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LSU running back Corey Kiner (21) runs into the end zone to score in the second half against Central Michigan, Saturday, September 18, 2021, at Tiger Stadium on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

This was the kind of game you could turn off in the fourth quarter unless you wanted to evaluate the backups, and that’s exactly what LSU needed in its final tune-up before the Southeastern Conference schedule begins next weekend.

After the Tigers’ offense stumbled through a win against McNeese State, they used tempo and relied on their talented freshman receivers to stretch an early lead against Central Michigan.

LSU ended up winning 49-21 in its most complete game this season. The defense dominated at the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Max Johnson threw five touchdowns. Backups entered by the third quarter.

The Tigers still have areas where they need to improve, but after the game they played Saturday night, they can enter the SEC slate feeling more confident than they did before kickoff.

Let’s review.

Offense takes ‘next step’

The Tigers played with a sense of urgency from the beginning. They focused on tempo throughout practice last week, and on the opening touchdown drive, LSU only snapped the ball with less than 10 seconds left on the play clock twice.

The tempo created momentum, which helped LSU play even faster as it pushed the ball downfield. Part of the improvement came from using fewer “check with me” calls that had allowed opposing defenses to adjust formations before the snap. Central Michigan never could.

“Whether they were playing base or man,” Johnson said, “it allowed us to take shots when they were vulnerable.”

LSU’s first-team offense ran 48 plays. The group snapped the ball with at least 10 seconds on the play clock 35 times, showing a commitment to spending less time trying to find the perfect call and instead executing what had been dialed.

And when LSU was flagged for a delay of game on its second possession, Johnson immediately motioned to his teammates to hurry-up before the next snap.

With LSU in a rhythm as the tempo helped the offensive line, the play calling from first-year offensive coordinator Jake Peetz continued to evolve.

Peetz started with some high-percentage throws to put the ball in the hands of LSU’s playmakers, particularly junior wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, who caught two quick passes in the flat on the first possession. He then gave Johnson opportunities to throw downfield, which resulted in touchdown passes of 28, 40, 20 and 21 yards.

The competition will get more difficult. LSU will need to further develop its running game, which has averaged 3.02 yards per carry, the second-lowest mark in the SEC. But the offense showed improvement.

“I think we took the next step,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “We’re not there yet.”

Here come the freshmen

Three freshman wide receivers started. And those three — Deion Smith, Brian Thomas Jr. and Bech — impressed throughout the game as Boutte played in the slot, opening the field for everyone else.

Smith led the team with five receptions for 135 yards. On both his touchdowns, he simply beat man coverage, first by leaping over the cornerback and then by running past his defender. Smith also caught passes over the middle of the field. He resembled former LSU wide receiver Justin Jefferson when he ran after the catch.

Perhaps Smith’s best reception came along the sideline. He made an excellent adjustment to a ball thrown slightly behind him, turning his torso to catch the ball with one hand and pull it into his body as he dragged a foot in-bounds.

Bech, a high school wide receiver, has played a hybrid position with LSU thin at tight end. He often stood near the offensive line, helping chip defensive ends before he started his routes.

On one play, Bech ran across the formation before the snap, which froze a defensive end before a handoff. He also blocked outside to spring Boutte for an 11-yard gain on a shovel pass.

Bech provided a fast and reliable outlet for Johnson in the passing game. His first three receptions resulted in first downs. Then he leapt for a one-handed touchdown catch. He finished with five receptions for 81 yards, both career-highs.

Thomas didn’t match his classmates’ production, recording two catches for 50 yards, but he played throughout the night with the first-team offense. The more time he spends on the field, the more stats will follow.

Then there was running back Corey Kiner, who didn’t start but continued to carve out a role. Kiner burst out of the backfield. He broke tackles. He cut past defenders. He sprinted upfield.

Most of Kiner's yards came against Central Michigan’s second-team defense, but he showed why LSU liked him so much during preseason camp. His spin move on the final touchdown looked like former LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Orgeron said they have similar personalities.

What do the last two games say about the defense?

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LSU has played shutdown defense for two straight weeks. First the Tigers limited McNeese State to 142 total yards. Then they held Central Michigan, a team that had pushed Missouri to the brink in the season opener, to 284 total yards.

The Tigers focused on stopping the run, the strength of the Chippewas’ offense, and running back Lew Nichols III barely had space.

LSU’s front swarmed to the ball, especially in the first half. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. set the tone early with 1.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble, which defensive end Andre Anthony returned for a touchdown.

Nichols finished with 12 carries for 18 yards.

A note about Anthony, a captain and one of LSU's best pass rushers: He appeared to hurt his left knee late in the second quarter. Anthony ran upfield as he rushed the passer. Then he planted his foot and dropped to the grass. There was no contact. Orgeron didn't have an update after the game.

“Thank you to everyone who has reached out, I really appreciate all the love and support,” Anthony wrote Sunday on Twitter. “Please keep me in your prayers. It’s in God’s hands, praying and hoping for the best.”

When Anthony left the game — he didn’t return from the locker room after halftime — freshman defensive tackle Maason Smith shifted to end. Sophomore Desmond Little also got a lot of playing time with starter Ali Gaye unavailable for the second-straight game.

LSU’s defense did everything it needed to beat Central Michigan. The Tigers have now dominated their last two opponents on the defensive side, supported by a line that appeared to fix its issues after getting pushed off the ball by UCLA.

But one play lingered in Orgeron’s mind.

Central Michigan’s first touchdown came on a busted coverage, the kind of problem that plagued LSU’s defense last season. The Chippewas faced third-and-13 from their own 22-yard line. Two receivers and a tight end lined up on the right side of the formation. One receiver stood to the left.

LSU played zone coverage. As running back Marion Lukes leaked into the flat, Stingley moved up to cover him. Major Burns, the safety on that side, rolled to the middle of the field. His head pointed toward the tight end running down the seam, even though safety Cam Lewis was in the area.

Burns never saw JaCorey Sullivan’s route. No one covered Sullivan, who scored a 78-yard touchdown.

As LSU prepares for Mississippi State, the team that exploited so many missed assignments and busted coverages last season, it will have to address the root of that mistake. But the Tigers have made strides.

“I’m still disappointed in the missed assignments and letting guys free down the field,” Orgeron said. “That’s totally unacceptable.”

Three key stats

40

The Tigers recorded another 15 tackles for loss Saturday, giving them 40 this season, the most in the country. They’re also tied with Marshall for the most sacks (17) in the FBS as the defensive line continues to disrupt the passer.

10.6

Johnson averaged 10.6 yards per attempt, easily a season-high. He had averaged 6 yards per attempt against McNeese State and 7.2 yards per attempt against UCLA, but LSU threw downfield more this weekend.

71.5

Freshmen accounted for 71.5% of LSU’s total yards. Running back Corey Kiner, wide receiver Deion Smith, tight end Jack Bech, wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr. and wide receiver Malik Nabers recorded 346 of the 484 yards.

Players of the game

Max Johnson

The sophomore quarterback played his best game of the season. With more time in the pocket, he completed 74.3% of his passes (26 of 35) for 372 yards and five touchdowns. Johnson became the third quarterback in LSU history to throw five touchdowns in a game, joining Zach Mettenberger and Joe Burrow.

Deion Smith

Smith had a breakout game, leading the team in catches (5), receiving yards (135) and touchdowns (2). The former four-star recruit didn’t travel to UCLA. Now he figures to remain involved in the offense.

BJ Ojulari

The sophomore defensive end recorded a team-high 2.5 sacks to lead the defensive effort. He now has the most sacks (4.5) on the team this season, and he could become an even more important player if Anthony misses time.

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com

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