NEW ORLEANS, La. — Leave it to LSU to play 17 true freshman in a 27-0 season opener and still give itself room to improve.
In Matt Canada’s first game as LSU offensive coordinator, his unit executed everything that was asked of it, putting up 479 yards of total offense on 75 plays with zero turnovers and amassing a staggering 41 minutes and 54 seconds of possession. That’s about a 70-30 advantage in time of possession.
And not to be outdone, Dave Aranda’s LSU defense stifled BYU as well as it could’ve. LSU never let BYU cross the 50 yard line, held the Cougars to 97 yards of total offense and pushed BYU back enough that it finished with negative rushing yards. All of this came with three regular starters missing the game and six players making their first ever college starts.
Still, with all of that dominance, both the offense and defense showed glimpses of areas where they can improve. Here’s a full report card of LSU’s win.
Passing offense: A-
If there was any doubt about Ed Orgeron’s decision to name Danny Etling his starting quarterback, there shouldn’t be anymore.
Etling was stellar, going 14-for-17 with 173 yards. And even those three incompletions are misleading. Two of them were thrown out of the back of the end zone to avoid pressure and the third was dropped. In other words, every pass Etling meant to be completed should’ve been completed.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Etling’s night was the way he spread the ball across the field. He completed his 14 passes to eight different targets. Three of those targets were receivers, three were running backs and two were tight ends.
Senior D.J. Chark led all receivers with four catches for 77 yards, including a 52-yard connection with Etling that set up a Derrius Guice touchdown. Sophomore Derrick Dillon also had an impressive afternoon, catching two passes for 36 yards. Both of Dillon’s catches came on third down out routes, and both of them extended the drive.
On top of all this, LSU didn’t allow a sack and Etling was barely even touched. Clean pockets make for good passing games, and Etling proved that Saturday.
If anything, the only knock against the aerial attack was its lack of opportunism. Chark’s 52-yard catch should’ve been a touchdown but Etling underthrew him, and Etling’s two throwaways came inside the BYU 10 yard line on rollouts that could’ve been passing touchdowns.
But those are nitpicks. Matt Canada’s passing offense looked strong Saturday. Quite a debut indeed.
Rushing offense: B+
LSU ran for 294 yards Saturday night. That’s nothing to scoff at. But it’s also not the most awe-inspiring number when you run the ball 57 times.
The Tigers averaged 5.2 yards per carry Saturday. That included 4.4 yards per carry from Guice, who rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts. That’s a heckuva night for anyone, but considering Guice averaged 7.6 yards per carry in 2016, it’s a bit underwhelming.
Still, there’s no reason to be nervous about the LSU rushing attack. Darrel Williams stood out as a competent spell back, gaining 94 yards on 15 attempts with a touchdown of his own. And true freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire posted 47 yards of total offense on six carries and two catches.
If there’s one concern, it’s LSU’s performance in the red zone. The Tigers crossed the BYU 20 yard line seven times but only came away with three touchdowns. That left two field goals, one missed field goal and a turnover on downs. Some of that can be attributed to the passing offense. But the running game on the goal line was reminiscent of the 2016 loss to Florida.
If you can’t punch it in consistently from 1 yard out, you won’t have the most effective offense.
It truly is incredible what LSU’s defense was able to do given what it was dealing with. Regular starters Donnie Alexander and Kevin Toliver Jr. were suspended, as were role contributors Xavier Lewis, Frank Herron and Kristian Fulton. On top of that, preseason All-American linebacker Arden Key and his backup Andre Anthony were both out with injuries.
And a unit that boasted three true freshman starters made up for that by holding a major Division I opponent to fewer than 100 total yards. It was dominance in its purest sense.
Sure, some veterans showed out. Corey Thompson finished with three tackles, two of which were sacks, and John Battle had a characteristically solid day with four tackles of his own. But the real stars of the day were the newcomers. Three tackles for true freshman linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson. Three tackles and an interception for redshirt freshman cornerback Greedy Williams. Two tackles apiece for true freshmen Tyler Taylor and Grant Delpit. A pass breakup for true freshman cornerback Kary Vincent Jr.
That’s the most astounding part of LSU’s defensive performance. The Tigers held a team to negative-5 rushing yards and forced as many punts as they allowed first downs. And they did so with virtually nothing but young players sipping their first cups of coffee.
Getting Key and Alexander and Toliver and Lewis and that whole group back will only make this defense better. And better than Saturday night is an impressive proposition.
Special teams: C
LSU’s night on special teams was a forgettable one. Jack Gonsoulin went 2-for-3 in his first game as LSU’s placekicker, but both of his makes were from inside 30 yards. The return game was barely necessary, with one fielded kick and three fielded punts. And LSU’s offense ate up so much space that Josh Growden only came out to punt one time, after the Tigers’ first possession of the season.
Some things need to be cleaned up. Penalties on return plays and missed field goals will be much more crucial mistakes as the season grows on. But for a team with no special teams coordinator in its first game under new leadership, Saturday was enough.
It’s easy to rave about Aranda’s performance. And Canada’s play-calling was purposely generic against an out-talented BYU defense, so it’s hard to grade his day.
But there is one thing we can say: Like or hate Ed Orgeron’s choices to keep his suspension announcements “in house,” Orgeron’s players didn’t look like they were distracted or worried about playing short. The team looked disciplined all night, despite a handful of early penalties. And on a night where 17 of LSU’s 23 true freshmen saw the field, none of them looked unprepared for the moment.
As was addressed as the top, this team will grow as the season goes on. But if Saturday was any indication, this young team is talented, and talent under the coaching umbrella of Orgeron, Aranda and Canada can go a long way.
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