BATON ROUGE, La. — You may think Jacksonville State looks like a cupcake, but the Gamecocks sure don’t taste like one.
Last year, Jacksonville State took Auburn to overtime before falling 27-20. They rebounded from the disappointment to reach the FCS Championship Game for the first time in school history before falling to five-time defending champion North Dakota State.
There are far more than five things LSU needs to improve upon from last week’s 16-14 loss at Wisconsin, but the following are among the most crucial against one of the most-capable opponents from the lower level of Division I.
1. Get Brandon Harris comfortable quickly
In defense of Brandon Harris — a phrase that has not appeared much in the media over the past few days — Wisconsin was the third-best statistical defense in the country last season for a reason. So, while his 12-for-21 performance with a pair of interceptions left much to be desired, one must keep in mind that he was starting the year in the deep end of the pool.
It is still possible for Harris to salvage this season and his career as a starter, but it must begin here. LSU needs to design some high-percentage passes early in the game that receivers can potentially turn into big plays. Harris’ issues seem to be more mental than physical, and getting him in the right frame of mind early could be just what he needs to trust in himself.
2. Help Harris get comfortable by protecting him
Wisconsin got pressure on Harris on approximately one-third of his drop-back passes. Only a select few quarterbacks have the ability to avoid skittishness facing that kind of heat.
Maea Tehuma is back in the starting lineup at right guard for the suspended Josh Boutte, so he may help that cause. The left side of the line, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Will Clapp, has to communicate better this week to keep a clean pocket.
3. Hold onto the ball
Seems simple enough, right?
Miles said he actually had Harris down for a 14-of-21 passing performance because of a pair of drops that went against the quarterback’s record. LSU also fumbled once in its own territory. Neither drops nor fumbles are particularly good habits to form.
4. Keep an eye on Eli
Gamecocks quarterback Eli Jenkins is a legitimate playmaker. Jenkins is the sixth-leading rusher in Jacksonville State history with 2,913 career yards, with all five players ahead of him on the list being running backs. He also isn’t some one-trick option pony, ranking third in school history with 5,775 career passing yards.
Jenkins is one of the most-electric players in the FCS, and has already proven himself capable of making plays against SEC opposition.
5. Clean up special teams
The opener was dreadful for LSU’s special teams.
Freshman Josh Growden averaged just 32.4 yards per punt. Cameron Gamble sent one of his three kickoffs out of bounds. And the Tigers’ dangerous return game was rendered a nonentity with kickoff returns of 17 and 5 yards, and one punt return for 3 yards.
The biggest difference between high-level FCS programs and Power 5 programs typically isn’t among starters at skill positions. It’s depth, and as a result, special teams play. This is a game where LSU must get its special teams house in order, as it should be an area of definitive advantage.