No matter what, some people just think it's over.
LSU may have rebounded for back-to-back wins following its season opening shocker to Wisconsin, but the Tigers still haven't done much to sway the critics who believe they are going nowhere fast in 2016 and that a head coaching change is simply just a matter of time. That may sound ridiculously pessimistic, considering LSU is 1-0 in the SEC and has basically all of its goals still on the table, with new found life on offense with Danny Etling taking over at quarterback. But the Tigers continue to make things agonizingly harder than they have to be and fail to deliver the kind of resounding triumph that could re-establish some swagger across the board.
Saturday night in Tiger Stadium wasn't so much a win, as it was a breathtaking escape. LSU could've easily stomped Mississippi State 30-6 or 37-13, consequently moving up even further in the national rankings than where the Tigers sit right now - No. 18 in the AP and No. 17 in the Coaches Poll. Instead, we all know what transpired. The Tigers let a 23-6 fourth quarter lead evaporate to a 23-20 final, with the Bulldogs actually having a chance to force overtime or, even more incredibly, earn the win late in regulation. But thanks to the relentless and menacing pass rush of 6'6” bionic man and sophomore defensive end Arden Key, neither of those possibilities became a reality.
Relaxed LSU fans who strolled to the parking lot thinking the game was over were suddenly left gnawing their fingernails by the time they reached their cars, realizing it wasn't. And, speaking of fans, let's quickly mention this - before this year, LSU had sold at least 100,000 tickets for each home game in Tiger Stadium since its latest expansion in 2014, a total of 13 games. This season, neither of the Tigers' home contests have reached that number, with 98,389 being sold for Jacksonville State and 99,910 for Mississippi State. That's certainly not a huge deal with all of the local flooding victims and the weather expected to be bad again this past Saturday. But the decline is something to take note of and perhaps a small indication of waning enthusiasm.
Back to the game, where I would tend to agree with veteran radio broadcaster Charles Hanagriff's assessment on Eagle 98.1 that LSU didn't put its offense in the deep freeze during the second half and actually remained pretty aggressive. And it wasn't Les Miles' fault that Leonard Fournette fumbled twice (was his knee down on the first?), both of which killed LSU's chances of opening the lead further. But fair or not, the head coach is responsible for everything in the eyes of the fans. And they saw an LSU team that out gained Mississippi State 282-80 in the first half and dominate in first downs 16-5, somehow find a way to hang on by their fingernails against a Bulldogs team that, quite frankly, doesn't appear to be very good.
This is the same Mississippi State team that missed a chip shot field goal at the gun to lose to South Alabama 21-20. And that's the same South Alabama squad that was torched for 256 yards passing and three touchdowns by former LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings during a 28-23 setback at UL-Lafayette Saturday night. And, by the way, good for you Anthony.
I'd rather cover winning teams and positive stories any day over squads that flounder and fire coaches. There are some great young men and tremendous stories developing on this LSU team. How about junior wide receiver DJ Chark finally finding his stride and being utilized for his first career touchdown reception Saturday? What about true freshman punter Josh Growden bouncing back from his horrific LSU debut against Wisconsin to launch soaring missiles that flipped the field and played a huge role in the win against Mississippi State?
And, of course there's Etling, who was 14-of-20 passing for 172 yards in the first half alone against the Bulldogs, firing bullets while also displaying touch when necessary. Perhaps the one play that exhibited Etling's pocket presence and football awareness more than any other occurred when he stepped up in the pocket and flipped a shovel pass across the middle to Travin Dural for 16 yards during the first quarter. After the game, Dural said the flip wasn't anything the two had discussed or he knew was coming. It just happened.
That's football instinct. No one is anointing Danny Etling a savior yet. He wasn't without fault, missing open receivers in the second half. But Etling does appear to give LSU a punching chance against what lies ahead.
And now, let's quickly talk about that immediate future, while circling back to the critics we led off this article with. Over the next three weeks, LSU will travel to two of the most boisterous and intimidating venues in all of college sports - Auburns' Jordan-Hare Stadium and Florida's Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, aka "The Swamp." Break out your LSU media guide and check the scores of the Tigers’ visits to these venues over the last 12 years. It's NEVER easy to win at either and we shouldn't expect anything different this time.
Those ready for a coaching change believe the Tigers could lose at both and that Miles could be fired shortly after. That would open the door to zero in on Houston's Tom Herman, unless he gets beat 63-20 like Florida State's Jimbo Fisher did this past weekend. There's often humor when it comes to college football's "Flavor of the Week.' And seriously, you obviously judge a coach by his body of work, not one game. And with that being said, Les Miles is still the man at LSU. No one questions the Tigers’ talent and there's likewise no reason they can't win at Auburn and Florida, along with beating Missouri at Tiger Stadium in between.
November will be a bear again - No. 23 Ole Miss and No. 1 Alabama are both in Death Valley, before a trip to likely frigid No. 17 Arkansas. The roof could certainly cave in on LSU then, if the Tigers don't improve or stop kicking the football out of bounds on kickoffs. When will they learn!?!
But let's give LSU a chance to prove the naysayers wrong and accomplish something special this year. Foregone conclusions of doom and gloom aren't fair to the players who work tirelessly all year for 12 games.
The negative energy is certainly palpable, but it can be overcome - one game at a time.
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