Tell the Truth Monday: No QB could fix LSU's problems
Max Johnson needs help.
The LSU quarterback made his third collegiate start in the 38-27 season-opening loss at UCLA on Saturday.
He made some good plays, he made a few terrible ones and mostly made a bunch of average plays. Make what you will of his statistics – 46 passes, 26 completions, 330 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 interception.
But here’s the truth on this Tell the Truth Monday: He wasn’t good enough to elevate the team around him. He had virtually no running game to help him – 25 rushes, 49 yards – and mostly passed under duress as the offensive line didn’t block appreciably better for passing plays than it did for running plays.
He and Kayshon Boutte did connect 9 times for 148 yards and 3 touchdowns. It wasn’t quite as productive as they were in their previous game when Boutte set an SEC record with 308 receiving yards on 14 catches, 3 of which were touchdowns, in the 2020 season-finale victory against Ole Miss.
But for much of Saturday night, Johnson was presenting his receivers with catchable but challenging passes to try and snare, and his receivers were often unable to salvage completions catches from those imperfect throws.
Though Johnson overcame the offense’s shortcomings well enough to put up pretty good passing numbers and produce 27 points, he wasn’t able to overcome the defense’s shortcomings.
The Tigers gave up 210 rushing yards, 260 passing yards and a slew of big gainers in the running game and the passing game.
After a scoreless first quarter, Johnson broke through with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Boutte early in the second quarter.
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That was the high point of the game for LSU.
UCLA needed 1 play and 14 seconds to tie the game with a 75-yard touchdown pass. The Tigers never led again.
Less than 3 minutes after their first touchdown, the Bruins scored another and took the lead for good, leaving Johnson to play uphill for the final 39-plus minutes.
Johnson pulled the Tigers within 4 points on 3 occasions but the defense couldn’t prevent UCLA from answering each time and the home team eventually rolled to a 38-20 lead before Johnson and Boutte teamed on a face-saving touchdown near the end.
Two years ago, LSU’s defense struggled in a few games before evolving into a championship-caliber unit during the stretch of the Tigers’ title run.
They overcame periodic defensive lapses because Joe Burrow always had one more touchdown drive in him whenever it was needed.
Max Johnson is not Joe Burrow.
Neither is any other quarterback in college football.
If LSU is counting on its 2021 quarterback to rescue it from the team’s shortcomings – as it did in 2019 – it is going to be in a lot of trouble.
Johnson played very well in his 2 starts at the end of last season. He was supposed to go toe-to-toe with Myles Brennan to be the starter this season before Brennan suffered a broken bone in his non-throwing arm shortly before the start of preseason camp.
His performance in the opener didn’t match the most optimistic hopes harbored by Tiger fans.
It’s yet to be determined whether Johnson’s tenure as the starter can withstand the presumed return of Brennan some time around mid-season.
But the truth is that doesn’t really matter.
If Saturday’s performances by the offensive line, the running game and the defense are indicative of what’s going to happen this season, neither Johnson nor Brennan is going to be able to elevate LSU above those significant short-comings into a relevant team.
Even Burrow would have had a hard time overcoming all of the limitations the Tigers displayed against UCLA.
The most scrutinized position battle during the off-season and the preseason was the one between Johnson and Brennan that never fully played out.
But after the loss to UCLA the truth is this: if head coach Ed Orgeron and his hand-picked, rebuilt coaching staff don’t fix all these other problems, who plays quarterback doesn’t matter a whole bunch.