The LSU Tigers had a forgettable 2020 season. Their massive, historic NFL draft class left the program depleted. Then several key players opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic. Bo Pelini was a disaster at defensive coordinator. The quarterback spot was not occupied by Joe Burrow.
By Matt Zemek
Those were all very large problems for Ed Orgeron. One wonders how much the pandemic interfered with LSU’s plans and the Tigers’ overall development. Would this team have been quite as bad without the pandemic and the interruptions it created? Probably not. Yet, it’s hard to think the 2020 Tigers would have come anywhere close to the 2019 team’s very lofty standards. This was going to be a year of regression, it’s just that the regression was probably more severe because of the pandemic and its disruptive effects.
LSU lost its season opener to Mississippi State. It lost to Missouri shortly thereafter, with the defense cratering against less-than-elite opposition. After eight games, LSU was 3-5. The season seemed like a total washout. However, this team did not quit. The Bayou Bengals stunned Florida in Gainesville, knocking the Gators out of the national championship picture. The animosity surrounding the LSU-Florida rivalry is considerable, so that gave a sweet taste to an otherwise sour season. A final win over Ole Miss for a 5-5 record added to a sense that LSU had learned something in the midst of all its 2020 struggles.
This Saturday evening, the Tigers get to prove how much they’ve learned when they face the UCLA Bruins. Let’s offer three keys for this anticipated clash:
1 – Contain Dorian Thompson-Robinson as a runner
Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a talented but erratic quarterback for UCLA. He is a very dangerous scrambler, but he hit just 10 of 20 passes this past weekend in a blowout win for the Bruins against Hawaii. Dropback passing is not his strength. LSU needs to clog running lanes and make sure DTR, as he is known throughout the Pac-12, cannot bust loose on a broken play. UCLA ran the ball with great success against Hawaii. If LSU can stop the run and force DTR to beat them with the pass, that’s what the Tigers want.
2 – Shut off the big play
The foremost task for new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones is to minimize the opposition’s big plays. Bo Pelini’s group allowed large numbers of points last year. Opponents scored in bunches. That comes from collecting a lot of big plays and roasting the LSU defense. The Tigers aren’t going to become the 2011 defense overnight, or at any point this season, but they do need to become reasonably competent. If they deliver a reasonably competent performance – not spectacular, but not the sieve this defense was in 2020 – they have a very good chance of winning.
3 – Pitch and catch
UCLA’s defense is clearly the weak link for the Bruins. Their offense shows promise, but their defense was bad in 2020. UCLA’s four losses all came in games in which the offense scored at least 38 points. Throwing the ball to the outside portions of the field was a problem for UCLA’s secondary. Max Johnson is in a position where he can make simple throws and regularly trust that his LSU receivers will outplay UCLA’s corners for the ball. This is a winning formula.