BATON ROUGE, La. — The back-and-forth battle at Tiger Stadium slowed down, if only for a moment, as LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. leapt to his right and fell in the end zone with a pivotal interception ball held tightly to his chest. A sold-out crowd of more than 102,000 fans celebrated late into Saturday night, mocking the Gator Chomp as the giddy hope of an undefeated season reverberated from every corner of this hallowed pantheon of concrete and steel.
This was the place where opponents dreams went to die, coach Ed Orgeron growled during a pregame interview, and following the turnover, with his team nursing a seven-point lead against Florida with less than eight minutes remaining, he was ready to make sure that was the case.
Between series, Orgeron walked to the offensive huddle. He told his players to take a moment, look around and soak in this scene of college football glory — of top-10 teams and SEC rivals doing battle on a national stage. This was why they came to LSU, he told them in his thick Cajun accent. Now, he said, the job was simple: “Finish them.”
In years past, that might have meant big, hairy offensive linemen and multiple tight ends packing in closely near the line of scrimmage. They wouldn’t fight for yards or points as much as they’d strain for every second to run off the clock, to protect the ball and grind away the final moments in hopes of winning a war of attrition.
But this year has been different. Orgeron, a 58-year-old former defensive lineman who grew up on ground-and-pound football, has let go and let offense in.
Three decades after Hal Mumme introduced the Air Raid at a small liberal arts college in Iowa, the spread has finally come to Baton Rouge. The Stone Age has ended, quarterback Joe Burrow said, and with it has come an end to the backbreaking work of winning a game of inches an inch at a time.
Instead of going under center late against Florida, LSU went into the shotgun formation. Instead of sending one or two receivers out as decoys, out went four athletes eager to race upfield.
What came next lasted less than two minutes and broke things wide open. In three quick plays, LSU moved near midfield. Then, instead of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire lining up alongside Burrow, he shifted to receiver and executed a subtle pick of the defense that freed Ja’Marr Chase to sprint down the sideline, where Burrow found him for a 54-yard, game-clinching touchdown.
“That’s us: pedal to the metal,” a grinning Orgeron said after the 42-28 victory. “We’re going as hard as we possibly can every play.”
Now, there will be times in the future when LSU has to try to run out the clock, Orgeron promised solemnly.
“But,” he said, “we feel like we can score, that we have athletes in space, and we’re not going to stop.”
That phrase — “athletes in space” — came up a number of times as LSU reveled in its second win this season over a ranked opponent. Because as much as Burrow has been a revelation this season, playing his way into the Heisman Trophy race, it’s whom he’s throwing to that demands your attention.
The school that for years hid the talents of future NFL stars such as Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry is suddenly brimming with confident, playmaking receivers. On any given night, the spotlight might find Chase or Justin Jefferson. Other nights it might be Terrace Marshall Jr. or Derrick Dillon.
Against a top-10 Florida defense, against future pro cornerbacks CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson, Chase and Jefferson ran through the secondary as if it were their personal playground. Each went for more than 100 yards receiving. Jefferson had one touchdown, and Chase found the end zone twice.
“Nobody could stop them all night,” Burrow said.
With that duo to throw to, Burrow can’t help but dream of the possibilities. Finally, LSU has the firepower to challenge the upper echelon of college football, including the perennial thorn in its side, No. 1-ranked Alabama.
“I’m really excited about where we’re going,” Burrow said. “We have a chance to be really special.”
The offensive scheme itself deserves a lot of the credit for LSU’s growth at receiver. But let’s face it: The greatest scheme in the world means nothing if you can’t catch the football, which was a problem here a year ago.
This is essentially the same group that ranked in the top 20 nationally in drops last season. There were 30 in all, and each would-be catch further amplified the lack of success the Tigers had in the passing game as a whole, which ranked 66th in the FBS with 228.5 yards per game.
Enter Joe Brady, the former New Orleans Saints assistant whom Orgeron hired during the offseason to serve as LSU’s co-offensive coordinator. The 30-year-old Brady not only brought his take on the spread to Baton Rouge but also helped bring about newfound focus on the art of catching the football. Using everything from the traditional JUGS Machine to new-age goggles, Brady and receivers coach Mickey Joseph tasked receivers with catching at least 10,000 passes during the offseason.
Offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry remembers those drills and how strange they looked from afar. But what he remembers more than anything else about them is the timing, namely how early they took place. Cushenberry would think he’d beaten everyone to the facility in the morning, only to see Brady and the receivers playing pitch-and-catch.
At first, it felt like a novelty. Then it kept happening over and over again.
“They worked every day, countless hours, coming in early on Saturdays,” Cushenberry said. “When we came in and did drills, they were already in there with Joe.”
It translated to live action. Relieved of the case of butterfingers, LSU’s receivers started making more plays and bolstered a new offense that spread the field horizontally as much as it stretched it vertically.
In the spring, behind closed doors during practice and in player-led 7-on-7 drills, Cushenberry saw an unfamiliar site: The receivers were winning one-on-one battles against All-SEC-caliber players such as Grant Delpit, Kristian Fulton and Stingley.
“They were making plays against our great DBs,” Cushenberry said.
He added: “It was definitely different.”
