Do not be surprised if Mississippi State coach Mike Leach hugs members of the LSU defense before their game Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN, LSU -2.5 on FanDuel) in Starkville, Mississippi, like a long lost love. Face masks off and everything.
Life has never quite been the same for Leach since Sept. 26, 2020, in Tiger Stadium.
In his Southeastern Conference debut as a head coach that day, Leach’s offense put up an SEC record 623 passing yards for a 44-34 win. Graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello completed 36 of 60 for all 623 with touchdown passes of 75, 43, 31, 24 and nine yards, mainly on crossing routes – not exactly a new play that thoroughly confused and shredded LSU’s defense.
“It’s better than average, I’ll tell you that,” Leach said after the game when asked what he thought of his debut. “There was a point in that game where I felt like if it was third-and-long the entire time, we would have scored even more points. Forget first and second down, let’s just get to third-and-long.”
And it was like that for pretty much the rest of the season for new LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who never fully recovered and was fired after a season in which the Tigers finished 127th out of 127 FBS schools in pass defense with 323 yards allowed a game.
“There’s a lot of ghosts in this stadium,” Leach said at the time.
He was talking about Billy Cannon and the like, but he could have meant Pelini, whose ghost still appears here and there in LSU’s secondary after levitating from Tiger Stadium throughout the SEC last year and to UCLA this year. LSU has a new defensive coordinator in Daronte Jones, a rookie at that spot, unless you count Division II Bowie State from 2005-09, and his defense remains hauntingly familiar.
Simple crossing routes destroyed the Tigers in the 38-27 loss at UCLA in the opener. Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson completed only 9-of-16 passes, but for 260 yards and three touchowns with a 28.8-yard average per completion. Pelini’s plethora of busted coverages also remained and were still there in LSU’s 49-21 win over Central Michigan last week.
Talented, highly recruited defensive backs, including cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., continue to look lost at times.
“We still have some missed assignments,” said LSU coach Ed Orgeron, who said that too often to mention about Pelini last year. “We still have some busts. We still have guys loose in coverage. Those things need to be fixed and fixed in a hurry, because I know they’re going to find it.”
And Orgeron, a career defensive line coach, said he was going to be more involved this season after signing away everything to Pelini last year.
You can bet Leach’s eyes lit up while watching film this week, particularly after his team (2-1) lost to Memphis, 31-29, last week. And he barely survived his opener against Louisiana Tech, winning, 35-34, before a lackluster, 24-10, win over North Carolina State.
“I think Ed is more involved is what I heard,” Leach said Monday. “I don’t know for sure.”
At least, LSU’s approach on defense is simpler this season with Jones and new linebacker coach Blake Baker, a former coordinator at Miami and Louisiana Tech who is more qualified to be LSU’s defensive coordinator than Jones. Pelini was trying to reinvent defense with overly complex schemes and just kept starting fires instead.
“They changed a lot of coaches over there,” Leach said. “There’s really not much crossover at least as far as the coaches calling it. It is just a fundamental defense. Very basic, very committed to what they do. Sometimes those types of defenses are the most dangerous.”
Well, there is one person upset LSU (2-1) let go of Pelini.
Leach and Costello struggled mightily post-Pelini last season and finished 3-7. Costello threw for more than 300 yards just once more and was eventually benched in favor of freshman Will Rogers, who is the starter now. State never scored more than 24 points after LSU until it beat Missouri, 51-32, in the regular season finale. In the four games after Leach said bye to Bo, his team lost 21-14 to Arkansas, 24-2 to Kentucky, 28-14 to Texas A&M and 41-0 to Alabama.
Leach can only reminisce of his brief bro-mance with Pelini.
“It was just such a swirl of what was happening all over the place,” Leach said of his signature win at LSU. “It was a very explosive game on both sides. Big chunks of yardage.”
Will the defense of Jones, Baker, Orgeron and still some Pelini be as forthcoming?
“We still have a lot of things to fix,” Orgeron said.