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LSU Finally Delivers on the Promise of Change, and Is Rewarded vs. Texas

We've heard the talk of a revamped LSU offensive system before, but the Tigers unleashed a modern and dynamic offense on a national stage in Austin this time around.

AUSTIN, Texas – The first chapter of this story—LSU 45, Texas 38—begins far away from here, some 1,300 miles north in fact, well beyond the stifling heat of Texas’s heart. This story begins at Lambeau Field, where the freshly brewed beer is as cold as the bone-chilling winters, where the salted cheeses are even nicer than those cool summer nights. It begins there. I saw it. I was there when LSU opened the 2016 season against Wisconsin in the Packers stadium, a horde of traveling purple-clad fans expecting a brand-spanking new spread offense to unfold on a field with so much historic greatness. They’d been promised it. In fact, their head coach, Les Miles, had pledged so to his bosses as well. I will change, he told them. I will change. 

The anticipation was palpable ahead of the opening offensive snap, the first of the season. The Tigers offense ran onto the field to a roaring crowd, everyone on their feet, barely keeping their excitement contained for this new chapter in LSU football. And there on the field, in front of millions on television and thousands in the stands, in front of administrators in the suites and the teenagers in the student section, the LSU football team lined up in the I-formation and ran a toss dive into the teeth of a big boy defense.

This, in no way, was change, but on that crisp sunny Midwestern day, this spurred change. Now, let’s skip a few chapters and get to the end (because that’s the best part anyway, right?). Skip over Ed Orgeron’s stint as interim coach, skip past the staff infighting and loss to Troy during his first season, even skip past last year’s 10-win season. The latest chapter —because maybe this isn’t the last—unfolded on an insufferably hot spot in central Texas, with some of the same administrators and fans looking on, holding some of the same expectations for offensive change. And this time, they got it. They got what they’ve always wanted, what they’ve craved for more than a decade. They got a spread offense, a true, real, live spread offense. They got the shotgun. They got five receivers and an empty backfield. They got fast-paced and no huddling. They got it all. They got what everybody else in college football has had for years. “L-S-U,” says quarterback Joe Burrow. “You’re not used to that.”

Orgeron walked into a tiny visiting news conference room under the bowels of Darrell K Royal Stadium, looked up from a microphone, smiled and asked a room full of reporters a rhetorical question. “How about our offense?” How about it, indeed. We got a dang shootout and furthermore, they won a dang shootout, a top-10 clash on the road. The fans got their wish all right. They got 573 yards, an 8.4-yard average. They got a quarterback who passed for more than 400 yards (471 to be exact), a first at the school since 2001. They got three receivers with more than 100 yards each, a first at the school. They got a promise kept by a coach. “This is the vision I always had when we took over,” Orgeron said afterward. “We finally got there. We have the coaches to do it. We have the receivers to do it. We have the quarterback to do it.” 

LSU attempted 39 passes. The Tigers threw the ball while up six in the final seconds. They scored just before half on a back-breaking, three-play, 56-yard drive that took 26 seconds. They did not use a fullback. There were no toss dives. Hardly ever did the quarterback take a snap from under center. If you are reading this and you are confused, it is OK. You haven’t been shipped to some imaginary world. It only seems like it. It feels like it even to those doing the spreading of the offense. “It’s crazy to be honest,” says Ja’Marr Chase, one of those three wideouts to hit the 100-yard mark and maybe the best player on the field Saturday. “I didn’t see this coming.”

You know who did? Burrow. Over the summer during a local media session in Baton Rouge, the quarterback predicted that this LSU offense would score “40, 50, 60 points.” Asked how he feels now about that comment, he smiles. “Take a look at the last two scoreboards and you can figure that one out.” He is confident. He is brash. And he is a baller, a description used by his own coach. He misfired on just nine of 39 passes Saturday night, and one of those was a dropped touchdown. He used his athletically gifted targets, all of them getting a piece of this spread pie: Justin Jefferson (9 catches, 163 yards), Chase (8-147) and Terrace Marshall (6-123).

Burrow was the victor in what turned into a Big 12-like track meet in the second half, high-fueled offenses and savvy, grinding quarterbacks taking turns landing left jabs and right hooks. Burrow sent Texas tumbling to the mat with the knockout punch: a 61-yard touchdown pass to Jefferson with 147 seconds left in the game. It came on third-and-17 and followed a series of play calls that proves more than anything else just how much LSU has changed. Nursing a six-point lead, buried in the opponent’s territory, less than four minutes left, the Tigers called one run and five passes, the latter of those that strike from Burrow to Jefferson. The receiver broke a tackle and jetted down the sideline. Afterward, Orgeron took reporters inside a conversation between he and offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger before that drive.

What you think about a four-minute offense? Orgeron asked Ensminger.

The coordinator responded, Nope. Nope. We’re going to pass the ball and go down there and score.

Orgeron’s reply: Go ahead.

And off they went, an 11-yard completion to Marshall and seven yards to Jefferson before hitting him again for the game-securing score. “Last year,” Burrow said, “we’d have pounded the run game.” Not this LSU offense. That’s not how they roll. Jefferson grew up in Louisiana, attending and watching his big brother Jordan play quarterback for the Tigers in an archaic offensive scheme. “We made history tonight,” Jefferson said. “It’s so crazy. My brother has said to me, ‘I wish we had thrown the ball like y’all do now.’”

So how did change get here? Sure, it started in September 2016, when administrators realized a promise was broken. It’s the day, for all intents and purposes, that the program decided it would fire Miles. He knew. Word got back to him. You didn’t change. Why haven’t you changed? You won’t survive another loss. He didn’t, of course, four weeks later fired and replaced by the man he hired the year before to coach his defensive line. This change took trial and error. It took a graduate transfer quarterback from Ohio State (Burrow). It took the signing of two of the most highly ranked receivers in the country (Chase and Marshall). It took, maybe most of all, the hiring of former Saints assistant Joe Brady, who collaborated this offseason with Ensminger in instilling change, transforming a historically ground-and-pound offense to a fun-and-gun scheme.

Burrow remembers that first team meeting in January. “I knew we hired Coach Joe [Brady]. I really didn’t know what that would mean,” he says. “Our first position meeting of winter [in January], I came in and they had a whole install sheet for me and I was like, ‘What’s this stuff?’ And Coach [Ensminger] was like, ‘We’re spreading it out, baby!’ I was fired up.”

On Saturday night, Burrow & Co. hummed, and it was a good thing. On the other sideline, Texas and Sam Ehlinger landed their own jabs. The Horns quarterback threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns, two of them to Devin Duvernay, and the Longhorns scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives. They pulled within two points two different times in the second half, but the Tigers always answered. They had three consecutive TDs of their own, each on six-play, 75-yard drives, that changed LSU offense in full force. Who would have thought the Tigers could keep pace in a Big 12 shootout, but here we were. “We’d knew we’d have to score again,” Burrow said. “I kept telling our guys get to 40 and we win.”

The latest chapter to this story—LSU 45, Texas 38—happened here on a warm Texas night, where the barbecue is tasty and the tacos are spicy, where the people are friendly and the cold drinks are icy. I saw it. I was here when LSU made its 2019 nationally televised debut against Texas in Darrell K Royal Stadium, droves of traveling purple-clad fans anticipating a brand-spanking new offense to appear before them. They got it.

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