Donte Jackson finished his interviews Monday, grabbed his box lunch and started to head out of the team room.
On the way, LSU’s star cornerback walked up to tight end Foster Moreau as he stood doing his interviews behind a podium at the front of the room.
They shared a quick and empathetic hug.
Players and coaches the world over have worn a deep rut in the old saying, “You win and lose as a team.” Last Saturday at Mississippi State, the Tigers unhappily illustrated the latter part of that phrase to the hilt.
Virtually every facet of LSU’s 37-7 loss was bad. The offense only sustained one scoring drive as Matt Canada’s new wave attack repeatedly ground to a halt. The defense couldn’t stop the run, suffering the worst game under coordinator Dave Aranda, and couldn’t stop committing targeting penalties. Donnie Alexander and Neil Farrell are both by rule suspended for the first half of Saturday night’s game against Syracuse. There were plenty more penalties, nine in all, giving LSU a fat 30 flags for the season. That’s an average of 10 per game, a number that has the Tigers sitting dejectedly in the Southeastern Conference cellar in that category.
Special teams wasn’t too special, either, although all two of Cameron Gamble’s kickoffs nosed into the end zone for touchbacks, at least showing perhaps that LSU is on the right track in that small department.
In general, though, it was a stunning, embarrassing, alarming defeat, one that has fans and media questioning virtually everything about Ed Orgeron’s young regime and the men working in it. For an LSU program somewhat removed from regular championship contender’s status but still used to driving the steamroller instead of being the pavement, the questions raised run to all points of the compass.
“We’ve faced a lot of adversity we haven’t had to face in awhile,” said wide receiver DJ Chark, who had an early and potentially momentum-altering touchdown catch wiped out by a penalty.
Fans and pundits can afford to go diving into the deep end of the panic pool when teams have a spectacularly bad night. The people within the teams can’t. Especially at the college or prep level, where there are no trades to be executed, it’s prosper or perish with the ones you have on hand.
“No one’s happy,” center Will Clapp said. “We’re way more upset than any fans. But we’ve got to get over it and learn from it. We have nine games left. There’s a lot of football to play.”
Indeed there is, starting with Saturday night’s game against Syracuse, the first visit ever by the Orange to Tiger Stadium.
History, from the LSU perspective, is a thin backdrop to a game that has changed tone markedly in just a week.
Before the season, this looked like a game that didn’t qualify for the “rent-a-win” category, but definitely one in which the Tigers would outclass their visitors from the Northeast. Now for LSU, there’s an uncomfortable amount of drama to be had.
Not that LSU is much less the favorite than it would have been if the Tigers had come home from Starkville with a “W.” LSU opened the week in Las Vegas as more than a three-touchdown favorite and has stayed right there.
But now a bit of uncertainty has crept into the picture. Syracuse’s offense, led by strong run-pass threat in quarterback Eric Dungey (his team’s top rusher) and FBS-leading receiver Steve Ishmael (11.4 receptions per game), isn’t a pushover. It’s a legitimate uptempo threat. Will LSU’s defense be able to stop the Orange consistently? And after managing just the one touchdown (one that counted, anyway) at State, will an LSU offense that struggled to overcome its own mistakes be able to score enough to win?
The likelihood is that the Tigers will find satisfactory answers to most of their questions, beat Syracuse, beat Troy next week and go to Florida on Oct. 7 with a 4-1 record for what remains a quite winnable game in Gainesville.
But no one at LSU gets the benefit of the doubt anymore. Not after last week. LSU’s players and coaches all have a lot to prove. As former Tulane coach Vince Gibson said after presiding over a similarly shocking 48-7 rout of LSU in 1981, “Utopia is over for everyone.”
Ultimately, this could be a better team as the season wears on. Talent will show out, and so perhaps will the current “circle the wagons” mentality pervading the LSU program right now.
“We never turn down the aggression,” Jackson said when asked how to remedy LSU’s mistakes.
“We know we have a great team, a top-five team. We’re a top-five defense in our mind. We just need to turn up the mental toughness.”
And, maybe, a few hugs along the way wouldn’t hurt.