The LSU spring game was wrapped in intrigue from the start.
Would they even play with the ever-present threat of rain we’ve had here lately, or just build an ark and donate it to charity?
The leaden skies looked swollen with rain, but the game was a dry run.
“It never rains in Tiger Stadium,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We all know this.”
Indeed. Including those of us still damp from the 1988 Miami game.
After establishing the important fact that the game would be played, the rest of the afternoon was a matter of your perception.
The beauty and the curse of a spring game is one side’s highlight is the other side’s downfall.
The offense has a big play. That means the defense must stink.
The defense forces a turnover. The offense must be ineffective, the quarterbacks are awful and the offensive coordinator must have learned his trade through some online course from Costa Rica.
Miles, being the coach and positive guy he is, had to try to find the middle ground.
“This was a good ending to a quality spring,” he said.
The chicken or the egg scenario played out most visibly in Saturday’s most-scrutinized position battle between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
Cold statistics and the eyeball test told you Harris had the better day passing. He tucked and ran way too much, taking off as the pocket broke down instead of waiting for second or third receivers to get open. Harris had 10 total carries for a net 22 yards, not counting a called 5-yard bootleg run for a touchdown around left end that Miles vetoed because he didn’t consider it sporting. (Darrel Williams got the ball on the next play and scored.)
But that effortless grace with which Harris throws the ball was on full display. Playing with the White and Purple teams, Harris completed 11 of 17 passes for 178 yards with an interception and two touchdowns.
Jennings was 13-of-20 for 242 yards and two TDs, better it would seem except for the fact that more than a few of his throws came against backups who you may never see play in Tiger Stadium this fall. Blown coverages ruled the day.
Then there was that one unfortunately vintage Jennings sequence when he threw the ball away into the right sideline (missing Leonard Fournette open in the left flat), then threw wide of John Diarse on a screen, then overthrew Travin Dural on a deep ball.
But the question is the same now as it was in LSU’s spring game a year ago: How do you separate the reality from the illusion?
Harris had the better of it in last year’s spring game, too, but apparently couldn’t grasp the offense adequately and was a phantom the second half of the season after making a lone start at Auburn. Again he showed he can make prettier throws than Jennings, but playing quarterback in the Southeastern Conference is very little about being an artistic success. You have to drill to strike paydirt.
If you pressed me, I would say Jennings will still take the first snap Sept. 5 against McNeese State, barring some injury or huge change of fortune between now and then. Harris appears to have closed the gap, but we all thought he had erased the gap last spring.
One other certainty remains: LSU has top-10 talent everywhere else. It’s the quarterbacks who will determine whether the Tigers win eight games again or are serious contenders for a major bowl and a Southeastern Conference championship that looks more up for grabs now than it has for years.
“I’ve said it over and over this spring: We were the weak link on the team last year,” Harris said candidly. “I want to come out and prove how much I’ve improved personally and how much this team has improved.”
“If we continue to improve,” Jennings echoed, “the sky’s the limit.”
As for the other elements of LSU’s game, the reviews were mostly positive. Dural and Malachi Dupre made some sparkling catches — against backups, it’s true — but good hands and good moves are good things to see against any kind of competition.
And there were a surprising number of play-action passes in which the quarterbacks faked handoffs to Fournette (this just in: No. 7 is pretty good, a once-in-a-generation rare blend of balance and brute force) and tossed to wide-open tight ends.
LSU … must … do … more … of … that.
As for the defense, it’s hard what to make of the first big public exposure for Kevin Steele’s unit. The starting defense didn’t give up a score until the final play, but the way LSU runs its spring game, it’s rarely best versus best. Sacks by ends Maquedius Bain and Tashawn Bower were encouraging signs, as was an interception of Harris by freshman phenom cornerback Kevin Toliver II, a tantalizing play that will have Tiger fans talking all summer.
But more definitive answers than that will have to wait for the fall. That’s the nature of a spring game. At least it was played, but at most we only got slivers of important information out of it.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.