TJ Finley says LSU has its ‘swagger back’ after South Carolina win; can it continue?

There was a familiar energy on the LSU sideline Saturday night that had been briefly forgotten, briefly replaced by dejection and frustration in two brutal losses in the program’s first three games.

On a crucial night, in a game LSU needed to win to keep from dropping to a dismal position in the Southeastern Conference standings, the Tigers (2-2) broke open a three score lead over South Carolina (2-3) in the second quarter and never looked back in a dominant 52-24 victory.

Eli Ricks, the cornerback of a beleaguered defense, undercut a sideline pass and returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown to give LSU a 31-10 halftime lead.

Ricks, who’s now tied for the NCAA lead with three interceptions this year, turned back toward the defense and flashed the deuces with his right hand as he strode into the end zone.

John Emery, the starting running back of a rushing attack that had recently disappeared, tag-teamed with Ty Davis-Price and others to bash South Carolina with gashing runs, 283 total rushing yards, three scores on the ground and an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

On the sideline in the third quarter, after a Davis-Price touchdown that produced a 45-17 lead, Emery taught offensive lineman Xavier Hill “The Griddy” — a dance popularized last season by former receiver Justin Jefferson — and howled in laughter as Hill attempted the skipping steps.

TJ Finley, the true freshman who replaced the injured Myles Brennan, had a near-perfect debut for the Tigers, completing 17-of-21 passes for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, his only mistake, which appeared to be either an underthrown ball or a miscommunication on a back-shoulder pass in the second quarter.

Finley’s performance was enough to stir “quarterback controversy” talk from ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky and a lively bunch of conspiracy theorists on social media following the game.

Make no mistake, LSU coach Ed Orgeron said later, Brennan is still the team’s starting quarterback. Offense was not the team’s main issue before South Carolina; Brennan threw for 1,112 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions in three games.

“Myles is our starting quarterback,” Orgeron said. “I know this: if Myles is not doing good, I can put in TJ and feel good about it.”

The coach and freshman embraced in a celebratory locker room, and Finley danced along with teammates in a postgame atmosphere that was more common in the season before he arrived.

“I feel like we have our swagger back,” Finley said. “Last year the guys played together. The offense and defense, they fueled each other. Like Coach O always says: big plays fuel emotion. The offense, we had big plays, explosive runs, explosive passes. Defense had explosive stops: interception, pick six right before the half. Things like that. I felt like we came together today.”

Finley could sense that the team felt separated in the three previous games, in high-scoring losses to Mississippi State and Missouri, even in a 41-7 road win over Vanderbilt. He couldn’t really place what was driving them apart.

LSU was given an unexpected time to reset when its game at Florida was postponed to December due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the Gator football program. Finley said Orgeron brought the team together that Wednesday and preached: “We’ll win as long as we stay together. As long as we stay together, we’ll have success.”

Linebackers Jabril Cox and Damone Clark and safety JaCoby Stevens knew their defense was the focus of heightened criticism. They knew they themselves were at the center of much of it. They knew some of it was justified by the broken coverages that produced wide open receivers, the misread gaps that surrendered gashing runs by opposing backs.

Most of all, they knew their defensive coordinator, Bo Pelini, was being roasted by the general public three games into his return to Baton Rouge.

Cox said he, Clark and Stevens came together and decided, “Hey, we’ve been playing really bad these past couple of games. We just need to show everybody that Pelini, his scheme and everything he’s been doing for us is something that really fits our style.”

“Just coming out with the W and holding them to the amount of points we did,” Cox said, “I know we gave up a few at the end, but it really showed how we can be as a whole defense.”

The defense played its game on the extremes. There were either large chunks of yardage given up on explosive plays, or there sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.

LSU surrendered seven plays that gained at least 20 yards, four plays that gained at least 40. The Tigers have given up 10 plays of over 40 yards this season in four games. Last season, LSU gave up 15 such plays in 15 games.

But the disruptive defense forced five sacks, seven tackles for loss and Ricks’ defensive touchdown, and Orgeron said those reflect the identity he’s wanted all along.

No, giving up large chunks of yardage aren’t a byproduct of being aggressive, Cox said. It isn’t the cost of doing business in this defense.

“That’s just something that can be fixed,” Cox said. “That’s mostly on the players — us losing our eyes and just trying to make a play or not focusing during a play. That’s something we can focus on ourselves.”

The flaws on this LSU team made a steady step toward solutions on Saturday as the team heads into a tough stretch of games against Auburn, Alabama and rejuvenated Arkansas.

The offense, which went 0-for-10 on third down against Missouri, went 8-of-10 against South Carolina, including a short pitch-and-catch from Finley to Terrace Marshall, who broke off for a 51-yard touchdown reception.

Orgeron said the team’s focus on its goal line packages paid off following its rejection on fourth-and-goal against Missouri — a last-minute effort that could have won salvaged a victory in Columbia.

LSU scored four touchdowns within South Carolina’s 10. Finley scored on a quarterback sneak on the first drive, threw a 7-yard fade to a wide open Marshall in the second quarter, and Emery and Davis-Price both scored on short runs in the second half.

Emery dove over the line of scrimmage on his score, an airborne effort that he planned ahead with Finley and fullback Tory Carter.

“I was getting in the end zone no matter what,” Emery said.

That, in a play, is the attitude, effort and “swagger” Orgeron hoped his team recaptured.

“I think it’s the way we practiced,” Orgeron said. “Everybody just had enough.”

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