A rainbow appeared over Tiger Stadium during the second quarter Saturday.
By the time the LSU-Mississippi State game ended late Saturday night, the darkness once again had the Tigers by the throat.
This one had all the elements that have made LSU football under Les Miles so maddening and magical. There were daring gambles, bright patches of hope, awesome feats of physical prowess and an oxygen-deprived ending that had the Tigers gasping across the finish line a 23-20 winner after doing nearly all they could to blow an unblowable 23-3 halftime lead.
It’s almost impossible to be as confounding as Miles’ Tigers are, yet they have raised the confounding result to a high art form. It shouldn’t have ended this way for LSU, yet it always seems to end this way, so why should anyone be surprised?
Did LSU do some things that were impressive and proved that the Tigers can stand toe to toe with anyone? Did LSU do some things that should have gotten it beat? The answer to both, after a game that was an inside-out version of State’s dominant-turned-desperate 32-29 win here two years ago, is a mystifying yes.
Who is writing this LSU script, Lewis Carroll?
Could be. He did conjure up the Mad Hatter, after all.
“It wasn’t perfect in any way,” Miles said. “It’s a lesson we’ll take with us to Auburn.”
First, the good LSU.
Quarterback Danny Etling was a revelation last Saturday when he replaced an ineffective Brandon Harris during the second quarter against Jacksonville State, boosting a previously moribund offense.
Against Mississippi State, Etling was merely the cog in a different-looking LSU offensive machine.
Despite the old gold jerseys and the white helmets with numbers on the side, the latter a first for LSU since 1971, it really was the Old War Skule. For proof, we give you the tank tread marks a rested and physical Leonard Fournette left on more than one Bulldogs defender. He ran like an angry and pent-up bull, trucking to the end zone twice in the first half.
No, the biggest revelation wasn’t Etling; it was the guy who didn’t change his attire for the "Gold Game:" the white-hatted, purple-jacketed Miles, who instead changed his offensive philosophy like a chameleon.
This everyone should know by now: After a dozen years of often-vexing and arch-conservative play calling, the Tigers run the plays Miles wants them to run. It wasn’t some bloodless coup by Etling and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron that had LSU run a reverse on the first play of the game. Or had Malachi Dupre (who played by far his best after two disappointing games to open 2016) attempt a pass back to Etling. Or had Fournette attempt a halfback pass.
None of these plays worked for LSU. Neither did the attempted reverse that led to a late LSU punt as the Tigers were clinging to their lead. It all might have been worth criticizing had this sudden burst of creativity backfired on the Tigers — which it almost did. But one out-of-the-box play did work for LSU, when Etling threw for 12 yards to Dupre out of an EMPTY BACKFIELD.
If you’re not a regular reader or LSU follower, you may be like, “So? Everyone does these things. That’s modern college football offense.” Well, LSU’s offense has sort of been in a time warp for much of the Miles regime, somewhere back in the days when the Tigers always wore numbers on their helmets. Overall, LSU threw the ball 32 times — 32 times! — for 215 yards. For a lot of teams that’s a half, but for LSU it’s a whole new way of attacking the defense.
It may not be state of the art, but it is like going from a film projector to VHS.
Now the bad LSU. The style of unpredictable offense LSU used to build the big lead was no help in the second half as the Tigers ran aground. Just like against Jacksonville State, the LSU offense went cold, outscored 17-0 in the final two quarters by Mississippi State. Lousy field position, a constant shuffling of the offensive line because of injuries and two uncharacteristic fumbles by Fournette conspired to leave LSU within a whisker or two of undoing all the good the Tigers did earlier.
How close? State coach Dan Mullen pulled starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in the fourth quarter after he overthrew wide receiver Donald Gray on a blown LSU coverage that could have resulted in a quick touchdown. State eventually got the TD on a keeper by former Rummel standout Damian Williams with 4:10 left, but the Bulldogs might have had more time to maneuver for a victory.
This was another LSU win over an opponent that talent-wise was playing up in class big-time. Whether Miles, who owns what ESPN said last week is the hottest seat in college coaching, will end up having the kind of season he needs remains a matter of much conjecture. And next Saturday’s game at Auburn, which got handled at home 29-16 on Saturday by Texas A&M, only looks the more puzzling.
But what did you expect from LSU — rainbows AND a pot of gold?