Max Johnson danced in the locker room after LSU beat Mississippi State. His teammates encouraged him, and he hit the griddy once, then twice, as Kayshon Boutte filmed his quarterback.
They hadn’t played a perfect game, but the Tigers won their Southeastern Conference opener 28-25 on the road. So they celebrated.
Now comes a more difficult part of the schedule: games against No. 22 Auburn, at Kentucky, vs. No. 10 Florida and at No. 12 Ole Miss before the open date. Not to mention Alabama, resurgent Arkansas and Texas A&M the final month of the season.
Before LSU gets to all that, back to the win over Mississippi State. The Tigers, now 3-1, implemented an unusual defensive scheme to neutralize the Air Raid for three quarters. Then the game became a nail-biter in the final minutes.
“We made some improvement,” coach Ed Orgeron said, “but I wish we would have finished better.”
Why the 3-2-6 worked … and then why it didn’t
LSU’s defensive plan was clear from the first play. The Tigers came out with three down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs. They wanted to force Mississippi State to run the ball and throw underneath, hoping to eliminate the long pass plays that beat LSU last season.
The idea originated after last year's 44-34 loss to the Bulldogs, but it may have gained added value when sophomore Dwight McGlothern was thrust into the starting lineup for the first time this season because All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. re-injured his left foot at practice Wednesday. Stingley wore a boot up to his left knee during the game.
The six defensive backs and two linebackers dropped into coverage almost every play, and for three quarters, Mississippi State fell into LSU’s plan as sophomore quarterback Will Rogers threw check down after check down. He averaged 6 yards over 62 attempts.
The Bulldogs settled for field goals — they missed one — and junior nickel safety Cordale Flott forced two turnovers. On top of that, LSU tackled well in the open field, an essential part of the scheme. It led 21-3 late in the third quarter.
Then Mississippi State scored touchdowns on three straight possessions, nearly erasing an 18-point lead.
So, what changed?
LSU implemented a 3-2-6 defensive scheme to prevent the issues that caused its loss to Mississippi State last season, and the Tigers avoided a late comeback attempt to win their SEC opener.
On the first score, wide receiver Makai Polk lined up outside opposite sophomore cornerback Eli Ricks. Polk released into the middle of the field as Mississippi State ran a switch, splitting Ricks and safety Jay Ward down the seam. LSU was playing Cover 3. No one covered Polk on the 29-yard touchdown.
LSU switched to a four-man front on the next drive, but Rogers took the check downs and completed eight straight passes, pushing the defense on its heels. After an LSU punt, he again led Mississippi State on a 12-play touchdown drive as another coverage bust left running back Jo'quavious Marks wide open.
Not much changed on those three possessions. The Tigers stuck to their defensive scheme, only changing the front for one drive. But instead of making Mississippi State kick field goals or creating turnovers, the Bulldogs scored touchdowns.
Mississippi State ran 88 plays. That time on the field may have contributed to LSU’s defense lapsing near the end, but it also left Mississippi State on the field far too long to complete the comeback.
"We knew they were going to have long drives, as long as they didn’t score," Orgeron said. "Our defense did get tired. We need to rotate a little bit better. We need to get used to that if we’re going to play that type of defense against a spread offense."
Trouble sustaining drives ... and explosive plays
When LSU scored, its touchdowns came on long passes.
The explosive plays really emerged in the second half. Coming out of the break, Johnson handed off to junior running back Tyrion Davis-Price on LSU’s first play. He gained 11 yards, one of his best runs of the game.
Before the next play, Orgeron heard offensive coordinator Jake Peetz predict the safety would bite on a play fake. LSU ran an RPO. Johnson read the safety, then threw over the middle to sophomore wide receiver Kayshon Boutte for a 64-yard touchdown.
Similarly, Johnson threw a 58-yard touchdown to junior Trey Palmer when Mississippi State’s safeties bit on crossing routes and left Palmer wide open. Finally, Johnson found tight end Kole Taylor for a 41-yard touchdown as he backpedaled against a heavy blitz.
“This is a throw-first offense right now,” ESPN analyst Dan Orvlosky said.
STARKVILLE, Miss. — It was this kind of Saturday for LSU:
The passes won the game for LSU, but they also meant the Tigers scored in a hurry, putting the defense back on the field. LSU held the ball for 11 minutes less than Mississippi State, a difference that became apparent in the fourth quarter.
On LSU’s final drive, it needed to drain the clock as much as possible or score again to put Mississippi State away after the Bulldogs pulled within 11 points. There was 6:48 left. The Tigers ran twice for a total of four yards.
Then on third-and-6, Mississippi State rushed six. Johnson had freshman tight end Jack Bech open at the first down marker, but the pressure helped force an incomplete pass. LSU punted, Mississippi State scored and the Tigers didn’t seal the win until they recovered an onside kick.
The offense — and that final drive — may have looked different if LSU had a productive rushing attack, but the Tigers gained 63 yards on 27 carries, an average of 2.3 yards per rush, behind an offensive line that continues to struggle at the point of attack.
LSU haas now averaged 80 yards rushing per game, which ranks 122nd in the country. The long pass plays were enough on Saturday. They might not be in the coming weeks.
Mississippi State ran 88 plays — 34 more than LSU. Part of this had to do with LSU’s explosive offensive plays. It also was a result of LSU’s defensive strategy. By the end, the sheer number of plays left the defenders tired.
Johnson averaged 10.4 yards per pass, compared to 6.0 for Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers. The difference showed how much LSU forced check downs, while Mississippi State allowed the deep passes.
Mississippi State turned the ball over twice, and both mistakes came on LSU’s side of the field. Flott, who also recorded eight tackles, forced both. The turnovers made quite the difference in a three-point game.
STARKVILLE, Miss. — LSU started its fourth different player in as many weeks at left tackle Saturday in its Southeastern Conference opener wit…
Players of the Game
The senior linebacker made a team-high 15 tackles. LSU had to tackle well in open space, especially with its defensive strategy, and Clark led the effort by coming up to tackle Rogers’ short throws.
Johnson lifted the offense when it once again struggled to run the football, completing 17 of 27 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns. He also threw one interception. Johnson became the first LSU quarterback since Rohan Davey in 1999 to throw three touchdowns of more than 40 yards.
Flott benefited from the defensive strategy, but he also came through with those eight tackles. His turnovers made the difference.