It was in all reality a season changing win for Brian Kelly and the LSU Tigers after getting his first conference victory as the Tigers’ head coach against Mississippi State. For three quarters, it was a tight one as going into the last fifteen minutes of the game, LSU was losing by only a point, but it was the fourth quarter that the Bayou Bengals dominated the Bulldogs outscoring them 21-0 in order to get the 31-16 victory at home. Now, that the Tigers have improved to 2-1, the team has set themselves up in a pretty good spot entering New Mexico this week. Before we focus on the Lobos the rest of the week, here are some of my final takeaways from the Tigers’ first SEC victory of the 2022 season.
1. LSU’s Defense Will Keep This Team In Games All Season After Grounding Air Raid Attack.
My vote for the game ball last week does not go out to a player, but a coach. That would be defensive coordinator Matt House. Mississippi State’s Air Raid offense is one of the toughest to defend, especially trying to prepare for something as unique like that for a short week, but Coach House deserves a game ball for what he was able to do in grounding the Bulldogs’ Air Raid offense that came in averaging 381 yards passing per game with a quarterback in Will Rogers that was second in the country in touchdown passes with nine. The Tigers’ stingy defense only allowed 214 yards passing and one touchdown while Rogers only completed 57% of his passes.
Jay Ward and BJ Ojulari headlined the group as Ward earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors leading the Tigers with 11 tackles while clinching the victory with a late game interception. Ojulari was the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for the third time in his career after putting pressure on Rogers all night with 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries.
The rest of the defense did its part too, especially on the defensive front as every player seemed to make a huge play in the ball game. Mekhi Wingo made two big tackles on fourth and short. Saivion Jones had a sack fumble in the football game. Greg Penn, Micah Baskerville, and Mike Jones Jr. were heavily active during the game. Then, Harold Perkins had his coming out party with six tackles, two tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. House continued to show the Bulldogs’ multiple different looks and threw off the timing of this precision offense all night long. Despite being down by two scores and the Tigers’ offense putting its defense in tough positions throughout the first half against a potentially high scoring attack, the defense continued to keep the team in the football game. As the Tigers’ offense continues to work out its kinks, the coaches know that they can count on their defense to keep them in football games once the team gets into the meat of SEC play.
2. The LSU offense is at its best in going up tempo.
For the second time in three weeks, this LSU offense has showed its youth and inconsistency by having another sluggish start. It was a struggle for Jayden Daniels early as he could not get the football to his playmakers and the offensive line could not get the running game early at the beginning of the game. It wasn’t until the final drive of the first half that Jayden Daniels was able to use his legs running the football and was much more decisive throwing the football in the quick passing game. When this Tigers’ offense has been forced to go fast, it has actually benefited them as Daniels has been decisive either throwing or running the football. This offense has shown to be most dangerous when the tempo of the game is quicker not only for Daniels, but for this offensive line as well because the front five suffered three false start penalties on the first drive when the pace of the game was slower. The Tigers had a lot of their mistakes in the game early when the offense did not show urgency in its tempo.
3. Good things happen when putting trust in LSU’s receivers.
As I stated earlier about how the offense was much better when going up tempo, it was because Daniels was decisive in making his reads whether it was running or throwing the football. Earlier in the first half, there were throws out there to be made for Daniels, but he was just indecisive in trying to attempt those throws as there were open receivers down the field on multiple occasions. As the game went on in the second half, he became more confident in trusting his receivers. In fact, on the team’s second straight scoring drive in the fourth quarter, Daniels hit Malik Nabers on three different third down conversions to move the chains. Then, Daniels showed he can be aggressive throwing the ball on a fourth and three and completing a huge 34 yard completion to Nabers again on a slot fade route when it was only a one point game. The lesson here for Daniels is that with this receiving core, if one of these talented wide receivers gets a one on one opportunity against a defensive back, good things will happen when giving them the football. Entering this season, the wide receiving core was highly regarded as one of the best in the entire country and there’s a reason why. If Daniels continues to improve on his anticipation and trust in his receivers to make plays more in the passing game, it will put less pressure on him and will open things up even more for him as a runner.
4. Special Teams Continues To Show Its Struggles.
Although the extra point and field goal execution has been cleaner, the punt return and kickoff return coverage struggled in the victory. Although the biggest play of the game for the Tigers came on special teams when long snapper Slade Roy recovered a Bulldogs’ muffed punt, there were still some troubling signs for the special teams unit. In fact, the Tigers got lucky on all three big returns. For the first two returns, offensive lineman Emery Jones and punter Jay Bramblett most likely saved two Zavion Thomas’ punt return touchdowns on tackles. Usually, that’s not what a special teams coordinator would want being the last line of defense making tackles, but those two players made tremendous plays in preventing already big returns into becoming much bigger ones. The Tigers also gave up an 88 yard kickoff return, which could have given the momentum back to the Bulldogs late in the game, but that big return was negated by a holding penalty. The three big returns necessarily could have been worse, but it is clear that special teams coverage has emerged as the next big problem in this phase of the game.
As far as punt returns are concerned, Greg Clayton has been a great asset as far as actually fielding the punts, but he has made some poor decisions when returning punts like trying to return a punt from his own five yard line and also trying to recover a punt when it has not been touched by a Mississippi State player as he thought it was touched by one of his teammates. Those things are effort based and can be coached up so I expect Clayton to be much better this week when deciding to either call fair catch or returning those punts.
5. The Tigers Show Why They Have Been One Of The Best Conditioned Teams With Another Big Fourth Quarter Performance
For the second time in three games, the Tigers played its best football in the fourth quarter. This time, it guided the Tigers to a win against Mississippi State. The Tigers dominated the Bulldogs on both sides of the football outscoring them 21-0 after entering the fourth quarter trailing 16-10. The Tigers had three straight scoring touchdown drives while the defense only allowed 44 total yards in the last quarter. The young offensive line with two freshmen starting at left and right tackle grew up in a hurry and looked the most effective all season long in running the football with 117 yards rushing after only rushing for 89 yards the previous three quarters. The offense also essentially put the game on ice with a 47 yard rushing touchdown to put the Tigers up by 15 points. Being able to close out games by running the football and continuing to fly around the football on defense shows how good of a job strength and conditioning coach Jacob Flint has done in the offseason in order to put this team in position to be its absolute freshest late in football games.