COLLEGE STATION, Texas — There is no saying LSU didn't have its chances to pull an upset against No. 5 Texas A&M at Kyle Field on Saturday night.
There was a promising opening drive, a timely defensive turnover, a touchdown overturned by replay, a missed field goal, an entire second half when the Aggies offense was held scoreless.
Despite even the steady rain, a dampening equalizer, and still LSU (3-4) could not seize control in a 20-7 loss at Texas A&M (6-1).
"We had some spots in the game when we could've took over," said coach Ed Orgeron, who is now 3-2 against Texas A&M in five seasons. "Defense was playing well. We just couldn't punch it in on offense."
Both teams finished with 267 total offensive yards, but the statistic lies in some ways. LSU was on the brink of being shut out for the first time in two seasons until, with 3:16 remaining, true freshman quarterback Max Johnson led a 14-play, 81-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Terrace Marshall.
Take away that inconsequential series, and you are left with an LSU offense that was mostly futile when Texas A&M was within reach.
"I thought our offense was inconsistent all day," Orgeron said. "They had a great plan on defense. We didn't match the plan. We should've had a better plan on offense. We couldn't run the ball. We couldn't protect. It's not all the quarterback's fault. I mean, he was running for his life all day. Both of them were."
Johnson took all three of Texas A&M's sacks. Each of them happened during the second half. But starter TJ Finley was hurried by the Aggies pass rush into difficult throws, and the true freshman was pulled from the game after he threw an off-target pass with a defender wrapped around his legs that was picked off and returned 15 yards for a touchdown near the end of the third quarter.
Protection has been an issue in all of LSU's losses this season. Blocking at all, really. A unit that won the Joe Moore Award for best offensive line a season ago has struggled mightily with a cast that includes three new starters. Saturday night was the third game LSU was held to less than 50 yards rushing.
When you add in LSU's 36 rushing yards against Texas A&M, the Tigers rank second-to-last in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 111.71 yards rushing per game — leading only Mississippi State, an Air Raid attack that only runs the ball 16 times a game.
Even with LSU's recent commitment to modern spread offensive schemes, who in Baton Rouge would have thought they would see that happen?
Without an effective run game, LSU is missing a crucial piece of its identity. More than that, the Tigers are unable to support two true freshmen quarterbacks who become sitting ducks for defenses that know what's coming.
LSU's offense is starting to resemble the way the 2018 season unfolded, when a frustrated Steve Ensminger had to limit his offense due to protection issues, and, by spreading out more receivers to produce more quick passing options, the offensive coordinator foreshadowed the Tigers' ultimate move toward its record-breaking spread attack in 2019.
LSU's offensive turnaround in the final games of the 2018 season also had much to do with the progression of former quarterback Joe Burrow, and there have yet been any signs that LSU's young quarterbacks are taking major steps forward.
The absence of injured starting quarterback Myles Brennan is becoming more and more pronounced, and, since the junior doesn't appear to be returning from his abdominal injury this year, the offense's immediate future appears bleak.
Nothing has ben consistent for LSU this season. At first, it was the offense that was carrying the defense. Now, the roles have reversed. The LSU defense has improved dramatically in the past two games, and the unit's performance Saturday was squandered by offensive ineptitude.
The Tigers defense only surrendered 13 points, its fewest this season, and an aggressive defensive line produced seven tackles for loss and sacked Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond for only the third time this season.
LSU's secondary was much more disciplined. Orgeron called it "the most improved group on the field." Jay Ward, starting at cornerback in place of Elias Ricks, whom Orgeron said was dealing with an injury, helped hold Mond to 11-of-34 passing for 105 yards — the quarterback's lowest completion percentage (32.4) and yard total of the season.
Other than a few zone-read runs, Mond's offensive threat was neutralized, including his ability to reach for first downs in short-yardage situations. LSU linebacker Micah Baskerville said they'd studied film of how Texas A&M had a 100% success rate when Mond snuck the ball for first downs by thrusting his arms over the offensive line.
When Mond attempted the play on fourth-and-1 at the LSU 6 in the second quarter, Baskerville and linebacker Jabril Cox both jabbed for the ball, knocking it loose from Mond's grip for a turnover on downs.
To use a phrase tossed around this time last year: Can LSU be a complete team in the final stretch of the season? Can its offense spark and its defense continue to improve against the potent offenses of upcoming No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Florida and Ole Miss?
"We're staying together," Baskerville said. "We've got positive thoughts. Just getting better. Like I said earlier, that's just the thought going in: Keep getting better. We're a couple plays away from winning the game."