Tell The Truth Monday: LSU was better, but don't be fooled by the defensive stats
TJ Finley played about as well as LSU could have hoped for in his college debut.
The Tigers’ offense as a whole played its best game of the season.
The special teams contributed their biggest play of the season in Trey Palmer’s 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff return.
The defense contributed a score as well when Eli Ricks had a 45-yard pick-6.
So LSU did good stuff in all three phases during its 52-24 victory against South Carolina on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
But this is Tell The Truth Monday.
There is more to tell than just the good stuff, but there was more good than bad.
The defense was better than it was in its most recent performance against Missouri, but it still has a ways to go.
There are still too many big plays being allowed on running plays and passing plays.
Head coach Ed Orgeron and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini have said they have dramatically simplified the defense.
But there are still blown assignments, runners running free, receivers going uncovered, defenders looking at each other, pointing at each other and the sight of a big-gainer.
The defense might be simpler, but it’s still not simple enough.
When you allow 403 total yards – which the Tigers did against the Gamecocks – it’s nothing to brag about, but it did represent improvement.
It was nearly 100 fewer yards than the defense was giving up on average and more than 200 better than they gave up on average in their 2 losses.
But Tell The Truth Monday requires a closer look, and those numbers don’t hold up under closer scrutiny.
South Carolina averaged 7.8 yards per play and LSU opponents are averaging 7.2 for the season.
The total yards and points allowed were lower in large part because the offense held the ball for 37 minutes and 34 seconds.
The only reliable way to prevent this defense from being exposed is to keep it on the sideline – and LSU was able to do that. But that kind of possession time is going to be difficult for the offense to maintain on a consistent basis.
The defense is going to have play more than the 51 snaps it played Saturday – perhaps in every remaining game, and perhaps by a large margin.
The improvement that the defense did show can mostly be attributed to the play of the line. LSU sacked South Carolina QB Collin Hill 5 times and pressured him plenty of other times.
That helped protect the back 7 whose propensity for breakdowns and giving up big plays is still a significant concern.
The concern over Myles Brennan’s absence proved to not be concerning – at least for one week.
Finley’s very effective performance was made possible in part by a commitment to the run from the start as well as the offensive line’s best performance of the season.
Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger deserves credit not only for his best game plan and play-calling of the season but also for his part in preparing Finley in his other role as quarterbacks coach.
Ensminger was careful not to ask too much of the quarterback in the early going and the offensive line and the running game helped the play-caller out with the execution of the game plan.
Finley’s early throws were easy ones against a defense knocked off balance by the fast start of the running game. Finley had no trouble connecting on the easy throws and gradually Ensminger got bolder, Finley got more confident and the passing game thrived with Terrace Marshall making big plays as he always does.
If Orgeron and Pelini can somehow craft a basic and balanced game plan the way Ensminger and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan did, and get the defense to execute it the way the offense executed against South Carolina, the Tigers might be on to something.