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LSU running back Tyrion Davis-Price (3) is stopped by a pack of Bulldogs on the carry in the second half of the Tigers' home opener against Mississippi State on Saturday, September 26, 2020, in Tiger Stadium. Mississippi State won 44-34.

Nearly one year ago, the skies turned ashen for LSU. Mississippi State rode into Tiger Stadium on Sept. 26 wielding the sword of self-styled pirate and unapologetically eccentric coach Mike Leach as his Air Raid offense rolled off the showroom floor.

The Bulldogs didn’t need a beat to work the bugs out of their new attack. They carved up the LSU defense like a holiday ham, posthaste. If memory serves, State scored a touchdown before the coin toss. Amid their demolition work, the Bulldogs ripped away the veneer of invulnerability still plastic-wrapping the LSU program after the Tigers’ 15-0 national championship run the season before.

The cowbells of regret and embarrassment are still ringing evil music in the Tigers’ ears after last season’s 44-34 loss to the Bulldogs, branded by their Southeastern Conference record 632 yards passing. It is still scarcely believable that LSU — the self-styled “DBU,” the ancestral home of the Chinese Bandits and the lair of the Honey Badger — could have been so abused by any team through the air. But it happened. “Lies, damn lies and statistics,” the saying goes, but there was truth in those shattering numbers that day.

“We got burnt,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said Monday, with commendable frankness. “We just couldn’t cover them. We didn’t have the answers.”

Answers are the things Orgeron, his revamped staff and players are still attempting to find.

By fits and starts, LSU has found improvement after backpedaling from the West Coast with that 38-27 loss to UCLA. (The Bruins were so energized by that LSU win that they took a week off to pose for some selfies then went “Pffft!” in a 40-37 loss to Fresno State.)

The Tigers’ defense unleashed an enraged pass rush in a 34-7 win over McNeese State. And the passing game put on a show to the tune of 400 Air Raid-like yards in Saturday’s 49-21 win over Central Michigan.

Nice little prizes, both wins were, like the appetizers on the “Price is Right” that get you on stage to play for the big-item package. But this game Saturday in Starkville (11 a.m., ESPN) is the Showcase Showdown. The Tigers are eager to come sprinting out of the conference gate, not stumbling around as they did in last year’s COVID-19 convoluted season.

“It’s very critical,” Orgeron said of getting off to a winning SEC start. “We have no room for error. I knew that going into the last game (against CMU) and it’s the same this game.”

Have the Tigers sorted out some of their early season issues? Yes. Without question. Offensive coordinator Jake Peetz set the offense on a path to a quicker tempo and away from stultifying stretches while trying to check into the perfect call as the play clock ticked down. The pass rush again was top notch — the Tigers added five sacks against the Chippewas and lead the nation both in total sacks (19) and sacks per game (6.33).

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The season-ending left knee injury to senior defensive end and top-shelf leader Andre Anthony is a big blow. But Orgeron talked Monday about compensating by sliding freshman Maason Smith out to end and creating a rotation with him, fresh-off-the-injured list Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari. A fearsome threesome.

Thorny issues remain. The running game is still a rumor: The Tigers are tied for 120th nationally with 85.7 ground yards per game (State is actually 130th and last with 45.3 ypg). And a gifted secondary is still plagued by huge coverage busts. There was a space about as wide as Tangipahoa Parish on Saturday between LSU’s Major Burns and CMU receiver JaCorey Sullivan on his 78-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.

“Yes, I do believe we have different answers, different defenses,” Coach O said. “But we didn’t answer the first challenge against UCLA. We didn’t play very well. We’ve gotten a little bit better, but there’s a lot of things we have to continue to fix where we are going to be challenged this Saturday.”

In other words, the plays, formations and schemes Leach’s offense used to stun LSU last September are still waiting to torment the Tigers this week.

“The crossing routes, the wheel routes, the pick routes — all the things that we saw last year — we're seeing them again on film,” Orgeron said. “They're very good at it.”

Being a very good team is still something LSU is chasing — like a crossing route. Whether LSU can reach that goal or not will be shaped significantly by Saturday’s outcome. Once again, the Mississippi State game figures to set the tone for the season.

“There’s a sense of urgency” to fix the things that got LSU beat in 2020 and still bother the Tigers in 2021, Coach O said. Of that there is little doubt, just as there’s no doubt LSU has the more talented roster.

The question is whether the Tigers are poised to truly be better than they were a September ago.

Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com

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