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LSU quarterback Myles Brennan (15) is forced to the ground by Mississippi State linebacker Aaron Brule (3) in the first half of the Tigers' home opener against Mississippi State, Saturday, September 26, 2020, in Tiger Stadium.

In a season that took an unprecedented effort to even begin, the LSU Tigers failed to deliver when the crucial moments finally arrived.

On a day of Top 10 upsets and close calls, underdog Mississippi State beat No. 6 LSU 44-34 on Saturday in Tiger Stadium, before an announced crowd of 21,124 with limited capacity.

Just like that, LSU had its first loss in two years.

"I told the team to put it on me," coach Ed Orgeron said, whose record at LSU is now 40-10. "We have to coach them better."

What else does 2020 have in store for this program?

It endured offseason coronavirus outbreaks. Star players and starters opting out of the season. Uncertainty in a regular season that scratched nonconference opponents and began nearly a month behind schedule.

Still, LSU pushed forward, determined to defend its national title in a season that was going to demand perhaps more from any other reigning champion before.

And on the eve of the season opener, a crushing blow arrived: All-American cornerback Derek Stingley spent the night in the hospital with what LSU officials called an "acute illness" — a non-coronavirus related sickness that made a young and inexperienced secondary vulnerable to Mississippi State's "Air Raid" passing attack.

Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello set a single-game Southeastern Conference record for yards passing, completing 36 of 60 attempts for 623 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

The yardage was the most ever surrendered by an LSU defense. Only former Florida quarterback Rex Grossman (464) came remotely close in a 44-15 win over LSU in 2001.

A unit that prides itself on producing NFL talent — calling itself "DBU" — now must reconcile with a troubling performance that, with or without Stingley, calls for several corrections.

"It's embarrassing," safety JaCoby Stevens said. "It's like going into a boxing ring and getting knocked out." 

Yes, college football's most recent champ and its new quarterback, Myles Brennan, both took a beating. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior was sacked seven times, and he was still able to nearly stage a comeback after completing 27 of 46 passes for 345 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.

All week, Brennan fielded questions about how he'd replace the Heisman Trophy-winning Joe Burrow, and he repeated a variation of his answer time and again: It's time to start writing my own story.

The first chapter of The Myles Brennan Story set LSU's newest passer in the middle of a horror thriller, fraught with conflict and scenes in which Brennan was essentially running for his life.

The last opportunity to win came when LSU began a drive at their 25, trailing 37-34 with 7:27 left in the game. But, after a short pass and a short run, Brennan threw an incomplete pass while evading two rushers, and LSU had to punt.

The Tigers had to count on its defense, and it could not deliver.

Costello led a 7-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that took 2:36, and first-year Bulldogs coach Mike Leach started his tenure in the SEC with a Top 10 win.

The game was out of reach on LSU's final drive, and Brennan was sacked twice and threw an interception in the MSU end zone on the final play of the game.

"Losing sucks," Brennan said. "But we can't blame anybody. We have to fix our mistakes."

The Tigers punted on their first four offensive drives, a stark difference from their record-breaking offense of 2019. Last year, LSU only punted four or more times in five games.

Meanwhile, an LSU defense battered by personnel losses had to carry the slack, and the new 4-3 base scheme in Bo Pelini's first year back as LSU's defensive coordinator sputtered in its debut.

LSU's four-man front had some success in the pass rush. Junior college transfer defensive end Ali Gaye had a third-down sack at the LSU 18, which led to a 35-yard field goal by Brandon Ruiz.

LSU finished the game with five sacks (Stevens led the team with two) and seven tackles for loss.

And if 2020 wasn't strange enough yet, it was the LSU defense that supplied the program's first touchdown of the season.

North Dakota State graduate transfer Jabril Cox undercut a short pass and returned it 14 yards to give LSU a 7-3 lead with 9:45 left in the second quarter. It was LSU's first pick-six since former linebacker Jacob Phillips returned an interception 45 yards against Miami in the 2018 season opener.

The LSU offense struggled to find a rhythm.

Its running back trio — Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery — only gained 117 yards on 27 carries.

Five-star tight end Arik Gilbert's first career catch, a 16-yard reception on the left side of the field, kick-started the LSU offense. Brennan completed his next two throws: a 47-yard deep pass to Jaray Jenkins to the MSU 10, and a 2-yard touchdown pass to Gilbert that set LSU ahead 14-10 with 5:20 left in the first half.

Brennan still had to evade pressure on the touchdown throw. As a defender dragged Brennan down, he tossed the ball up for grabs and Gilbert fielded the catch while running into teammate Trey Palmer.

Eventually, Leach's pass-happy offense exploited LSU's young and inexperienced secondary. The holes in the unit were apparent. Orgeron knew his cornerback depth needed help when starting nickel safety Kary Vincent opted-out of the season to prepare for the NFL draft.

Nicholls State graduate transfer Darren Evans signed with LSU in the offseason, and he started at corner in place of Stingley.

Bulldogs receiver Tyrell Shavers shook Evans on a double move near the line of scrimmage and caught a 31-yard touchdown in stride for a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.

On the next drive, five-star freshman Elias Ricks tried to cut off a pass for an interception, missed, and Bulldogs receiver Osirus Mitchell raced for a 43-yard score.

An apparent blown assignment in the second half left Bulldogs running back Kylin Hill alone in the left flat, and, after a quick toss from Costello, Hill scampered for a 75-yard touchdown along the sideline to put Mississippi State up 27-24 with 4:46 left in the third quarter.

Safety Todd Harris, back for the first time since his season-ending knee injury in 2019, missed a tackle on Hill along the sideline.

The team embraces a next-man-up philosophy, and even with young players, Stevens said, "as the game goes on, that rookie tag needs to come off."

"Welcome to the SEC," Orgeron said. "You've got to get better."

When Costello completed a 9-yard touchdown pass to Austin Williams to give Mississippi State a 34-24 lead with 14:14 left in the fourth quarter, it seemed LSU was in danger of losing its first game since the team's seven-overtime loss to Texas A&M in 2018.

Then, LSU fought back with redemptive play by the secondary.

Ricks intercepted Costello on a deep sideline pass in the fourth quarter, leaping for a catch that set LSU at the Bulldogs' 45.

The turnover led to the second of Brennan's two deep touchdown passes to Marshall. Brennan's first was a 37-yard pass in the third quarter, and, after the Ricks interception, Brennan threw a 33-yard score in the left corner of the end zone to draw LSU within 34-31 with 11:01 left in the game.

The Bulldogs continued to attack in the passing game, and Stevens, on the first play of the next drive, ripped the football free on a strip-sack of Costello and recovered the fumble at the MSU 23.

With a chance to steal the lead, Brennan was sacked on a third-and-7, and LSU had to settle for a 40-yard Cade York field goal that tied the game at 34 with 9:37 left in the game.

"Leadership is going to be crucial from here on out," Brennan said. "This is the first game of many. We have a long journey ahead, and we're not going to quit now."


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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.