BATON ROUGE — As is the case with most football games involving LSU, Tiger fans can be quick to judge individual games and even single plays out as catastrophic microcosms of things to come for the LSU team.
While things went relatively smoothly last season in that department until the return of Jordan Jefferson as starting quarterback for the Western Kentucky game, 2012 looks like it may be business as usual in Baton Rouge.
No. 1 LSU did not play like the Coaches’ Poll’s top-ranked team Saturday night in whipping North Texas 41-14. But then again, when you’re in the midst of experiencing the best run of LSU football in school history, it is easier to notice the negatives.
Like Eric Reid, a preseason first-team All-American, being to blame for the two North Texas touchdowns.
Or the seeming lack of focus by the Tiger offensive line as quarterback Zach Mettenberger was under pressure all night and even had to leave the game and field after a vicious hit by Mean Green cornerback Hilbert Jackson on a third-down play late in the first quarter.
Or the string of careless penalties, two of which wiped touchdowns off the board.
Or the fact that LSU didn’t in fact throw for 736 yards in Mettenberger’s debut. (However, Sam Durley of Division III Eureka did, breaking a twelve year old NCAA record).
It is easy for Tiger fans on message boards to harp on the negatives because, quite frankly, they are spoiled. Spoiled by a dominant program that will be every bit as capable of defending their SEC championship as was expected before Saturday night.
To be fair, it is not all fans. Most fans see the following silver linings:
Yes, Eric Reid got burned for both Mean Green touchdowns, but it’s Eric Reid, arguably the best defensive player on the team, one who scored an incredible diving interception earlier in the game. One of his jobs last night was to nurse into action two freshman cover corners, and he played more man-to-man in the slot than he will once defensive coordinator John Chavis implements more of his nickel packages. The abundance of conventional 4-3 last night was a result of Chavis trying to break in his phenomenal crop of new linebackers, including star in the making Debo Jones. Play nickel and you’re allowing Reid to play his normal position of safety, but you’re also taking out one linebacker from the mix, meaning fewer reps for the young pups.
Yes, there were 10 penalties for 55 yards, and several scoring opportunities were erased. But one was a punt return by Odell Beckham Jr., Tyrann Mathieu’s replacement, and the other was on a perfectly set up lob pass to Russell Shepard after the North Texas cornerback bit on the slant the Tigers had been running all night. It was maybe the prettiest play of the night and is an indication of what this team can do when it cleans up the sloppiness.
And while Mettenberger didn’t throw for 736 yards, he did throw for 192 on 19 for 26 passing. That, along with the 316 rushing yards LSU amassed, combined for 508 total yards, the most for the Tigers since the 2007 national championship season when they went off for 595 against Louisiana Tech.
Head Coach Les Miles is a coach that sees the negative but chooses to focus on the good.
“Imperfect,” he said, “but with reason to smile.”
That leaves the fact that Mettenberger was under pressure all night long. And I’d be hard-pressed to find reason not to be at least a little worried about that, especially with that glassy look he had in his eye the rest of the game.
Even Miles agrees with that one.
“Mettenberger took a punch in the mouth, got up and went to playing. [I don’t like] the punch in the mouth. I’d prefer that we protect our quarterback. But that being said, it’s one of those things you have to learn to get the ball out and to recognize the defense that’s being played.”
At the end of the day, it was a 41-14 victory and had all the potential to be so much worse. The question Tiger fans have to ask themselves, though, is how much is enough? Would a West Virginia type score of 69-35 satiate LSU fans’ tastes? What about an 84-0 type game like Oklahoma St. put on Savannah St.? Or Notre Dame scoring late just to hit 50?
Know that there is nothing respectable nor is there anything that can improve a team when they continue to throw the ball for touchdowns even when they’re up by 60.
“It was kind of like offense, defense, and special teams had an opportunity to be dominant at times, but just really had some sloppy play in an opener. And that’s kind of how I look at it.”
Indeed. It’s how Tiger fans should look at it as well. This team is good, but they didn’t play so perfectly as to feel like they don’t need the firm coaching that will inevitably come their way this week. And that will make them much better going into the Washington game next Saturday.