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Moran: LSU still learning how to finish after close call with Louisiana Tech

September 24, 2018 - 10:30 am
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All of the ingredients for a classic trap game were there.

LSU was coming off an emotional, physically-draining war of a win at Auburn and spent the week since hearing about how good they are. Hosting Louisiana Tech was an outlier during a stretch of schedule in which LSU will play five Southeastern Conference foes in six weeks.

The Tigers were hosting a particularly game in-state foe in Louisiana Tech that had an innovative offense and some next-level players on each side of the ball. The Bulldogs had the benefit of coming to Baton Rouge off a bye, making them both well rested and harder to prepare for due to a lack of game tape.

That constitutes the pre-tense for a lethargic let-down game. The news that LSU would be without starting left tackle Saahdiq Charles to go against future NFL edge rusher Jaylon Ferguson (21.5 sacks in the past two seasons) elevated it to a full-blown trap.

The betting public certainly seemed to think LSU could be in for a Troy redux — maybe it’s those purple jerseys that LSU wore Saturday for the first time since that low water mark a year ago. LSU opened as a 22-point favorite in some places and the line was bet down as low as 19.5 before kickoff.

All of that could explain a scenario in which LSU woke up at some point in the second half and scored 14 unanswered points to seal a 38-21 victory over Louisiana Tech. Starting slow against a non-conference foe is an LSU tradition that dates back to well before the Ed Orgeron Era began.

This wasn’t that all-too-familiar hangover performance though. Orgeron had purposefully guarded against it, but LSU was in for a scare nonetheless. Just one with a much stranger game script.

“I was worried about that all week, but then we got up 24-0,” Orgeron said. “I thought we were playing a good, clean game. We came ready to play, but those guys kept fighting. We didn’t come out in the second half ready to go. We just didn’t play well enough. We won the game, but it wasn’t good enough.”

LSU scored the first 24 points of the game, capitalizing on a pair of sloppy turnovers from Louisiana Tech in the process. The Tigers were humming on all cylinders in the first half and the rout appeared to be on.

And then it wasn’t.

Louisiana Tech got on the board late in the first half with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring march that irked both Orgeron and Dave Aranda. An uncharacteristic giveaway in the form of a strip sack of Joe Burrow — LSU’s first turnover of the season — kept the momentum rolling in the other direction into halftime.

The collective blood pressure of everyone left in Tiger Stadium after the intermission, aside from a raucous corner of Tech supporters, steadily rose through the third quarter. The second acrobatic touchdown grab by Adrian Hardy pulled the visitors to within a field goal in the fourth quarter.

The offense coming out of halftime flat isn’t necessarily a new development, but it was the most humbling evening yet for the LSU defense.

Louisiana Tech racked up 417 yards of total offense and converted on 9-of-18 third downs. Most of those yards came through the air as Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith sliced up the LSU secondary for 330 yards and three touchdowns.

“We didn’t win a lot of one-on-ones,” linebacker Devin White said. “We came out winning everything, and then we kind of let up on the gas. At the end, we put some more gas in the tank and we finished it out. That’s all that matters to me. We can learn from it and we’re going to learn from it.”

“That was not a good defensive performance tonight,” Orgeron added bluntly.

LSU managed to right the ship from that point on, buoyed by a leaping grab down the sideline from Dee Anderson to inject life back into a comatose team. That led to a touchdown, and after a fourth-and-short stand by the defense, LSU scored one more time to put the game back on ice.

Like the Auburn and Miami games before them, the positive is that LSU had the requisite toughness to get the game back under control after seemingly falling apart in the middle quarters.

But there are games ahead when falling asleep at the wheel for any stretch of time will result in LSU getting its doors blown off. It only takes one sloppy stretch to get ran over by the Alabama’s and Georgia’s of the world.

Becoming a more complete team will require LSU learning to play more complete games. Through four games, the Tigers have struggled to come out of the chute in the second half with the same energy as the first. LSU has outscored opponents 85-24 in the first halves and just 39-35 from halftime on.

“We have to be mature and finish,” Orgeron said. “We’ve got to have a killer instinct. We’ve got to smell blood in the water and go get it. We’re not doing it right now.”

LSU hosts Ole Miss next week before going to Florida. A four-week gauntlet of Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama come after that.

This isn’t to say the Auburn win was a fluke, because it wasn’t, but it’s too hard to try to ride crazy momentum swings to the finish line on a week-to-week basis in the SEC. Eventually you’re going to get picked off. The truly elite teams blow overmatched opponents out of the water when given the chance.

That leaves two choices for LSU in the weeks to come: learn to finish or be finished by somebody else.

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