TJ Finley wanted a tapered suit. He heard people watched LSU’s pregame Tiger Walk on television, so five days before his collegiate debut, Finley asked his mom for a new suit, ideally something that hugged his 6-foot-6, 242-pound frame.
“We’re going to make it happen,” Finley’s mother said.
Finley stepped off the bus Saturday evening in a sleek, blue patterned suit. A black mask with his name and number, 11, and black Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses covered his face. Walking with confidence and swagger into Tiger Stadium, Finley announced his arrival as an LSU quarterback.
The freshman from Ponchatoula, starting against South Carolina in place of injured redshirt junior Myles Brennan, led LSU to a 52-24 win. The moment didn’t phase him. Finley completed 17 of 21 passes for 265 yards, and he accounted for three touchdowns, becoming the fourth LSU true freshman quarterback to win his first career start.
“He was not nervous at all,” coach Ed Orgeron said.
The LSU defense — the beleaguered Tigers defense, the unit that was hurled with so much rightful criticism in its first three games you’d have…
Finley had enrolled early at LSU to prepare for this opportunity, joining the team in bowl practices the day he signed his letter of intent as a three-star prospect because he wanted to become the starter. He improved his understanding of defensive schemes by watching Joe Burrow, but Finley needed to lose weight.
“I came into LSU — this is an embarrassing number, but oh well — 265 pounds,” Finley said. “I was huge. A lot of the guys messed with me and said I would move to defensive tackle.”
Finley dedicated himself to weight loss during the coronavirus shutdown. He trained with his younger brother and focused on daily conditioning, trying to cut weight while he strengthened his core. He dropped 20-25 pounds. When he returned for fall camp, Finley showed mobility Orgeron hadn’t seen in his high school film.
After Brennan suffered an abdominal injury, Finley beat fellow true freshman Max Johnson for the starting job. Orgeron compared the decision to a coin flip. LSU hoped to use both quarterbacks early against South Carolina, but Finley played too well to remove him from the game. Johnson didn’t appear until LSU led by 28 points in the fourth quarter.
LSU knew Finley had a strong arm, but it didn’t know what to expect from him once pressure mounted. He had never taken a college snap.
At first, LSU slowed down its offensive pace. Coordinator Steve Ensminger, once the first LSU true freshman to start at quarterback in 1976, understood the situation around Finley. He crafted a game plan heavy on running plays, quick throws and run-pass options, a hallmark of LSU’s offense and something Finley had used since high school.
Ensminger called a slew of runs on LSU’s first possession — Finley attempted three passes — but as the game continued, LSU expanded its offense. It gave Finley more responsibility, letting him throw seven passes on LSU’s third drive. Finley completed all seven attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown to Terrace Marshall Jr., a fade lofted under pressure into the corner.
When Finley returned to the sideline between drives, he fist-bumped running backs on the bench and clapped around offensive linemen. The Tigers scored on eight of their 11 possessions. They never punted.
“Coach Ensminger was amazing in prepping me for this game,” Finley said.
At one point, Finley completed eight straight passes. His only mistake broke the streak. Deep in South Carolina territory, Finley threw a back-shoulder pass to sophomore Jaray Jenkins, who kept running deep, an apparent miscommunication between the players. South Carolina intercepted the throw and returned it 56 yards. Finley made the tackle. As he returned to the sideline, teammates encouraged him.
“TJ was very calm before and during the game,” sophomore running back John Emery said, “so it was easy to be on his side with everything.”
1. WHAT WE LEARNED
On LSU’s next possession, Finley threw a 51-yard touchdown to Marshall, atoning for his error. The pass came on third down, and LSU had chosen Finley, in part, because he converted more third down situations in practice than Johnson. LSU went 7-for-9 with Finley under center, improving an area of concern.
The score put LSU ahead by two touchdowns. South Carolina never got closer. Finley spent the second half managing the offense while LSU stretched its lead. He attempted three more passes. And as Finley led LSU to its final touchdown, the sparse student section chanted “T-J, Fin-ley.”
Finley’s debut sparked debate on online discussion boards over whether he should permanently unseat Brennan, whose injury has made his status week to week. But Brennan has thrown for 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns with three interceptions in his first season as the starter. Orgeron dismissed the idea of a quarterback controversy.
“There might be on y’all part,” Orgeron said, chuckling. “Everybody’s just yearning for it. I can feel it. It ain’t going to be on our part. Myles is our starting quarterback.”
LSU didn’t lean on a star rusher to dominate a must-win game against South Carolina.
But Finley impressed Orgeron with his decisions, and the coach knows if Brennan doesn’t play well or his injury takes more time to heal, he can trust Finley.
Throughout the game, Finley exuded poise and serenity. He also played with an edge. After his first touchdown, Finley strutted through the end zone, raising his arms as he asked fans for more noise.
After Emery scored LSU’s final touchdown, Finley danced in the end zone with his teammates. He jogged off the field swinging his right arm toward the student section that chanted his name, enjoying the celebration in a night he created.
“This is a big win for LSU and for this team,” Finley said. “If Myles isn’t ready to play next week, I’ll be ready.”