Tell The Truth Monday: LSU's performance demands re-evaluation of season, personnel
It’s Tell The Truth Monday.
Sometimes the truth is that stuff that has seemed clearly true for much of a season can suddenly seem less true after pivotal performances.
LSU’s stunning 37-34 victory against No. 6 Florida could be one of those moments.
It’s not going to save the season for the 4-5 defending national champions, who are scheduled to conclude the season against Ole Miss on Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
But it should pause the verdict reaching on the 2020 season and its principal players to allow for the admission of new evidence.
Let’s start with the most frequent target of dissatisfied Tiger watchers – defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.
Many critics didn’t like the hire. The debut of Pelini’s defense against Mississippi State was historically bad. Subsequent terrible performances against Missouri, Auburn and Alabama led to understandable suggestions that Pelini’s first season should be his last.
But along the way there has been periodic improvement – against Vanderbilt, against South Carolina, against Arkansas, especially against Texas A&M and less so against Florida.
The progress that has been made certainly has not been linear with the Alabama debacle happening just 9 days ago, but that’s the only defensive performance in the last 4 games that can be lumped in with the worst ones of the first 5 games – and it was against the No. 1 team in the country.
Florida gained a lot yards (609) and made some big plays and periodically looked like it was going to take over the game. But it never did.
LSU intercepted Kyle Trask twice and forced and recovered a Trask fumble. It had a goal-line stop and it forced a field goal after the Gators had reached the 9 with a chance to go ahead late in the 4th quarter.
It played without Derek Stingley Jr. and Micah Baskerville, Cordale Flott was ejected early and Eli Ricks played hurt most of the game and still came up with a 68-yard pick-6.
It has been a bad season for the LSU defense – utilizing a new scheme featuring mostly new players. But the defense has shown improvement, it has played its best mostly down down the stretch.
The mental and physical breakdowns have occurred with significantly less frequency in the last month. The players are clearly more confident and effective in what they are doing.
They played with heart and made important plays in the victory Saturday night.
Pelini’s job performance needs to be evaluated at the end of the season to determine whether he deserves another season. But that evaluation needs to be all-inclusive – giving as much consideration to the gradual ascent from the depths of the hole it dug as is given to the digging.
While we’re on the subject of coordinators, offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger had perhaps his best game of the season.
He had a smart game plan that the players executed efficiently against South Carolina and Arkansas.
But this was different.
This was against a much better opponent. This was with freshman quarterback Max Johnson making his first start just as fellow freshman TJ Finley made his first start against South Carolina.
Ensminger mixed the run and the pass astutely. He protected Johnson – as he did Finley – with a series of relatively safe pass plays. But he trusted Johnson more than he trusted the turnover-prone Finley and periodically was aggressive with his play calls.
Johnson rewarded him with 3 touchdown passes and zero turnovers.
The LSU offense has been wildly inconsistent this season. The offseason, preseason and in-season departures of key players have been the biggest factor in that. The injury to Myles Brennan hurt.
But Ensminger (who doubles as quarterbacks coach) and first-year passing game coordinator Scott Linehan have had trouble finding the right mix of run and pass and the optimum utilization of the freshmen in Brennan’s absence.
But it all came together against the Gators.
The performance Saturday is a reminder that Ensminger revitalized the offense when Ed Orgeron promoted him from tight ends coach 4 games into the 2016 season.
It was Ensminger who returned after the failed Matt Canada experiment in 2017 and oversaw the offense Orgeron had been seeking in 2018.
It was Ensminger – with a big assist from former passing game coordinator Joe Brady – who ran the historically productive show during last year’s championship run.
This hasn’t been Ensminger’s best season – just as it hasn’t been LSU’s best season.
But Saturday’s performance is consistent with what Ensminger’s tenure has mostly been and the poor performances against Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama are the outliers.
We know more about all 3 quarterbacks than we knew when the season began.
And it should be an interesting competition going forward – if all 3 choose to return.
The bottom line on this Tell The Truth Monday is when things were going the worst for LSU, the Tigers played their best.