection runs to try and keep the State front guessing, although the touchdowns were back to basics, with Fournette behind Will Clapp and J.D. Moore. The five-yarder was on an inside zone run, the 25-yarder on a power-G toss.
- Overall, the LSU offensive line had their struggles, but consider this:
Just finished rewatching LSU-MSU. Made notes on LSU's OL combinations brought on by injuries. Counted at least five. pic.twitter.com/7Ld8nKe1rq— David Ching (@ESPNChing) September 18, 2016
- With injuries making that many lineup changes necessary, LSU rushed for 177 yards and allowed just five tackles for loss to a front seven that was leading the SEC in that category.
- Overall, LSU really won this game at the line of scrimmage with both lines. Arden Key, obviously, was huge with two sacks and the game-clincher. Dave Aranda used him much more as a pure rush end, as compared to a linebacker that was picked on in coverage a bit in the first two weeks.
- Sacks are great, but this play from Key here was one of my favorites, and really illustrative of why the Tigers were able to hold State to just 56 rushing yards.
Key flies into the backfield and closes on the ball so quickly that I don’t think there IS a right choice for Nick Fitzgerald to make on the zone-read. Either way, Key is going to make the tackle.
- In the defensive backfield, the Tigers did a lot of little things well, but struggled with the big ones. Jamal Adams and Tre’davious White both did a fantastic job of blowing through blocks and closing on short passes quick when State threw short. But overall, this group probably missed out on three interceptions on plays down the field.
- Kevin Toliver was probably the most egregious. He failed to get his head around on a ball he likely could have caught early in the second half, failed to haul in a tipped ball a few drives later, needed Rickey Jefferson to punch a ball loose after Fred Ross had screened him off for a potential touchdown AND missed a tackle that led to a 23-yard gain on one of State’s late scoring drives.
- A little more credit for Adams for making a very clutch tackle on the final punt of the game to Ross as well.
- Speaking of special teams, at the very least, LSU looks like it has a punter, with Josh Growden coming through with a 49-yard net average and a huge 61-yarder at a moment when his team really needed it.
- Kickoff coverage improved, although Gamble AGAIN put one out of bounds. The onside kick, to me, was a million-to-one bounce on a ball that Dural and Dupre appeared to have a great chance of playing.
- Speaking of Dupre, let’s give him credit for a very workmanlike rebound effort with four catches for 54 yards, both team highs. LSU didn’t really try to force the ball to him down the field, they just put him in the slot, where he was more likely to have some room and let the game come to him. He still has a long ways to go, and Chark is earning more and more snaps, but it’s a start. Even if he badly overthrew what should have been a fairly easy toss to Etling on a reverse pass. Still, it’s emblematic of the progress this offense has made. The little things are coming together. If that starts to lead to big things...well...