LSU review: If you weren't a believer in Ed Orgeron, maybe it's time to start
If you weren’t a believer in Ed Orgeron as an LSU coaching candidate, maybe Saturday changed your mind.
In a 38-21 rout of Ole Miss at Tiger Stadium, Orgeron’s Tigers were dominant in the second half against his former school, looking every bit the part of SEC title contender they were supposed to be.
The Tigers outscored the Rebels 17-0 after halftime, which is remarkable when one considers how potent the Rebels’ offense has been this year. On this night, Ole Miss managed just 104 yards after halftime, 44 on a meaningless, last-minute possession.
And the defense didn’t even win the headlines for LSU. Not on a night where Leonard Fournette broke the school single-game rushing record.
So yeah, Orgeron, now 3-0 as LSU’s interim head coach, has this thing rolling in the right direction.
1. Leonard Fournette never looked better: The fear was that with Leonard Fournette’s injury being a high ankle sprain it would never completely go away this season. Well, consider it gone. After sitting out for three weeks, Fournette made his Orgeron-era debut and broke the school single-game rushing record with 284 yards on 16 carries and three long touchdowns.
On those, he never looked faster, breaking away from Rebels defensive backs on touchdown bursts of 59, 76 and 78 yards. The ankle looks fine and Fournette has never looked better as this game joined last year’s Auburn highlight reel in his signature performances.
2. Danny Etling supplying balance: One difference between what Fournette did Saturday and his past breakout games, is it was not a one-dimensional offensive performance. Against Ole Miss, quarterback Danny Etling was a solid 19-for-28 for 204 yards and a touchdown.
In Fournette’s 228-yard game against Auburn last year, Brandon Harris threw for 74 yards. In Fournette’s 244-yard night against Syracuse, Harris threw for 157 yards. When he ran for 233 yards against Eastern Michigan, Harris threw for 80.
Only in the Texas Tech game in the Texas Bowl did LSU match a 200-yard Fournette rushing day with a 200-yard passing day. At the time, it was an exception. Under Orgeron and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, balance is becoming the norm.
3. The defense is dominant at every level: Arden Key picked up his SEC-best eighth sack while the front seven, led by linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley (more on him later) allowed Ole Miss to average but 3.2 yards per rush. And the secondary helped hold the SEC’s leading pass offense to 110 yards below its average of 320 yards a game, numbers picked up against the likes of Florida State, Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas. There’s no doubting Dave Aranda’s impact on the LSU defense. There’s also no doubting the elite talent at every level of the defense.
4. Josh Growden flipping the field: Late in the game, LSU’s freshman punter from Australia hung up a 39-yard punt that was downed by a teammate at the Ole Miss 3. To celebrate, Growden motioned like he was swinging a wedge on a golf course. The point? He’s becoming a master at pinning opponents deep — two of his four punts, averaging 44.5 yards, left Ole Miss inside its 10 — while booming them from deep inside his territory when he has to.
Nobody has improved more over the course of the season than Growden, who struggled early, but is now becoming a special teams weapon.
5. Ole Miss in danger of dissipating? Ole Miss Safety Tony Conner is the last man standing. One of four, 5-star recruits in Ole Miss’ storied 2013 recruiting class, he’s the last one still playing for the Rebels. In the next two years after the 2013 class, Hugh Freeze and his staff didn’t get any more 5-star studs and, on the field, Ole Miss looked more like a team that didn’t have the elite foundation of talent to compete like it had a year ago with Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell.
The 2016 Ole Miss class had three 5-star players, led by Chad Kelly’s heir apparent, quarterback Shea Patterson. Will the Rebels decline as a challenger to the SEC’s elites before that group grows up?
Offense: B+ — So much went right. Fournette set a single-game school rushing record. Etling went completed passes and hit deep balls (a 40-yard touchdown bomb to a wide-open D.J. Chark). LSU finished with with 515 yards. So why not an A? Three turnovers, two on lost fumbles and one on an Etling interception, that’s why. One led to an Ole Miss touchdown just before half, another killed a drive.
Defense: A — Sure, Ole Miss scored 21 points, the most the Tigers have allowed this year. But consider that Ole Miss came in averaging 39.7 points against a rugged schedule. And consider that the Rebels average 476 yards a game and put up 522 yards on Alabama. For LSU to hold this group to 325 yards, 151 below its average, is quite remarkable. Kelly could not find deep balls on LSU’s tight coverage (19-for-32 for 209 yards) and Aranda’s defense was dominant, especially in the second half.
Special Teams: B+ — This was as solid of a special teams effort LSU has had all season. The Tigers covered punts well with Growden averaging 44.5 yards per punt. They covered kicks well, again. Colby Delahoussaye booted a 44-yard field goal on his only try. And while the kick return team didn’t get going (the only blemish on an otherwise stellar day), Tre’Davious White gave a boost with a 25-yard punt return. It was a solid all-around effort.
Coaching: A — Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger came out with a creative look, putting both Derrius Guice and Fournette in the backfield together. And while that didn’t pan out, the offense quickly adjusted to looks that did work, both for Fournette in the running game and with Etling in the passing game.
And few coaches are better at making adjustments than Aranda, who made all the right moves at halftime to completely smother the Rebels offense in the second half. Against explosive offenses from Southern Miss and Ole Miss in the past two weeks, LSU has pitched second-half shutouts.
Overall: A — This was a satisfying win for LSU as just about every desire was checked out, except for ball security with the three turnovers. Fournette was back and dominant. The passing game complemented his talents well. The defense was spectacular against a high-powered offense. The special teams held up their end. Take away the turnovers and this would have been a complete rout. As it is, it was a convincing and complete win.
LSU continued to show multiple looks to keep defenses off balance. The tendency to throw on first down made it easier for Fournette to see massive holes when the Tigers lined up in power formations and ran toss sweeps with him. So the spread-the-field strategy contributed to the power-run success. On defense, Dave Aranda continues to trust talent. Tre’Davious White, Kevin Toliver II and Donte Jackson don’t need a lot of help covering and with Key leading the charge, the defensive front doesn’t need a lot of blitz help. As the game progressed, the biggest adjustment for LSU’s defense was simply to stop making some mistakes that were made early.
RB Leonard Fournette: For athletes with high ankle sprains like Fournette had, the key is coming back at the right time. You’ll feel well enough to play before you’re really ready, and if you do that, you’ll never play at 100 percent. Fournette took three weeks off and his burst on the three long touchdown runs of 59, 76 and 78 yards were as fast and sudden as any of his runs in his career. If he’s not 100 percent now, it’ll be scary to see what 100 percent looks like.
LB Duke Riley: Not only did Riley have a career-high 14 tackles (5 unassisted), he had his first career interception. A first-year starter, Riley was all over the field for the Tigers and, at least for the night, was out of the shadow of Kendell Beckwith, the SEC West’s leading tackler.
CB Donte Jackson: Sure, he was called for three pass interference penalties. But a couple were arguable and all night he was in the hip pocket of the receivers he was covering. None of the calls was because he was compensating for getting beat. All three were because he was stuck to the receiver like glue and, in the eye of the official, was maybe too close. He got an interception and almost got a second, but he and safety John Battle collided going for the ball. He was also in on six tackles.