PASADENA, Calif. — As day melted into night and the San Gabriel Mountains rising behind the venerable old Rose Bowl disappeared from view, the picture left beneath the lights was hardly a pretty one for the LSU Tigers.
More like the specter of an unwelcomed ghost of the football season just past.
It was not quite as shocking and ghastly as the picture the Tigers painted in last year’s season-opening loss to Mississippi State, when LSU gave up a Southeastern Conference record 623 yards passing in a 44-34 defeat. But it was more than troubling enough against what frankly has often been and continues to be a middling program from UCLA.
Troubling enough for what now looks like a middling program from LSU.
LSU spent millions to buy off coaches who didn’t do the job and hire new ones, six in all. Ed Orgeron sought to recreate 2019’s record-smashing Joe Brady/Joe Burrow offense by hiring Brady disciple Jake Peetz. He sought to put glue on a fractured defense by hiring defensive coordinator Daronte Jones from the Minnesota Vikings.
But football finds the faults. For all its off the field shenanigans, it is at its heart an honest game.
As much as you dress football up with new-fangled offensive formations and exotic defenses, it still often comes down to blocking and tackling. To owning the line of scrimmage. To running the ball for the tough yards when you need to get them. To imposing your will on the other guy.
UCLA did that to LSU. To L-S-U. A program two years removed from one of the most impressive national championship runs of all time. UCLA broke big plays, seven of them covering 20 yards or more. And it rendered LSU’s offense one dimensional by eliminating the Tigers’ running game, like a physics professor down the street at Cal Tech erasing a dead-end formula from a blackboard. It pushed LSU around for most of the game until the Tigers were left holding the ugly end of a 38-27 defeat. Holding not a sweet-smelling bouquet of victory roses the LSU fans who braved Hurricane Ida’s aftermath to get here hoped for, but a handful of thorns.
“I’ve just got to be real,” said wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, who was gallant with nine catches for 148 yards and three touchdowns. “We got beat tonight. Got beat up front. Got beat all around. They beat us for 60 minutes.”
It was a defeat well deserved. Les Miles may be persona non grata at LSU these days, but he would have given the Bruins their grudging due. And he certainly would have reminded that you have to be able to run the ball when you need to in order to win.
The UCLA defensive line didn’t give the Tigers’ running game any chance to build a spark of momentum. And its pass rush harassed quarterback Max Johnson with relentless pressure.
This one had all the markers of a game in which LSU would struggle despite returning 18 starters from last season. Massive turnover in the coaching staff, including a new offensive line coach in Brad Davis hired in June. A quarterback duel that went “poof” when Myles Brennan broke his left arm, making Max Johnson the starter by default.
And then the extra, awful wrinkle: LSU having to evacuate a week before the UCLA game to Houston. Despite Orgeron’s bottomless well of optimism in the face of any and all adversity, it had to be a problem for LSU. It had to.
Still, that is no excuse. Certainly former Tiger All-American Tyrann Mathieu would have none of it.
“I put this on coaches,” he tweeted. “It’s tough to watch… play after play we lose leverage!!! Technique is poor across board…. Tackling is p--- poor ... communication is non-existent. Effort is not up to LSU standard.”
The LSU standard. Orgeron invokes those three words often. It sounds like a mocking phrase now. Yes, Mathieu’s voice is that of a passionate, upset alum whose perspective is, to say the least, skewed.
But it’s hard not to give those words merit when you watch UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet run in a gap wide enough to drive an Oscar-night stretch limo through. Or when Derek Stingley Jr., your All-American cornerback, your leading man, gives but token resistance to Bruins’ wide receiver Kyle Phillips on his way to the end zone on a 45-yard pass from Dorian Thompson-Robinson to put the Bruins up 38-20, the night’s coup de grace.
Orgeron admitted at times it looked a lot like the 2020 defense he has been trying to purge from his program.
“Similar stuff,” Orgeron said. “Crossing routes. Missed assignments. Those things continue to haunt us and hurt us. We have to look at why we’re busting those crossing routes and eliminating the big gaps in the running game.”
LSU is now 2-12 under Orgeron when trailing at halftime. The Tigers are now 1-8 under Coach O when rushing for under 100 yards (the Tigers netted just 48 yards on the ground).
Facts are stubborn things. And the fact is LSU is now 5-6 since going 15-0 in 2019 and 25-3 in the Burrow era of 2018-19.
Burrow isn’t coming back. You have to wonder if LSU’s relevance as a Southeastern Conference and national contender is coming back any time soon as well.