By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
STARKVILLE, Miss.—Head coaches like to say no two seasons are alike, that his year’s team identity is or will be different than last year’s.
That might be eventually true for 14th-ranked LSU, yet the 2023 Tigers find themselves in the same position as the 2022 Tigers were last year.
A disappointing season-opening loss to Florida State, followed by steamrolling an extremely overmatched SWAC team to regain a bit of positivity, yet still not having a true picture of who they really are as SEC play begins.
Last season in Tiger Stadium, LSU spotted Mississippi State a 13-0 late in the second quarter before outscoring MSU 31-3 the rest of the way in a 31-16 SEC opener. It jumpstarted a stretch in which the Tigers won eight of their next nine games including five of six in the SEC to clinch the league’s West Division title.
There’s hope that LSU (1-1) can follow the path today starting here in Davis-Wade Stadium against the Bulldogs (2-0) in an 11 a.m. SEC lid-lifter for both teams.
“We made a great deal of improvement in just the way we think,” LSU second-year head coach Brian Kelly said of the Tigers’ 72-10 beatdown of Southern last Saturday following a 45-24 Sept. 3 loss to Florida State. “To me, the most important thing was thinking the right way about how to play for four quarters.
“Now we got to take that against an SEC opponent in terms of the technical, the tactical. All of those things now are going to be on display. When you miss a tackle in space (against an SEC opponent) it’s probably going to go for a touchdown, not a 35-yard run. That’s the next challenge for us as we go into SEC play.”
Certainly, the Tigers’ offense is far more advanced than it was last year at this time when Jayden Daniels was still in the infant stages as LSU’s starting quarterback. Daniels didn’t get comfortable with his receivers and the Tigers’ playcallers didn’t get a feel for Daniels until halfway in the season.
Daniels, who sat out the second half of last Saturday’s blowout of Grambling, is averaging 354.8 yards total offense with 6 TDs (all passes). It’s 125 more yards than he averaged a year ago after two games.
While he’s operating the offense smoother than last season – as it should be for the Arizona State transfer making his 17th LSU start – the Tigers’ rushing attack needs to show a leap of improvement against a quality Mississippi State defense.
LSU overwhelmed Grambling with 302 rushing yards on 48 carries and five TDs. Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs, healed from a hamstring injury, ran for 115 yards and a TD in his Tigers’ debut. Freshman Kaleb Jackson added 62 yards and 2 TDs.
“We’ve got a lot of backs,” said Kelly, who welcomes back senior John Emery Jr. to the rotation after he missed the first two games presumably because of academics. “We’re going to go with the guy that is feeling it and seeing it and ripping off some big plays.
“There’s going to be times they’re (MSU’s defense) going to stunt, have line movements and make it difficult to run. We’ve got to be patient with our running game. We just can’t abandon the running game.”
Zach Arnett, MSU’s defensive coordinator last season, was named the Bulldogs’ head coach after Mike Leach died unexpectedly early last December.
While Arnett has made a drastic change from Leach’s Air Raid offense to a conventional balanced run/pass attack, State’s defense still has a heavy Arnett influence.
Dating back to last season, Mississippi State has recorded a takeaway in seven straight games. State had four takeaways on the first four possessions against Arizona in last Saturday’s 31-24 overtime win in Starkville. Last season, the Bulldogs earned a takeaway in 12 of their 13 games.
State’s defense revolves around linebackers Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson. Through two games, the duo has already combined for 35 tackles, 3½ sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
“Those guys have seen a lot of football,” Arnett said. “When there are times we shift stress in our defensive game plan, we give them harder assignments than maybe some of our other guys. We know they have played a lot of football and they can handle that burden.”
No one has been affected more by Arnett’s move to a new offense than MSU senior quarterback Will Rogers.
In his 32 starts under Leach, Rogers averaged 34.7 pass completions and 49 pass attempts per game. Under Arnett in two starts, he’s averaged 14.5 completions and 23 attempts.
Kelly believes Rogers will eventually thrive in the new offense.
“They want to run the football, that’s the change in their offensive structure,” Kelly said, “but it’s set up to use play action to take (passing) shots downfield. “I think it’s really going to suit him (Rogers). He’s extremely accurate. He’s smart. He takes care of the football.”
1: Pass reception needed by MSU running back Jo’Quavious Marks to become the school’s all-time reception leader. He currently has 199 career catches.
4: First-year tight ends for the Tigers will all play vs. MSU because starting Tigers’ TE Mason Taylor is questionable with an injury.
9: LSU offensive players this season have scored at least one TD
13: Straight wins for LSU when it rushes for 200 yards or more
20: Consecutive games for LSU receiver Malik Nabers with at least one reception
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