LSU's offense fell flat after a hot start and the Tigers' defense couldn't get off the field on third and fourth down, leading to a dominant defeat at the hands of No. 12 Ole Miss. It was a game where the purple and gold reverted to a number of older bad habits.
Here were three takeaways from Saturday afternoon's loss to the Rebels.
Third and Fourth Down Conversions Plague LSU Defense
There were many issues with this performance but the one that sticks out the most is the lack of execution on defense on third and fourth downs. The Tigers just couldn't get off the field and though Lane Kiffin is an analytics guru who will go for it on fourth down on some occasions, LSU couldn't stop Ole Miss on those delayed handoffs.
The Rebels went 5-of-13 on third down and a perfect 3-of-3 on fourth down conversions against the purple and gold, the most egregious of which came in the third quarter on a third-and-12, that resulted in a 36-yard touchdown for Jerrion Ealy.
"There's no excuses. We just gotta go out there and execute. It's the SEC, each week we're gonna see a team like this," Clark said.
Ealy and the Rebels rushing attack totaled 266 yards on the ground, converting those five third downs from an average of 10.8 yards away and three of which were converted from nine plus yards away. Coach Ed Orgeron said those delayed handoffs were something the defense couldn't adjust to because they were consistently pushed out of their gaps.
"I thought our defense was hanging in there pretty tough and second quarter we let them have big runs on third down," Orgeron said. "We were in a rush front and they beat us, give them credit. I didn't think we won the line of scrimmage. We jumped out of our gaps in the run discipline."
Damone Clark Continues to be Bright Spot in Tough Season
The senior linebacker looks night and day different from the player who just a year ago was benched because of inconsistency. He is flying across the field and making the plays when presented, something that continued Saturday against Ole Miss.
At times he looked to be the only player who was in position, en route to 20 total tackles, one sack, 2.5 tackles for a loss and a forced fumble against the Rebels. His side to side movement and speed have always been a strength of his game but it's been his development with scheme and improved open field tackling that have really made the difference.
Clark's play has been so great that it's worthy of All-American consideration according to Orgeron.
"I'm so proud of Damone, he's all over the field, making tackles, he's a tremendous leader. We're very proud of him," Orgeron said. "His hard work, dedication. He identified some things he needed to get better at, one was open field tackling, he's got a lot better at that. Two was his pass coverage and he's gotten a lot better at that.
It's been well documented of the offseason talk Clark had with Orgeron about what he needed to really focus on heading into the season and he has really capitalized on that hard work. He is among the leaders in the country in tackles with 100 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, a sack and two forced fumbles.
Clark credits not only Orgeron but linebackers coach Blake Baker for his improvement in 2021.
"I looked at myself in the mirror and last year I was nowhere near where I wanted to be," Clark said. "There's always room for improvement but overall I told myself 'You're not doing the things you need to do.' I had a talk with coach O and I give credit to coach Baker as well. We started from scratch and I'm just appreciative."
Garrett Nussmeier Leads Second Half Scoring Drives, Would be Nice to See More Reps
With the game well out of reach, the Tigers decided to switch things up with their offense. In the hopes of providing some fourth quarter spark, Orgeron and company went with Nussmeier at quarterback for the majority of the fourth quarter.
Behind Nussmeier, LSU went on back-to-back scoring drives to turn a 31-7 game into 31-17 by game's end. The drives went 51 yards and 80 yards, the second of which saw the freshman deliver some truly special throws, including this touchdown pass.
For the game, Nussmeier completed 7-of-12 passes for 103 yards and the one touchdown, leaving his head coach very impressed.
"I thought he gave us a little spark and Garrett's like that. He's a high energy guy, went out there and gave us a little spark," Orgeron said. "We have to look at it, I'm not saying that Max is doing poorly, I think he didn't have enough time. We just wanted to give Garrett a chance, get a change of pace to our offense and we got it."
It doesn't sound like LSU will be looking to start the freshman anytime soon but if the offense continues to struggle early in games, it's worth it for the future of the program to continue to get Nussmeier playing time and see what happens.