The receivers felt the shift as well. There were times in practice when Orgeron had to call timeout just so his defense could catch its breath.
“I saw our defense have a little trouble guarding us,” Jefferson recalled. “So we knew what it was all about and the new weapons we had: Me, Terrace, Justin and Clyde running a couple of routes out of the backfield. It was a lot of new tricks we had up our sleeve.”
Burrow came away from fall camp feeling like he had four or five No. 1-caliber receivers. He told a surprised group of reporters at the Manning Passing Academy in June that he thought the offense capable of scoring 40 to 60 points per game. He wasn’t kidding. Getting all those athletes the ball in space would lead to one of the best offenses in college football, he explained.
Never mind that none of the pundits had any of those LSU receivers anywhere near the top of their lists of preseason All-SEC favorites. Jefferson was a solid but less than spectacular pass-catcher a season ago, and as the younger brother of former LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, he didn’t exactly symbolize offensive firepower. Chase, on the other hand, was an unknown commodity, having started just five games as a freshman.
Look at them now. As Burrow put it, “Their progression has been unreal to see.”
Through six games this season, LSU receivers have had just two drops and rank second nationally in receptions per target, at 78.2%. Chase and Jefferson, the top two pass-catchers on the team, have eight touchdowns apiece and have combined for 1,248 yards. That’s to say nothing of the 6-foot-4 Marshall, who had six touchdowns in four games before he was sidelined by a foot injury that he’s expected back from soon.
After the Florida game, a half-erased whiteboard was shoved to the side of an emptied team meeting room. A slogan was scribbled on it in large block letters that were easy to make out. “Mean, Tough, Nasty, 60 min. of Hell,” it read.
Not anymore. Now it feels like the receivers have gotten in on the action.
Just ask Florida or Texas. The way LSU’s offense flew up and down the field against their defensive backs had to feel like 60 minutes of something awful.
“It’s perfect for them,” Orgeron said of the offense’s ability to unlock the very best from his receivers. “And it’s just getting started. There’s so many things we can do with those guys.”
Of course, Landry wishes he could have played in this LSU offense when he was in school. “For sure,” he told ESPN recently. Although the affable Landry put up good numbers during his three years in purple and gold, seeing him emerge as a star with the Miami Dolphins and the Cleveland Browns is enough to make anyone wonder what might have been had he played in a more pass-friendly scheme under former coach Les Miles.
The same goes for Landry’s former LSU teammate, the one-hand wonder Beckham.
Despite having those two as starters in 2012 and ’13, the Tigers somehow ranked 76th nationally in passing yards per game.
“We played in the pro-style system,” Landry said. “The college game has evolved into this Air Raid, RPO, respect-the-field type of game. If you can have that type of style with the right type of weapons and a quarterback that can get those guys the ball, then that’s what you do. I think that that’s what they got going on right now.”
The spread arrived too late for Beckham and Landry, but Chase and Jefferson are making the most of it by emerging as sure-fire NFL prospects this season. In fact, if their mood late Saturday night was any indication, they’re enjoying every moment of this.
“It was only a matter of time until we found the right offense for it,” Chase said. “We just kept faith.”
Now, he said, “I want to say it’s prolific.” The numbers back that up, with LSU ranking No. 1 in scoring and No. 2 in passing yards per game nationally.
“Oh, it’s too fun,” Jefferson said. “We’re having too much fun out there. Just throwing the ball, running the ball. Clyde definitely had some big runs. This offense is just phenomenal.”
Jefferson likes that word: phenomenal. He used it again when asked to describe the way he, Chase and Burrow are playing right now.
“It’s a phenomenal groove,” he said.
Chase and Jefferson came across like giddy school children as they spoke about their connection this season. They even have a bet on who will finish with more touchdowns. Chase laughed when he said he won’t let the wager include receiving yards because he’s afraid he won’t catch Jefferson (Jefferson has 670 yards in six games; Chase has 578 in five). Either way, the loser is set to fork over $100.
“Or we’ll take each other to Waffle House,” Chase offered as a cheaper alternative.
Notre Dame had the Four Horsemen, Alabama has the self-proclaimed Ryde Outs, and LSU’s receivers have a nickname for themselves as well.
Well, sort of. They call it a nickname, but it’s more of a slogan, they said, and it’s kind of hard to explain. But they repeat the phrase to one another constantly: “Wide receiver type stuff.” Plus, they use the hashtag #wrts on social media.
“Stuff” is a substitute for the non-family-friendly word they actually use, Chase explained.
“We can’t say that,” he said, “so we just throw Ws up.”
LSU has thrown up seven wins and counting this season. On Sunday, the Tigers moved up to No. 2 in the AP poll.
This weekend, they’ll travel to Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2) before hosting No. 12 Auburn on Oct. 29. Two weeks after that, it’s on to No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
For the first time in a long time, a trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium doesn’t feel so insurmountable, thanks to some newfound tools on offense.
After beating Florida, Burrow had a message for his team: “Don’t let good enough get in the way of greatness.”
The offensive revolution has come to Baton Rouge, and as Jefferson said, “it’s shocking still.” But that doesn’t mean it’s slowing down, and it’s certainly not stopping.
“We’re going to keep throwing the ball,” Jefferson said. “We’re going to keep rocking.”
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