You have to call a spade a spade.
The LSU football team worked themselves into the proverbial big-game hangover. After putting the pedal to the medal and coming up short against Alabama, the car sits in neutral.
In an unimpressive 24-16 win over Louisiana Tech, a game that the Tigers trailed at the half, nobody seemed to want to take the wheels out for another spin.
If there wasn’t enough gas in the tank to get to Pasadena, why bother?
Some Tigers pointed to the hangover from Tuscaloosa. Others admitted they felt that Louisiana Tech would lie down and count the seconds until the game ended.
The ingredients nearly spelled disaster.
After a few practices down this week, there is a different feel in the air.
Call it a wake-up call, but it looks like the Tigers have the keys back in the ignition and, as Les Miles would say, show the want to get out on the open road.
“This is a winning program,” said senior cornerback Chris Hawkins. “Sure, the National Championship run is out of the picture. But we can still win, and that is something that we like to do. We aren’t playing this game to lose. I don’t come out here and practice hard for that.”
The road to a 10-2 finish, which would be Miles’ fourth double-digit win season in his five years with the program, is about as rough as an opposing fans’ walk into Tiger Stadium on a Saturday night.
In 2008, LSU was blown out at home against Ole Miss before dropping the season finale to Arkansas in Little Rock.
Headed to Oxford against the red-hot Rebels before welcoming a Razorback team that has made big strides since their defeat of LSU last November, the 2009 stretch run might be even tougher.
And while we are talking about the height of the hill LSU must climb, it is only fitting to note that there are some hurdles that lie along the trail.
Miles said on Wednesday that quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who started every game but Louisiana Tech, is expected to play barring any setbacks. For a headman that would likely hand Rebel coach Houston Nutt his playbook before the factual details on a player injury, Tiger fans know to take the medical report with a grain of salt.
Jefferson, who injured his ankle against Alabama, never returned to action that afternoon. While Miles put his quarterback’s status for Louisiana Tech as day-to-day, Lee took the first snaps in practice. Come game day, Jefferson stood in warm up clothes on the sidelines.
No matter if the Bulldogs had run LSU out of the stadium, it appeared the staff had no intentions of letting Jefferson find his way into the game.
On Monday, the picture became a little clearer.
While Miles said that his quarterback was back at practice and taking snaps, left tackle Ciron Black noted that Jefferson was still limping about. If the ankle still nagged him, Jefferson certainly was not going to play a snap three days prior – no matter if it were Louisiana Tech or [enter SEC team].
So, what happens if Jefferson is not at full-strength on Saturday, when a more capable defense is lined up on the other side? Will his quick cuts and ability to move around and outside the pocket, one of the sophomore’s strengths, be hindered by an ankle that has been giving him trouble for close to two weeks?
Brace yourself, because the next bit of information is going to be tough to swallow. This weekend in Oxford, Miles might need to go to a two-quarterback system.
Surely the staff will toss Jefferson out and see what he can do. If his play is slowed by his inability to become mobile, expect Lee back under center.
On Wednesday, Miles noted that both quarterbacks were getting the snaps needed to be ready to lead the offense against the Rebels.
Facing an Ole Miss defense that has been suspect with pass protection and features a smaller set of cornerbacks, LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton will try to find a way to get 6’5” receiver Terrance Toliver and 6’3” receiver Brandon LaFell the ball as much as possible.
But if Jefferson struggles and Lee enters, the probability that the Tigers big-two wide outs have a dominant day grows slim.
On the road, against a Rebel team that has their car speeding in the fast lane, the key might be slowing everything down.
LSU has been on the short end of the time of possession battle game after game. On Wednesday, Miles stressed that his side would have to get the Rebels off the field A.S.A.P each drive out. Easier said than done. Last weekend against Tennessee, Ole Miss put together two scoring drives of over seven minutes.
That means that the LSU offense, which struggled to move the chains through the air last Saturday, will need to go to the one thing that worked: running the football.
Ironic that, in a career where Keiland Williams dwelled just a few feet away from the spotlight of center stage, the senior running back could be the key to LSU finishing with 10 wins – or two straight losses.
Last weekend Williams couldn’t be stopped, rushing for 116 yards and two touchdowns. When the game remained tight late into the third quarter, the play calls that came into the huddle were passes more often than run.
Understandably, Williams was a bit confused.
“When you are on the field and in a rhythm, you want the ball to be in your hands,” he said. “I felt like that.”
Russell Shepard, who averages 7.1 yards per carry on 31 touches, is another name Miles mentioned would get an additional workload this Saturday. The same went for Trindon Holliday and Stevan Ridley, both of whom average over four yards a carry on less than 20 touches on the year.
Keep a close eye on Jefferson’s ankle. If trouble ensues, Lee will be thrust into a hostile road atmosphere.
If that’s the case, there are a handful of capable backs, all of which have shown they can produce, that are waiting to carry the team to victory.