A pale, gray sky clamped over Tiger Stadium in the hour before kickoff Saturday night.
LSU’s most desperate hour.
Tiger Stadium actually looked more like the Alamo under the circumstances. The home team was holding a 1-2 record and was without its talented junior quarterback who played plenty good enough to be 3-0 before being sidelined with an abdominal muscle injury that rendered his strong right arm inert. LSU had to take the keys from Myles Brennan and hand them to TJ Finley, a freshman who may or may not be old enough to drive.
The LSU defense, the beleaguered Tigers defense, the unit which was hurled with so much rightful criticism in its first three games you’d have…
This was South Carolina that LSU had to beat; not exactly like the Saints hosting the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. But the Tigers looked so vulnerable, so decimated, so shell-shocked from their losses to Mississippi State and Missouri. LSU came in just less than a touchdown favorite over the Gamecocks, but it was the most underdog-looking favorite you ever saw.
But as late afternoon turned to night, the first Saturday night in Death Valley in our strange, temporarily new world, it looked like the old-world Tigers once again.
Oh, there were still way too many South Carolina players gobbling up way too many yards on big plays to suit anyone who pulls for the purple and gold. But that still-wobbly defense made some stops, made some progress, and even chipped in to the cause with a 45-yard Eli Ricks interception return for a touchdown that helped LSU run far away from the Gamecocks’ dangerous clutches for a 52-24 victory.
A lot of credit will deservedly go to Finley — more on him later — but this was the epitome of an all-around effort.
LSU supported Finley with a nurturing, well-crafted game plan that allowed him to build confidence from short passes to longer ones and take progressively more daring shots downfield. The offensive line repeatedly pushed South Carolina’s lauded defensive line off the ball, opening lanes for the Tigers’ previously scuffling running game to the tune of 276 yards, led by 135 from Ty Davis-Price.
The defense did get enough sacks and big plays to offset at least some of its deficiencies. And even special teams helped out in a history-making way, as Trey Palmer took a bobbled kickoff and raced 93 yards for a touchdown to erase one of the great trivia questions in LSU football lore.
It is the Tigers’ first kickoff return in their stadium since Eric Martin ran one back 100 yards against Kentucky on Oct. 17, 1981.
Punter Zach Von Rosenberg, the star of LSU’s special teams in this struggling start to the season, didn’t punt even once.
But the focus will be on Finley, and rightly so. According to coach Ed Orgeron, he won the chance to start virtually on a coin flip over fellow freshman Max Johnson. OK, Coach O said Finley was better in a couple of third-down practice situations. But this was for the right to start against a living, breathing Southeastern Conference team that upset Auburn a week earlier, not have the upper hand in some situational practice wearing a noncontact jersey.
It couldn’t have gone better for Finley, and LSU. Yes he threw one interception (he made the tackle) on either an underthrown ball or a bad miscommunication with the receiver. But his other 20 attempts were pretty top notch as he went 17 of 21 for 265 yards with two scores.
As the game drew to a close, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky (the same guy who argued late last season that Joe Burrow shouldn’t win the Heisman Trophy and had Marcus Spears laughing himself off the set) was saying Finley should keep the starting job. CBS college football writer Dennis Dodd tweeted that it was a legitimate question to be asked.
The answer is no. Finley was good, but Brennan shouldn’t be the Wally Pipp to the freshman’s Lou Gehrig. Not after throwing for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns in LSU’s first three games. That said, LSU should strongly consider bringing in Finley on short-yardage situations like some economy-sized version of Taysom Hill.
More than once with the Tigers needing a yard, the kid laid his 6-foot-6, 242-pound frame across the line of scrimmage like a falling timber tree to bridge the gap.
Johnson, by the way, did come in near the goal line for one play early when Finley’s helmet came off and then on the last drive, running twice for 19 yards. It was much less than he was expected to play, but that spoke to how good Finley was.
Score by quarters
The defense was better, but not Finley-esque. Let’s say it went from a red flag to a neon yellow. It still needs work. Collin Hill was sacked five times (three by BJ Ojulari) and was only 12 of 22 passing, but he averaged 19.5 yards per completion. That has to improve.
But that’s for the days to come. LSU needed a win by any means necessary and got it against a team that looked more than capable of beating the Tigers.
At least for now, the gray clouds over this program have blown away.