By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
On Saturday night, Brian Kelly's Death Valley debut went off without a hitch, grabbing his first win as the head coach of the LSU Tigers as his squad made sure to establish momentum heading into next week's SEC opener vs Mississippi State.
Blowing out Southern University 65-14, leading 37-0 after the 1st quarter and 51-0 at the stroke of halftime, Southern's Human Jukebox band were matched by LSU's Touchdown & Turnover Jukebox, delivering a medley of forced fumbles and fast scoring drives.
From the first play of the game, Brian Kelly's team came out with designs to prove a point more than trounce arrogantly on inferior opposition.
After repeated special teams errors cost the Tigers their Week 1 opener, tonight Brian Polian's unit set the tone for a blistering performance.
On the opening kickoff, sophomore defensive end Zavier Carter walloped the ball out of the hands of Southern's returner. Making the play, Sage Ryan pounced for the first of his 2 fumble recoveries on the night, setting up LSU's offense in scoring position within seconds.
Immediately, Brad Davis' retooled offensive line stood out. 4 of LSU's 5 week 1 starters were on the field, albeit in different roles.
Garrett Dellinger moved from center over to left guard, Miles Frazier departed the left guard spot for Cam Wire's right tackle position, Anthony Bradford and Will Campbell remained at right guard and left tackle respectively, but the main story was Charles Turner taking over at center for Dellinger.
The results, as far as continuity, communication and cohesion, were far better, as expected against weaker opposition. Regardless, these changes highlight the strengths of each player.
Dellinger is a better blocker than a center, Charles Turner has been a practiced center for years, Miles Frazier is more comfortable on the edge...now the puzzle pieces are beginning to fit for OL Coach Brad Davis.
Due to Davis' offensive line shuffling, LSU's offense benefited, rushing for 230 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground while a trio of quarterbacks tossed 320 through the air, dropping 65 points.
Saturday night was the first time LSU recorded 60 or more points since the 2019 Peach Bowl, and while their offense still lacked rhythm or failed to generate a 100 yard receiver or rusher, LSU's performance provided many good signs heading forward.
Once again, Mike Denbrock's offense operated through the arm & legs of Jayden Daniels, this time with more dimension to the play-calling and improvement in how LSU's starter went through his progressions (example: the Bech touchdown).
Finishing with a QBR of 285.5, Daniels was nearly perfect, hitting 10/11 passes for 137 yards and 3 touchdowns to a trio of different receivers. LSU's Week 2 captain also opened the night by scoring his first career LSU touchdown on the ground, bursting around hapless defenders with venomous pace.
Starting on LSU's first drive, Denbrock's offense made a concerted effort to feed Kayshon Boutte, handing him an end around and a few quick passes to get their lead man going.
Boutte put up 83 combined yards on what was still a quiet night, rattling off a 41 yard jet sweep as he led the team with 5 catches. However, Denbrock and Kelly couldn't find Boutte a touchdown for the second straight game.
While standout WR Jack Bech was once again on the periphery of LSU's game-plan, as he is eased back from a summer stress fracture, the second year Tiger caught his 4th career touchdown in brilliant diving fashion.
The score should be a proper boost for Jack after a spell dealing with injury. Limited during fall camp, held to just 19 snaps, 1 target and 1 catch last week, Bech's single target tonight still meant plenty more for Lafayette's native son.
Disregard his two targets in two games thus far; Bech's lack of on field snaps and targets is due to his recovery plan heading into an SEC opener next weekend.
Make no mistake, Jack Bech should be a major part of Kelly's offensive plans going forward....and the lack of on field reps against a "gimme" opponent speaks to that.
Malik Nabers may have endured a nightmarish Sunday night with 2 fumbles, however he turned the page tonight by way of a confidence-boosting touchdown, alongside a team-leading 81 yards and 3 catches.
Scoring a much needed touchdown in the 1st half, Nabers remained effective all game, rattling off a 60 yard haul down the sidelines from backup QB Garrett Nussmeier in the second session.
Daniels also found second year WR Brian Thomas Jr down field for a 44 yard score, under-throwing the 6'4 receiver but still supplying enough pace, touch and accuracy to beat multiple Southern defenders.
After only a few 2nd quarter minutes, Kelly pulled Daniels and Boutte, a move I felt was premature, Kayshon hanging up just 42 yards through the air.
