Tigers got loose at the GMC, then ran like a Ferrari

A VERY GOOD NABERS: LSU receiver Malik Nabers was virtually unstoppable Saturday as LSU dominated its Southeastern Conference opener at Mississippi State. (Photo courtesy LSU Athletics)

By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports

STARKVILLE, Miss.— You can’t say LSU head football coach Brian Kelly doesn’t think of just about every detail.

Kelly, concerned about Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff in his 14th-ranked Tigers’ SEC opener at Mississippi State, took every measure to make sure his team was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a bus ride to Davis-Wade Stadium from its hotel in Tupelo.

So, 20 minutes from the stadium as prearranged, LSU team buses pulled just off Mississippi Highway 45 south into the parking lot of Cannon Chevrolet Buick GMC of West Point.

“When I looked at the trip as being over an hour (from the hotel), I didn’t want the team to fall asleep on the bus,” Kelly said. “We pulled the buses in and did a substitution drill and light stretching. It was only about 10 minutes. It got them (the players) up, it got them alert. Then we watched our pregame video in the locker room instead of the hotel just to get the guys an edge.”

Final score: LSU 41, Mississippi State 14.

“I think it worked pretty good,” Kelly said of the car dealership idea.

“Pretty good” translated into 530 total offensive yards for the Tigers (2-1 overall, 1-0 SEC West) and an LSU defense that limited MSU to 201 yards with most of those coming in the fourth quarter after Kelly flooded the field with subs.

LSU senior quarterback Jayden Daniels certainly seemed wide awake. He completed his first 13 passes, finished 30 of 34 for 362 passing yards and two TDs and ran for a team-leading 64 yards and two rushing TDs. Kelly called it Daniels’ best performance as a Tiger.

“It just felt good to go out there and give my guys a chance,” Daniels said, “and then check down when the defense gives me the checkdown. “I don’t always have to run, just stay patient in the pocket and let my guys around me make plays.”

At the front of that line was LSU junior receiver Malik Nabers. The one-time Mississippi State commit caught all 13 passes thrown to him for 239 yards and two TDs on perfectly-placed corner route dimes from Daniels.

“We wanted to come out here early in the morning and start fast,” Nabers said.

And that applied to both sides of the ball.

Despite missing injured starting linebacker Omar Speights, last-minute scratch safety Greg Brooks (a medical emergency, according to Kelly) and hobbled defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, LSU’s defense dismantled State’s offense early and often.

The Tigers had four sacks, seven tackles for loss, four pass breakups and four QB hurries.

If you ask MSU senior quarterback Will Rogers, struggling mightily in first-year head coach Zach Arnett’s new offensive scheme which is totally opposite of previous head the late Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, LSU’s pass rush was in his face all day.

Freshman linebacker Whit Weeks, getting his first start, had a team-high eight tackles. Sophomore linebacker Harold Perkins Jr., who looked lost the first two games playing more as an inside linebacker, had two sacks as he returned to last season’s role as a free-floating Tasmanian Devil.

“We were all having fun out there flying around,” LSU junior linebacker Greg Penn III. “That’s how defense should be played. We went out there and brought a lot of physicality.

That’s because last Tuesday, Kelly ordered a full-contact practice. No more thud tackling. Find, seek and destroy, even if he’s your teammate.

“(Defensive tackle) Mason Smith came up to me after that practice and thanked me,” Kelly said.

Mississippi State won Saturday’s pregame coin toss and elected to receive, hoping to jumpstart an offense struggling to convert to Arnett’s new scheme.

The Bulldogs’ offense went nowhere, gaining 7 yards in 16 plays on their first five possessions as LSU’s defensive line unnerved MSU QB Rogers on just about every one of his snaps.

“Credit Coach Kelly and that football team,” said Arnett, whose team fell to 2-1 overall and 0-1 in the SEC West. said. “They came out and played faster from the jump. They dominated the football game. I did a poor job evaluating where we were as a football team,”

Daniels, who had superb protection (he held the ball nine seconds on one play before completing), sliced and diced State’s young secondary.

Here are LSU’s first five possessions:

  • A 14-play, 77-yard drive with Daniels completing 9 of 9 throws for 53 yards. LSU settled for a 22-yard Damian Ramos field goal for a 3-0 lead after a fourth-and-goal false start by Tigers’ tackle Will Campbell nullified a 1-yard Logan Diggs’ TD plunge.
  • A 4-play 70-yard march in which Daniels hit 5 of 5 passes for 62 yards, including his 26-yard TD strike to Nabers for a 10-0 advantage after the first of five Ramos’ extra points.
  • An 8-play, 63-yard march with Daniels completing 4 of 5 passes for 61 yards and a 4th-and-77 33-yard TD dagger to Nabers for a 17-0 cushion.
  • After being forced to punt on its fourth possession for the first time since the fourth quarter of its season-opening loss to Florida State, LSU went 66 yards on 6 plays for Josh Williams’ 1-yard TD dive. The only pass Daniels had to throw was his 48-yard completion to Nabers on the first play of the possession.

With LSU leading 24-0 with 3:23 left in the first half, State’s offense finally awakened from its slumber. Running back Jo’quavious Marks opened the drive with a 52-yard run when a Tigers’ secondary defender missed a tackle. MSU eventually finished a 72-yard, 6-play drive on wide receiver Lideatrick Griffin’s 9-yard TD run with 50 seconds left in the first half.

Sporting a 17-point lead at halftime and receiving the ball to start the second half, LSU’s mission was to keep its foot offensively on the accelerator and on State’s neck defensively.

Mission accomplished as LSU took another needed step in recovering from its 45-24 season-opening loss to Florida State when the Tigers were outscored 31-7 by the Seminoles. Against the Bulldogs, LSU scored 17 points on its first three possessions of the second half, which pleased Kelly as the Tigers headed home for a Saturday night off.

“The way we presented it to our guys is `let’s get in, let’s treat this like a business trip and let’s be the first back in Baton Rouge to enjoy a Saturday night’,” Kelly said.

“Our team needed to play an SEC opponent and play four quarters the right way. We needed this game to validate who we were. Our guys feel really good about themselves. They knew what they had. They needed to go out and prove it, based upon the bad taste left in their mouth the way they played in the second half against Florida State.”

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com