NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In the shadow ball that is college football in 2020, played before cardboard cutouts and after untold dollars worth of coronavirus testing, the team the LSU Tigers want to be started to materialize Saturday night.
Yes, this was a 41-7 road win at Vanderbilt, even in non-pandemic times the biggest bowl of cream cheese in the Southeastern Conference, other than that ocean-liner-worthy horn they blow on the rare occasions when the Commodores do score points. Frightening.
But after scaring and scarring itself in last Saturday’s 44-34 upset loss to Mississippi State, the frights were much fewer and further between for the Tigers against Vandy. A victory in Music City was a sweet tune for LSU seven days after the most sour note the Tigers have hit in a long time.
“A lot fewer mistakes in this game than the first,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said afterward.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John Emery veered left. The edge was free. Untouched after 12 yards, the LSU running back high-stepped in the back of the V…
The week started with players running wind sprints after Monday’s practice because of the “loafing” against State that boiled Orgeron’s already-hot Cajun blood. He promised the Tigers would play with more intensity, more effort. “I guaran-damn-tee you that," he growled.
The NFL draft and COVID-19 and players opting out because of both of those things leached a lot of talent from this LSU team compared to 2019. But instead of the Tigers looking bleached and exposed as they did in the baking hot sun of the season opener, the talented players LSU still retains and added through recruiting and transfers got to shine through as a nearly full harvest moon rose over Vanderbilt Stadium.
Somewhere in this country music hotbed, an aspiring songwriter with LSU allegiances was probably looking up, inspired to pen a ballad of Tiger redemption.
New voices were added to this week’s mix. Derek Stingley, hospitalized last week by an unnamed malady, looked pretty darned healthy Saturday, blending typically suffocating pass defense with some quicksilver punt returns. The kind of plays that might have made a difference against State.
There was Jontre Kirklin, a senior role player who tight-roped his way to his first career touchdown in the first quarter then added another TD reception in the third. There was John Emery, the running back who had such promise when he arrived at LSU last year but didn’t produce, turning in first career 100-yard game with a touchdown on a string of authoritative, tackle-breaking runs.
And there was the continuing rise of defensive end Ali Gaye, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound dreadnought who Orgeron said can run a 4.6 40-yard dash, a menacing, physical anomaly.
In short, the Tigers still have too much talent to turn in two straight clunkers like the one they had last week against State, which itself thudded back to earth Saturday night with an upset home loss to lowly Arkansas (2020, man).
“It’s a step,” Orgeron said. “Last week we didn’t play well, obviously. That’s not LSU Tiger football.
“Tonight was LSU Tiger football. We practiced like that and it starts with me.”
Still, there were concerns and things to, in Sean Paytonspeak, “clean up.”
The Tigers struggled much of the night on third down, finishing 4 of 12 overall. LSU will need to be better at converting those opportunities that seemed to come so easily last season. Defensively, the LSU unit that rather comically was ranked No. 1 in the FBS last week in rushing defense (State only ran for 9 net yards because it didn’t need to) was gashed often by Vanderbilt for some uncomfortably big runs.
Again, it’s Vandy, but you have to remember that the Commodores ran wild against LSU’s defense last year in a track meet the Tigers won 66-38 while surrendering 374 total yards to this year's 266. Vandy lost several of its best skill players from last year and was starting a freshman quarterback, but that freshman, Ken Seals, was the best talent the ‘Dores have had behind center in a long time, one writer covering Vanderbilt said. And the Commodores offense, the new version of it under former Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, was much better conceived than the offense that vexed LSU last year.
So, adding up all the plusses and minuses and differences, LSU’s win at Vandy 2.0 arguably ranks as impressively as the Tigers’ win here last year.
“Not only was it not a close game, we dominated on both sides of the ball,” said senior safety JaCoby Stevens, who forbade his fellow players to watch any football this week except Vanderbilt game film. “That’s what this team needs to get used to.”
It would be premature to again label LSU as a championship contender at this point. There is a long way still to go, virus permitting, and much work and improvement to be done.
But it does appear the team the Tigers want to be is emerging from the shadows, coalescing into a form more recognizable as the one they showed they were last season.
"That's a happy football team in the locker room," Coach O said, finally earning the right to smile himself.