Second string QB Garrett Nussmeier would step in, looking sharp on a long throw to Nabers, tear dropping high over defenders.
On the other hand, he threw the ball poorly and was responsible for two hideous interceptions, including one where he underhanded the ball up in the air (to no one in particular) as he was spinning and being driven to the ground.
The result was Southern's first points on the board, via a long pick six.
Because of the nature of the game, freshman Walker Howard made his debut appearance late in the 4th quarter, rushing for a 13 yard RPO scramble and deputizing a conservative offense.
On defense, LSU lined up without star edge rushers BJ Ojulari or Ali Gaye, and despite allowing 201 rushing yards (122 with strong lineups on the field) Matt House's group were superb for the entire game, creating turnovers and wreaking havoc seemingly at will.
Micah Baskerville produced an awesome pick six, scoring his second career LSU touchdown and the first defensive touchdown of 2022.
Adding to a strong special teams showing, Baskerville would later block a punt, initiating a safety and the game ball from Kelly after the final whistle.
Reserve defensive end Desmond Little made the most of his opportunity tonight, deflecting the pass which created Baskerville's interception, recovering another fumble and making his presence known up front with 6 tackles.
Sophomore Saivion Jones was "incredible" according to Coach Kelly, posting 6 tackles, a combined sack with week 1 hero Mekhi Wingo, 4 QB Pressures, 1 TFL and 1 batted down pass in what may be remembered as a breakout performance.
When starting edge rusher Ali Gaye returned for the 2nd half from his week 1 targeting suspension, he responded by forcing a fumble on a vicious tackle, assisted by first year Tiger West Weeks, both receiving credit for the forced fumble.
Linebacker Greg Penn III needed a big outing to respond from a lukewarm week 1 performance and he did just that, breaking up a pass in coverage, recovering a fumble and supplying solid sideline to sideline stopping power.
Freshman five star talent Harold Perkins started as a hybrid defensive end / outside linebacker, attacking Southern's line of scrimmage for a team-leading 7 total tackles.
Without question, Perkins showcased brilliant athleticism and maturity on Saturday night at Tigers Stadium, proving to be a Tiger you must keep your eyes on for the next 3 years.
So much went right for LSU...as it should against Southern, yet there were some negatives becoming patterns, as well as a couple improvements:
Kelly should have kept Daniels & Boutte in the game for the entire first half, at least until #7 scored a couple touchdowns and gained over 100 yards...marks that mean something to players of Kayshon's caliber.
Against a scattershot defense, the downfield deep shot was open every time. Southern's defensive backs weren't able to hang with any of our receivers, let alone Boutte; when the ball was in the air, they reacted as if they woke up next to Kevin Spacey.
The fact we only witnessed our receiving corps grab a few explosive plays here and there without sustained rhythm is still curious to my eyes.
Defensively, LSU are giving up far too many yards up the middle of our defensive front, surrendering 201 rushing yards to Southern....a statistic which gets worse every time I look at it. Though most of those yards were earned in garbage time, Southern rushed for 133 when facing more or less Tiger starters.
Without Maason Smith's size, athletic range and intimidation factor, SEC teams could find it easier to run on our interior.
Conversely, it was great to see LSU run the ball well ourselves, Armoni Goodwin leading the way with 85 yards on 12 carries for his first pair of LSU touchdowns, averaging 7.1 each touch.
It was a breakout showing from Goodwin, a player who's battled injuries and deep depth chart positioning to rise on this occasion.
A violent, speedy, low center of gravity back in the same vein as LSU greats of old like Clyde, Rondell and Jacob, Goodwin is a young Tiger to watch.
Elsewhere, transfer rusher Noah Cain scored for the second game in a row, busting through the goal-line defense once again. The Louisiana native tacked on a workman-like 51 yards on 10 economical carries.
Plus, Jayden Daniels bolted for an impressive, heat-seeking touchdown run that only continued to add credibility to his unstoppable dual-threat skill set, providing Mike Denbrock with an incredible extra weapon we'll see weave his magic each and every Saturday.
In the end, with all three phases getting things in order after week 1's debacle loss to Florida State, simultaneously giving a plethora of Tigers much-needed confidence boosts and supplying the first win under Brian Kelly's staff, all while a wide range of players or coaches banished week 1's demons, it was a feel good night for LSU after a tumultuous week.
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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