LSU dominates Miami, but Tigers still have questions to answer

ARLINGTON, Texas – Perhaps because this is LSU, and it’s what LSU does, the quarterback faked a handoff before looking to pass. Never mind that there was not actually a running back in the immediate vicinity.

It was an odd moment, but somehow it worked. Joe Burrow faked to no one, then found an open receiver on a deep crossing route, and hit him. And then a whole lot of people wearing purple and gold cheered very loudly.

We bring up the sequence because the Tigers’ 33-17 victory against No. 8 Miami on Sunday night at AT&T Stadium was an odd amalgam of unexpected dominance coupled with the potential emergence of a functional quarterback. Foundationally, though, it seemed like a large dose of the same old LSU – with all its pluses and imperfections. Somehow it worked.

“Everyone’s been talking about other teams being who they are,” junior rover Devin White said. “At the end of the day, we’re LSU and we wanted to prove it.”

Who are they? It’s too soon to draw any real conclusions. But the first impression was good – even if some important questions remain unanswered.

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“We made a big statement,” said LSU cornerback Greedy Williams, and he’s correct.

The Tigers’ performance showed how little preseason polls mean; Miami was ranked No. 8, LSU No. 24. It’s too much to suggest they swap spots – whether LSU is worthy of the top 10, we’ll see – but the Hurricanes definitely weren’t. If nothing else, LSU’s big statement also served as a reminder of how quickly the volatile vibe around the program can swing from one extreme to the other.

“We got a happy football team in there,” said Tigers coach Ed Orgeron, and this was after ‘Coach O’ had lumbered off the field yelling: “One and oh, baby! How ‘bout them Tigers!”

Yeah, how about them? We’d wondered throughout the offseason, when Orgeron got rid of offensive coordinator Matt Canada and elevated longtime assistant Steve Ensminger. August turmoil included transfers, arrests and suspensions. Underlying everything, as always, was the question of whether Orgeron was already on the hot seat heading into only his second full season, or simply headed there fast.

“It’s never about me,” Orgeron said. “It’s about the Tigers.”

Shortly after a 54-yard field goal clipped the cross bar and slid through to extend the lead to 33-3 late in the third quarter, the giant video screen showed a promotion for the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 and asked: "Who's in?" At least some of the fans probably considered the idea of the Tigers returning to Arlington very soon.

But hot takes from season openers become old takes exposed, sometimes by Week 2. Or in this case, maybe Sept. 15. That’s when LSU visits Auburn for what has emerged as a very early SEC West showdown.

On Sunday, we saw a fast, angry defense that stuffs the run and scares the passer. The Tigers sacked Miami quarterback Malik Rosier four times and pressured him into a couple of interceptions, including a pick-six before halftime that essentially secured victory.

But a stale, conventional offense remained a given.

In promoting Ensminger, Orgeron promised a spread offense and a 50-50 run-pass split. But it looked a lot more like what we’ve come to expect from the Tigers through the years: tight formations, plenty of runs with occasional play-action passing, not a lot of innovation. Or points, either.

Several times, Orgeron made a point of saying Ensminger’s unit scored 33 points. He was miscounting the interception return. LSU scored two offensive touchdowns and four field goals and was actually outgained by Miami. Sunday provided reason to doubt much will change.

Here’s one thing, though. At long last, LSU might have a quarterback. In his first start since high school, Burrow, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, was not spectacular. He completed only 11 of 24 passes for 140 yards, though there were a couple of drops. But including that 37-yard pass on the play-action fake that wasn’t much of a fake, Burrow at least showed flashes of passing ability that we haven’t often seen at LSU in recent years. 

“Going into the game, we were going to throw the football if we could,” Orgeron said. “You know what? We couldn’t, not like we wanted to, but we could run it.”

More important was Burrow’s poise, including the moment he checked into a run play away from a blitz; senior running back Nick Brossette took it 50 yards for a touchdown.

Burrow said with the lead and LSU’s defense, he was intentionally conservative.

“I didn’t want to take too many chances,” he said, “because I knew how good a defense we have. I didn’t want to turn the ball over. Keep that (Miami) turnover chain in the box.”

It sounded like he could have been reading from his new program’s offensive mission statement. Burrow said he is still adjusting to the humidity, and he recently learned “it’s a sin to eat healthy in Louisiana,” because when he chooses salad and grilled chicken, he gets heckled by teammates. Wait until he figures out how fans heckle the Tigers when the offense stagnates.

“We didn’t do a bunch,” LSU wide receiver Jonathan Giles said. “It was just a little taste. It’s gonna be way more, a lot more passing going on.”

We’ll see soon enough. It would be nice to collect a few more data points, and to see if Burrow completes a few more passes – and if Ensminger’s offense evolves into something at least a tad more creative – before we make sweeping judgments about these Tigers.

“I have a lot of work to do,” Burrow said. “We have a lot of work to do. But that was a good start.”

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