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Young Tigers Thrive in Complete Performance

by Harrison Valentine, LSU Athletics Communications
Recap, Highlights Worsham Podcast Inside LSU Football +0
Young Tigers Thrive in Complete Performance

Ed Orgeron could feel it coming. 

Despite uncertainty at quarterback, a struggling defense, and the proverbial noise at full volume, Orgeron felt LSU’s best game was coming on Saturday against South Carolina.

It’s why, during Thursday’s media session, Orgeron stared right into the camera and said it. On the heels of an uncharacteristic and ugly loss to Missouri just two weeks prior, with a freshman quarterback set to make his first-career start, that’s a bold thing to say. But he felt it coming. And that’s exactly what happened. 

On Saturday night, the Tigers made a statement in all three phases in their 52-24 win over Missouri. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but improvements were made in the areas LSU needed them most, an indication that they’re starting to discover their identity just when they need it most. 

Entering Saturday’s contest with South Carolina, LSU ranked third in the SEC in total offense, and they didn’t skip a beat under freshman quarterback and Ponchatoula native TJ Finley, who got the start in replacement of injured starter Myles Brennan.

Finley didn’t show any freshman jitters and never looked rattled, going 17-for-21 for 265 yards and three total touchdowns. By the end of the night, the student section was chanting his name. 

The support he was given throughout the week by the coaches – and the other quarterbacks in the room – helped produce a confident performance. 

“I entered really relaxed,” Finley said. “My quarterback crew supported me throughout the week. Steve Ensminger was amazing prepping me for this game. Russ Callaway prepared me for the blitzes and the pressures. I didn’t have many pregame jitters, but if I did, it was quick.”

“He was very calm before the game and during,” added John Emery, who rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown. “He made a couple mistakes, but for a freshman to come in a ball like that was unbelievable.”

Like Finley said, he had plenty of help. The Tigers’ rushing attack – specifically on early downs – was as effective as it’s been all season. Ty Davis-Price led the team with 135 yards rushing and a touchdown on 22 carries, taking a bulk of the pressure off Finley. Orgeron emphasized the importance of establishing the run all week to set up the pass. Being one-dimensional was not an option going forward.

Emery, who met with reporters after the game, was quick to complement LSU’s offensive line, who he says provided the running backs with a boost of confidence.

“I’m so proud of my O-Line and I’m so happy that they stepped up big time this game,” Emery said. “They gave us a huge confidence boost heading into next game.”

Terrace Marshall also took some pressure off his quarterback, too, finishing the game with six receptions for 88 yards and two scores. Marshall now has two receiving touchdowns in four straight games, the longest streak by an SEC player since 2006. He’s lived in the end zone in 2020, and he wasn’t getting evicted on Saturday. 

The Tigers even shored up their few offensive shortcomings from their previous three outings,  showing development on third down and in the red zone. After going 0-for-10 on third down against Missouri, LSU went 8-for-10 in that category on Saturday, also going a perfect 5-for-5 in the red zone. 

A team effort was still desperately needed. Finley admitted he could sense the team wasn’t playing with enough togetherness over the past three games. He felt they were out of sorts. But tonight they got back to playing to the LSU standard of performance, posting their most complete showing of the season on both sides of the ball.

“I feel like we have our swagger back,” said Finley. “Last year, the offense and defense fueled each other. Offensively, we had big plays. The defense had explosive stops. I felt like we came together today. As long as we stay together, we’ll have success.”

After a 1-2 start, LSU was focused on one thing: getting back to their brand of football. They didn’t panic, instead attacking their preparation harder. They had a bad taste lingering in their mouth from two losses in three weeks. On Saturday, they wiped the slate clean.

“We had to get that nasty feeling out of our stomachs,” said Emery. “We really needed this win. I loved the energy at practice every day. It was amazing and I had no doubt going into this game that we were going to win.”

Defensively, LSU matched South Carolina’s offense big play for big plays. Though the Gamecocks generated a number of chunk plays, the Tigers forced costly turnovers and registered drive-killing sacks. In that aspect, the young stars shined. Freshman BJ Ojulari recorded four tackles and three sacks, and fellow rookie Elias Ricks took an interception to the house.  

The veterans set the tone throughout the week, however. Defensive leaders like Jabril Cox, JaCoby Stevens and Damone Clark said they wanted to prove a point to detractors. The game plans weren’t the problem, they said – they just weren’t executing them. Against South Carolina, that execution was closer to where they want to be, with room to improve.

“We just played really bad these last couple games and we need to show everybody that Coach Pelini and his scheme is something that really fits our style,” Cox said. “Coming out tonight with a win and holding them to the amount of points that we did really showed how we can be as a whole defense.”

The specialists made their mark, too. Kick returner Trey Palmer made history for LSU on special teams, returning the first kickoff for LSU in Tiger Stadium since 1981. In front of more than 20,000 fans, Palmer muffed the kick, recovered, surveyed the field and ran it 93 yards for the score. 

While there’s still plenty to clean up, the Tigers will hit the film room much happier this week. The road ahead doesn’t get any easier from here, but LSU has something to build on heading to the Plains in a week. 

“This one was huge,” said Cox. “It brought a lot of energy to us and something that we had to get back to: the LSU standard that we’ve all been knowing that we can do. This one was really much-needed.”