DALLAS — LSU looked terrible, like many thought it might, just how we expected, exactly what we all predicted.
In this showdown with preseason No. 8 Miami, the Tigers bumbled through their first few possessions, because of course they did: two dropped passes, three flags, one near-costly fumble. By the end of the first quarter, LSU’s offense had used the same number of timeouts (two) as it had rushing yards (two).
Who was surprised by this? Not us. We all had these Tigers and their Cajun coach crumbling before the Canes. We all had them beat, all claimed this new offense and quarterback of theirs couldn’t hack it against the ACC’s best. And here they were, limping along and stepping on their toes, making us all look like geniuses.
And then they thunderously proved us wrong—this writer included. Running through a chasm the offensive line created, Nick Brossette’s 50-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter sparked a surge, and the Tigers’ new offense shook off the sluggish start to score 30 unanswered points (six of them on a pick-six) in a 33–17 rout. LSU—with eight new offensive starters, a new quarterback and a new coordinator—stomped a veteran-led Hurricanes team that was 10–0 last November.
For the record, just in case you’re not clear, we did not see this coming. They did, of course, because “we’re LSU,” said confident linebacker Devin White, all smiles after this victory.
Oh, you bet this one felt good for the man they call Coach O, clobbering the program where he cut his teeth in the early 1990s, a place he left in shame after off-the-field transgressions. This one felt great, especially after an August of negativity. Like a damp, dark cloud, it lingered over Baton Rouge. Three players—two projected starters—were arrested and subsequently suspended, and two quarterbacks transferred two weeks into camp. The team gathered for a players-only meeting just days into preseason practice.
“We could see it in camp—our team came together when those things happened to us,” Orgeron said, situated on a podium, just minutes after delivering a fiery postgame speech that could be heard from the cavernous bowels of AT&T Stadium. “We block out the noise.”
There was lots of it. Las Vegas put LSU’s regular season win total at just 7.5, the media in July picked them to finish fifth in the SEC West—yes, behind Texas A&M and Mississippi State—and they entered Sunday’s game as a three-point underdog. With dates with four teams ranked inside the top nine of the AP preseason poll, some wrote off the Tigers even for a bowl, their new quarterback says. “So when I committed, everybody was talking about, ‘Yeah, you’re going to go 6–6, 6–6, 5–7,’” Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow told ESPN’s Holly Rowe during an on-field interview immediately after the game. “And then I got here. I’m like, ‘We’re a really talented team. Like, we can be really good.’”
Now, don’t be giving these Tigers the Southeastern Conference crown just yet. This is only one game against a Miami team that may be ghastly overrated. Don’t forget about that embarrassing offensive start either, and while the scoreboard showed dominance, the stat sheet showed otherwise (LSU trailed 342–296 in total yards, for instance). But it was a win, one over a current top-10 team in the wake of controversy and doubt. The doubting was strong enough that, as the Tigers took charge with a 30–3 third-quarter lead, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit on Twitter posted an apology: “LSU I apologize. This squadron appears to be amped and on a mission. Mercy!”
LSU-Miami rode solo Sunday night at AT&T Stadium, the only game airing on the eve of Labor Day, blasted to America’s eyes on ABC. This was it, the stage on which coach Mark Richt, quarterback Malik Rosier and the Hurricanes would show that their late-season collapse in 2017 was only a fluke.
Instead, Orgeron and his charges proved so many of us wrong. Three offseason decisions the school made helped get the Tigers to 1–0: They paid defensive coordinator Dave Aranda the highest salary for a college football assistant, $2.5 million (just $1 million less than his boss makes), to keep him from joining Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M; and they upgraded, they believe, at two significant positions by way of the college football waiver wire, bringing in Burrow from Ohio State and kicker Cole Tracy from the Division II ranks.
Aranda’s defense kept Miami out of the end zone for three quarters, and his unit picked off two passes, creating its own turnover chain in the process. Linebacker Jacob Phillips returned one of those picks for a touchdown, and he arrived to a celebratory sideline only to have a strength coach drape around his neck a sweaty white towel—the Turnover Towel. Tracy, meanwhile, made all four of his field goal attempts, including a 54-yarder on a night “I’ll never forget,” he said afterwards.
And then there’s Burrow, a guy who just arrived in June. He showed poise in the pocket, a steady hand and good enough accuracy. His numbers—11-of-24 for 140 yards—don’t tell the entire tale. Receivers dropped at least two passes, and his 22-yard beauty of a pass to freshman Ja’Marr Chase set up the Tigers for a touchdown at the one-yard line. He escaped a sometimes shaky pocket, his eyes peeled downfield for an open man, but his biggest play was all mental—an audible on a fourth-and-one attempt at the Miami 49-yard line early in the second quarter, a gutsy call by his coach and even gutsier move by the coach’s quarterback. He shifted the play from the right to the left after recognizing a blitzing safety. Brossette gained two yards to extend an eventual touchdown drive for a 17–3 lead. “Joe Burrow kept his cool,” Orgeron said. “He’s very smart, cool under pressure and can make adjustments. He was ready to go. He was fired up today.”
You could tell. He jumped into the middle of a pregame scuffle between the two teams, his voice clearly recognizable on several videos of the 45-second on-field fracas. That’s a good example of how he won over this team in just two-and-a-half months, says receiver Jonathan Giles—the guy just jumps right in. Burrow called up the receivers during his first Saturday in Baton Rouge, gathering them for a throw-and-catch session, and he impressed during the team’s first real introduction to him in June, when he beat Devin White in conditioning drills, running through 16 90-yard shuttles quicker than the All-America linebacker. “We knew he was ready,” cornerback Greedy Williams said.
We didn’t know LSU was ready. Now we do.