It wasn't always pretty, but LSU made the plays late to come away with a badly needed 27-24 win against Arkansas on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers leaned heavily on the poise shown by freshman quarterback TJ Finley as well as a devoted gameplan to keep the ball out of Feleipe Franks and the Arkansas offense's hands.
As a result, the Tigers improved to 12-0 under Ed Orgeron following a loss and were able to learn a little more about this team and some of its younger stars in the process. There was plenty to take away from the win but here were three bullet points that we left with.
Explosive Plays Still an Issue, but Defensive Consistency Improves
It wasn't perfect on Saturday by any stretch of the imagination. But the defense showed a level of effort and consistency that hasn't been seen since the Vanderbilt game on Oct. 3. The Tigers surrendered 443 yards of offense and the explosive plays continued to mount.
Plays of 65, 50, 50, 51 and 29 yards all still need to be eliminated, as it nearly cost LSU once again down the stretch of a close game. Yet it still felt like the defense made some small strides in the right direction, mainly because of its third-down D and its ability to apply consistent pressure on Franks.
LSU forced Arkansas into an 0-for-10 day on third down and did a nice job against the run as well, holding the Razorbacks to 104 total rushing yards, with Franks leading the way with 43. The 8.4 average yards per play were a direct result of the explosive plays that continue to be an issue, something that Orgeron talked about after the game.
Some of those second-half struggles can also be pinpointed to being without starting cornerbacks Derek Stingley and Elias Ricks for the majority of the time.
"We gave up some deep balls but we lost our two starting cornerbacks, but the next guys stood up," Orgeron said. "Obviously we've gotta play better one-on-one coverage, can't let the ball go deep. I thought we stopped the run and I thought our D-line did very well.
"Everybody stuck together the whole time, you could just feel that all week," Orgeron said. "Hopefully that's the way things are gonna be from now on. I think we had less mental errors than we had all year and that was the biggest factor."
Linebacker Jabril Cox, who came down with a momentum-swinging interception in the first half, said that next man up mentality continues to be the essence of this team and it was shown by some of the big plays down the stretch.
"It's something we prepare for, it's next man up mentality, we had a bad taste in our mouth this last game and it's been three weeks since we've been able to get an opponent," Cox said. "This one, we knew we had to fight to an end, regardless of people going down, we continued to fight."
Controlling the Clock By Establishing the Run: A Strategy LSU Needs to Stick With
LSU controlled the ball for 41 minutes and 43 seconds in the win over the Razorbacks, nearly two-thirds of the total possession time in the game. It's a strategy that Orgeron and the coaching staff preached with its offensive players, and it worked.
The Tigers rushed for 148 yards, headlined by Tyrion Davis-Price's 104 yards that included a touchdown run. LSU was methodical in its approach, rushing the ball a total of 49 times and averaging just three yards a carry. But it was able to do most of its damage on first and second down, leaving third-and-short situations for TJ Finley throughout the afternoon.
"We wanted to run the football, be in manageable third downs," Orgeron said. "Short, easy throws and take the shots when we can. The key was the time of possession."
It's an approach that LSU has tried all season, but just hasn't been able to pull off with any consistency. A big part of Saturday's success has to start up front with the O-linemen, and Orgeron as well as Davis-Price thought the unit responded well after having to sit on the Auburn performance for three weeks.
"I knew those guys would respond and it's been three weeks they've had to live with that," Orgeron said. "We had some physical practices, I asked them to practice more physical and they did. There was too much penetration on some plays and some things to shore up but we're happy with the play of the offensive line.
With games against top-end opponents like Texas A&M, Alabama and Florida still on the schedule, keeping the ball out of the offense's hands will be a priority moving forward. If the O-line can continue to get the push needed to put Finley in third-and-short situations, then the Tigers should find success the rest of the way.
"They had a great week of practice, probably the best the whole year," Davis-Price said of the offensive line. "I salute those guys and I feel like we haven't really shown everything that we can do [in the running game]. We have a great room and I knew we were going to have to run the ball to win and that's what we did."
TJ Finley Proving to Be Quarterback of the Future
Time and time again, the moment never seemed to be too big for the freshman quarterback Finley. On Saturday, he paced LSU on offense with his quick reads and precise throws, tossing for 271 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.
But perhaps the biggest attribute he showed against Arkansas was his poise in the biggest moments. On third-and-13 for example, after just being called for an intentional grounding that backed the offense up, Finley bought time, stepped up in the pocket and delivered the game-winning throw to Jaray Jenkins.
That was also after a touchdown to Davis-Price—an absolute dime of a throw—had been ruled incomplete.
"He's got ice in his veins. He's got a lot of confidence. I mean he practices that way. He's got a strong arm," Orgeron said. "He's got a big body. He's confident. He can handle the rush, can scramble. There are some things with the play going fast that he has to key and diagnose a little bit better, but overall, he showed that he can win a big game at the end."
In a very short time, Finley has won over his teammates because of that confidence in the huddle, at practice and off the field as well. It's why the future in the quarterback room looks so bright as Finley, with the exception of one half against Auburn, has looked like a seasoned veteran.
Davis-Price, who was in the huddle during those clutch moments down the stretch, was impressed with the leadership and control that the true freshman had of the offense.
"He showed leadership. We love TJ and he held it down for us this game, he's held it down for us the whole week and I commend him for being a leader on and off the football field," Davis-Price said.