BATON ROUGE – Four down, four to go for LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
Entering the season, LSU insiders had Orgeron needing to finish 8-4 to keep his job after a 5-5 slide in 2020 following the 15-0 national championship of 2019. A 7-5 finish might not do it.
Unranked LSU’s thrilling, 49-42 victory over No. 20 Florida Saturday got Orgeron halfway there with some impressive style points to boot as the Tigers (4-3, 2-2 SEC) played with sustained zest for an entire game for the first time all season.
LSU scored a season-high points in SEC play, clearing its previous high by three touchdowns. And LSU’s defense held the No. 3 rushing team in the nation to 138 yards -136 yards below its average of 274.
And the Tigers did that after losing their top wide receiver last week – sophomore Kayshon Boutte to an ankle injury – and starting right guard Chasen Hines to an injury suffered in pre-game warm-ups. It has been that kind of year for Orgeron. Nevermind, junior Jaray Jenkins responded with three touchdown catches. And sophomore Marlon Martinez, who has one start in his career at UCLA this season, replaced Hines for the rest of the game. And the offensive line dominated like never before this season.
LSU also lost three defensive starters over the past week – defensive end Ali Gaye and cornerback Eli Ricks to injuries and defensive tackle Joseph Evans in what may be an opt out. In recent weeks, LSU lost two other starters to injuries – All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and defensive end Andre Anthony. But they overcame.
“I told the defense, ‘We’ve got to play today,'” said LSU linebacker Damone Clark, whose interception of Florida quarterback Emory Jones with 1:59 to go sealed the win. He also had 11 tackles with seven of those solo.
“It’s now or never,” Clark told his team. Thank you, Elvis.
It was now.
Never was that more true for Orgeron, who had to sweat out last Sunday morning and afternoon following a 42-21 debacle at Kentucky. Some thought he would be fired before last Monday.
Now, Orgeron and his team have life. No. 13 Ole Miss (5-1, 2-1 SEC) beat Tennessee, 31-26, Saturday and will be a difficult challenge in Oxford, Mississippi. But if the Tigers can beat Florida, they should have a chance against the Rebels, particularly with an improving defense and offensive line.
After an open date and a trip to No. 5 Alabama on Nov. 6, LSU hosts Arkansas, which was ripped by Auburn, 38-23, on Saturday. Arkansas looks like a possible winnable game. That’s five or six wins. Then it is Louisiana-Monroe for win six or seven before a difficult home game against No. 21 Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2 SEC), which won easily at Missouri, 35-14. It’s going to be close for Orgeron. But maybe he has a chance. He clearly deserves that.
Orgeron showed he can win Saturday against a quality opponent in crisis mode, which is as strong a style point as any.
“I take it one day at a time,” Orgeron said when asked jokingly about his crisis management. “I love our team. I love LSU.”
What Orgeron also did Saturday that he started somewhat last Saturday was a flip of the script. “Flip The Script” is the aptly titled book about his 2019 season by Bruce Feldman, and Orgeron can still do it.
LSU displayed a terrible running game behind a poor offensive line though the first five weeks of this season. In the opener, LSU rushed for 49 yards on 25 carries at UCLA, then 126 on 36 rushes against lowly McNeese State, 84 on 24 carries against lowly Central Michigan, 63 on 27 rushes at Mississippi State and a mere 33 on 25 carries against Auburn.
The 147 yards on 35 rushes at Kentucky looked better than it really was as LSU was never in the game. Kentucky led 21-0 and 35-7 in the third quarter and played some prevent defense.
On Saturday, Orgeron flipped the offensive line script dramatically in a page turner. Behind a suddenly cohesive offensive line that is actually moving people, the Tigers ran the ball extremely well with 321 yards – more than doubling its season high last week at Kentucky.
LSU reached 300 yards rushing for the first time since they gained 393 in a 40-24 win over Ole Miss in 2017. That offensive line provided the interference for tailback Tyrion Davis-Price, who set the school rushing record with 287 yards on 36 carries.
“The offensive line really turned it around,” Davis-Price said. “They did an amazing job. I’m going to do something special for them.”
If that is steaks for everyone or something similar, he should invite new offensive line coach Brad Davis, who just took over in June for the fired James Cregg. Such a late start was at the root of many of LSU’s offensive line issues.
“It was great to see the work our coaches have done finally paying off,” Orgeron said.
“Coach Davis did a good job of getting in their grill last week,” said LSU quarterback Max Johnson, who was sacked just once. He was sacked nine times over his previous three games, including four last week.
It was great to see Orgeron’s work pay off, too, not to mention seeing him smile after several stressful weeks.
It is one thing to “flip a script,” which has been Orgeron’s mantra since becoming coach in 2016, from one coach to another or from one season to another. Orgeron has done that multiple times.
It takes true coaching talent to flip a script at mid-season when the tone of losing has been set, and flames are getting closer and closer. He was not under fire, but Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher did that last week with the upset of No. 1 Alabama following two uninspired losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. And Ed Orgeron did it Saturday with the upset of No. 20 Florida.
Now, if Orgeron has a few chapters left in him, he might be around to see 2022.