Tigers rally late to win Kelly’s SEC debut

DEFENSE DIDN’T REST: With a pass rush collecting eight sacks, LSU’s secondary did its part slowing down Mississippi State’s Air Raid passing game, thanks to playmakers like Jay Ward (5), making this early tackle in space.

By RYNE BERTHELOT, Journal Sports

BATON ROUGE – Saturday evening’s 31-16 triumph over Mississippi State at Tiger Stadium probably wasn’t how first-year LSU coach Brian Kelly envisioned his first Southeastern Conference win.

After all, the Tigers only managed 10 points through three quarters of play.

But with a three-touchdown fourth quarter, Kelly and the Tigers made it clear: Rebuilding years don’t have to be losing years.

“We just want to be a better team in November,” Kelly said. “If we can incrementally keep working at it, and get this team better in November, this is going to be a pretty good football team.”

LSU (2-1) was ineffective offensively for much of the first three quarters, falling behind 13-0 and trailing 16-10 late in the third against the Bulldogs (2-1) in the SEC opener for both squads.

The comeback started after long snapper Slade Roy raced downfield and recovered a muffed punt off the hands of Austin Williams, setting the Tigers up at the Bulldogs’ 10-yard line with 32 seconds left in the third quarter, electrifying the Tiger Stadium crowd.

It took three plays, after a pre-snap penalty on first down, for Jayden Daniels to punch into the end zone from three yards out. Damian Ramos’ extra point attempt, not a given (see Florida State 24, LSU 23) gave the Tigers their first lead of the evening, 17-16 just 49 seconds into the final period.

LSU rode the blocking of its young offensive line and the quartet of Daniels, Josh Williams, John Emery and Armoni Goodwin to grab control down the stretch. The foursome racked up 117 yards on 15 carries as the Tigers struck twice in a two-minute span to pull away.

Williams scored on a 7-yard run with 6:53 left to lead 24-16. Then as Mississippi State was trying to rally, Jay Ward stepped up with a vital interception, and Goodwin burst through a gaping hole in the middle of the field, beat one tackler and scampered in for six more with 4:50 remaining.

Instead of spreading out LSU’s defense through the air, Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach opted to keep it on the ground for most of his first drive and was rewarded with a 37-yard touchdown run by Jo’quavious Marks. But Hail State’s Air Raid attack never got rolling.

Marks’ early touchdown was the only serious demerit on the defensive report card for the Tigers: Linebackers BJ Ojulari and Harold Perkins each recorded a sack in the first half before combining for a sack on quarterback Will Rogers in the third quarter.

As a whole, the unit combined for eight tackles for loss and held the Bulldogs’ high-scoring offense to just two touchdowns through the first three quarters. Rogers (24-42-1) was held to just 214 yards passing, his lowest total of the season by more than 100 yards.

After a stagnant performance against Florida State, followed by a warmup against Southern, Kelly’s offense featured a much faster tempo, with Daniels focused more on short slants and handoffs instead of waiting for the play to develop downfield. When the play broke down, he kept it alive with his legs. With a simplified, quick-action offensive scheme in pace, Daniels piled up 317 all purpose yards, outrushing Mississippi State, 93 yards to 75.

The Tigers started their third different rotation along the offensive line in three games, after Anthony Bradford was held out of the game due to injury. Kelly was forced to start a pair of freshmen at the tackles in Will Campbell and Emery Jones, along with sophomores Garrett Dellinger and Miles Frazier in the interior.

Despite a few false start penalties, Kelly couldn’t be much happier with how his young trenchmen performed. Those flags and some other glitches didn’t deter the Tigers from taking control when the game was up for grabs.

“We can fix those things and clean them up. But all in all, to have two true freshmen and two young guys in the third starting lineup we’ve had this season, I’m really pleased with what they’ve done so far,” said Kelly.

The Tigers’ defense had no issues being consistent, proving what most already knew: If the Tigers are going to survive the SEC West schedule in 2022, it will be due to a stalwart defense.

That defense didn’t wake up against Florida State, according to defensive end Ali Gaye.

It’s awake now.

“Sometimes it takes someone hitting you in the mouth to wake you up. That’s what we did,” Gaye said. “We got some momentum last week and brought that into this week and that’s what we needed.”

Contact Ryne at rgberthelot@gmail.com

Photo by CHAD KEITH, Journal Sports