STARKVILLE, Miss. — Incredibly, a penalty was not the low point of LSU’s 37-7 Saturday night drilling at the hands of Mississippi State. And boy, was it ever a drilling.
No, the low point for the Tigers was a different kind of self-inflicted error.
Seconds after cornerback Kevin Toliver bit on a play fake and let his man slip past him for an preposterously easy 45-yard touchdown reception, the 2017 LSU Tigers revealed themselves.
As Mississippi State lined up the traditional 11 players for the extra-point attempt to extend its lead to 27-7, the Tigers countered with nine men of their own. Two more LSU players hustled onto the field, but by that time the lesson had already been hammered home more loud and clear than the clang of 50,000 cowbells.
This LSU team has no discipline. This LSU team has questionable football intelligence. Worst of all, this LSU team has quickly and unexpectedly surpassed Texas A&M as the least-poised tire fire in the SEC West. (Both the Aggies and Tigers can remain grateful for the ineptitude of Tennessee and Missouri in the East.)
Three games into the season, LSU has committed a stupefying 30 penalties for 272 yards. At this rate, the Tigers are on a pace to surpass their 2016 season total of 492 penalty yards by mid-October.
The mess starts at the top, and coach Ed Orgeron knows it. Only he can extinguish the flames before they turn into a terrifying conflagration.
“It’s the penalties. Not being disciplined,” Orgeron said. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot and have no one else but us to blame. … Put it on me. We’ve got to get better.”
What makes this especially maddening is that this has been the No. 1 point of emphasis for the Tigers in practice the past two weeks.
“Coach O did a great job of punishing us for the penalties we did have and bringing referees in to make sure we had clean practices,” said quarterback Danny Etling. “And then we go out there and don’t perform the way we should. And we don’t just get beat, we get beat like we did out there. It’s something we’ve been harping on and something we need to do.”
The Tigers run after committing penalties in practice. At this rate, the team will log enough mileage to be able to run the Boston Marathon next spring.
Orgeron realizes he now has to take more drastic measures.
“Habitual offenders will not play,” he said. “That’s just how it is.”
Much has been made of how young this LSU team is, and mistakes are inevitable when 20 or so freshmen see regular playing time. But it’s not just young guys making mistakes.
Take senior linebacker Donnie Alexander, who was ejected for targeting in the third quarter. Minutes later, freshman defensive end Neil Farrell followed his example. And because it was the second half, both will miss the first half of the Syracuse game.
“Very disappointed in the two targeting penalties,” Orgeron said. “Never should have happened. One by an experienced player and one by a freshman in the third quarter when we addressed [penalties] at halftime.”
The appeal of Orgeron is his fire. The team feeds off it. Any human being with a pulse feeds off of it. Although he’s toned down his act from his miserable days at Ole Miss, perhaps Decaf Orgeron remains a work in progress. LSU’s penalties seem like a byproduct of players losing their senses because they are too focused on running through a brick wall.
“I think it’s passion. I don’t think it’s anything where guys are wanting to be stupid or wanting to make bad mistakes,” Etling said. “They’re trying to make a play and do what they’re told.”
In a series that predates the Spanish-American War, Mississippi State had never beaten LSU by a 30-point margin. Nobody saw this coming. Yet because of all the miscues, Etling was not surprised by the thoroughness of State’s stomping.
“If you’d have told me we’d have as many penalties as we did, I’d have not been shocked by the outcome,” Etling said. “You just can’t have that many penalties. It’s the No. 1 thing in sports. The team that makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win.”
In the Tigers’ first two games of the season, against BYU and Chattanooga, they had enough talent to overcome their mistakes. They will likely be able to get away with it again the next two weeks against Syracuse and Troy. But the reality is those two weeks are when the Tigers need to patch up the leaks.
Otherwise, the S.S. Orgeron will run aground before it even gets out of port.
“We’ve got plenty of time left,” Orgeron said. “We have a good football team. We’ll bounce back. I know they will.”
For the rest of us, it will take a bit more convincing.