Fans lose their minds after LSU falls to No. 8 Tennessee
After LSU football’s first Southeastern Conference win against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, I warned Tiger fans about riding the emotional pendulum of the 2022 season.
I said that this LSU team deserved fan support in both satisfying wins like Mississippi State and the inevitable soul-crushing losses that awaited the Tigers in the future.
If you were to look up the term “soul-crushing loss” in a dictionary, a picture of Saturday’s 40-13 loss against the No. 8 Tennessee Volunteers would be affixed next to the definition.
The Tennessee game represented LSU’s first ranked-on-ranked matchup since the 2019 national championship game, and fans certainly enjoyed the energy around the program leading up to the 11 AM kickoff in Tiger Stadium.
That excitement didn’t last long.
In fact, the excitement didn’t last for more than a second of actual game time as returner Jack Bech muffed the opening kickoff that landed in his chest, and the tone for the rest of the afternoon was set. The Volunteers began the game recovering the turnover and took a 7-0 lead within the first two minutes of the game.
Tennessee never looked back.
Volunteer quarterback Hendon Hooker had an exceptional day against the LSU defense and finished 17/27 with 289 yards passing and two touchdowns. Hooker also added 56 yards rushing on 10 carries.
Running back Jabari Small also did his part to secure the Tennessee victory after compiling 127 yards rushing and two touchdowns of his own.
It is difficult to look at this game and have overly harsh words for LSU’s defensive play. Tennessee’s first two offensive drives began deep in LSU territory with the first being from Bech’s muffed kickoff and the second being from a Tiger punt that the Volunteers returned for 58 yards down to the LSU 25.
It feels like we talk about a different special teams mistake every week, and this week was no different.
There is no excuse for special teams to have significant, game-altering mistakes week in and week out, and if special teams coordinator Brian Polian wants to continue enjoying the Am Mart Cajun Turkey sandwiches he so publicly loves, he must make adjustments in the second half of the season.
The alternative doesn’t bode well for his extended stay in Baton Rouge.
As if special teams errors weren’t enough, lack of offensive cohesion also didn’t do the LSU defense any favors. Tennessee was a team that was dead-last in the SEC in time of possession heading into the LSU game, but they could’ve fooled ESPN’s viewers. Even with their prolific, up-tempo offense, the Volunteers outpaced the Tigers in total time of possession.
Really, the only mind-boggling decision from the LSU defense was the coaches’ decision to put Tiger linebacker Harold Perkins on the field for a limited number of plays. In his Monday press conference, Kelly said keeping Perkins on the sideline was a result of playing more a nickel-heavy defense to counter Tennessee’s spread attack.
This involves playing with one less linebacker and one more defensive back, and while it’s frustrating to see LSU’s best linebacker on the sideline for so much of the game, I choose to give the coaches the benefit of the doubt here. Perkins is only a freshman who may not have the ability to transition from his strongside outside linebacker role to a weakside inside linebacker position.
I doubt fans see much more of this issue as Perkins continues his career progression.
Circling back to LSU’s offensive performance, I imagine what I am about to say is going to upset many Tiger fans. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels did not perform poorly and was in no way the reason the Tigers lost to Tennessee.
I understand that it’s a popular opinion among many LSU fans to chastise Daniels’s play. It’s easy to point fingers at the quarterback when a team loses because the quarterback is the position that drives the offense.
If the offense doesn’t score, fans naturally blame the quarterback for the lack of points. However, Daniels threw for 300 yards passing behind a porous offensive line that was without starting left tackle Will Campbell who had to be hospitalized Friday night before the game.
Starting left guard Garrett Dellinger was also sidelined for almost the entirety of the game after suffering an injury at the beginning of the contest.
The overmatched LSU offensive line struggled all day and gave up five sacks and nine tackles for loss to a Tennessee defensive line that is not known for its ability to play in the opponent’s backfield.
This did not stop many Tiger fans from clamoring for backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier despite the fact that the redshirt freshman quarterback is objectively worse on his feet than Daniels.
Was Daniels perfect? Not even close. Did he miss open receivers? Yes. However, there is no quarterback on LSU’s current roster that would have led the Tigers to victory in the face of such poor offensive line play.
And, while it is frustrating to watch as Daniels sometimes misses receivers who are in one-on-one matchups or who are breaking open, it’s equally as frustrating to watch receivers not catch the passes that are delivered.
There were several dropped passes throughout the day, the most notable being Jaray Jenkins’s drop on a crucial first down that would have surely put the Tigers inside the Tennessee five-yard line if not into the end zone.
A score on that drive would’ve cut the Volunteer lead down to one score before halftime. Instead, LSU fails to convert and Tennessee tacks on 3 points at the end of the half to make the score 23-7 heading into the locker room.
Dropped passes weren’t the Tiger offense’s only issue. The play call by LSU offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock once again left much to be desired.
Tennessee’s defensive backs gave several yards of cushion to LSU’s receivers, yet the Tigers did not utilize short passing route patterns nearly enough to capitalize on the space. Despite constant pressure from the Volunteer front seven, LSU did not dial up a single screen pass to my knowledge.
Almost every time the Tigers ran the ball, it was between the tackles regardless of the fact that there was little to no traction for the LSU backs up the middle.
The Tigers finished with a mere 55 yards rushing on the entire day.
Again, I’m not saying Daniels played a perfect game under center, but where was his help? LSU lacked in too many offensive areas for me to place the majority of the blame on the quarterback position.
Moving forward, I am not concerned about this football team, and I still hold my 7-5 overall record prediction that I gave before the season began.
What is concerning to me is the amount of fans who are still placing an unrealistic set of expectations on this 2022 team.
Kelly has just begun his rebuild of an LSU football program that was left in disarray after back-to-back .500 regular seasons. Rebuilding doesn’t mean that your team wins 10 games. Rebuilding doesn’t mean that you compete for a New Year’s Six bowl game in the first year of the new program.
A new culture needs to be established. Coaches and players need to acclimate to one another. This process doesn’t take a few games, this process takes a whole season.
Stop pretending that the sky is falling on this LSU program for not being good enough to take on a top-10 team in the current state of the program. The sky is not falling because the sky already fell thanks to the previous coaching staff. That’s why Kelly was hired in the first place.
LSU will head to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators this weekend, and you are fooling yourself if you think this isn’t a winnable game for the Tigers. In fact, there are plenty of winnable games still left on the LSU schedule, but fans will miss them if they keep losing the forest for the trees.
The Tigers are an average football team competing in the SEC. That’s fine because Kelly is here to build a program built for the long-run, not win 10 games in a year that started with less than 40 scholarship players on the roster.
If that was what fan expectations were at the beginning of the season, there’s really nothing more I can say.