John Emery Vanderbilt

John Emery Jr. (4) celebrates after scoring a 12-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the Tigers' 41-7 win over Vanderbilt on Oct. 3, 2020. Courtesy Vanderbilt Athletics

In its season opener, LSU punted on five of its six first-half drives, but, in the second half, it found a bit of a rhythm, scoring 20 of the offense’s 27 points.

“I think we got the running game going a little bit more in the second half,” center Liam Shanahan said after the game, “and we let the running game build into our pass game. It really let us get into a little bit of a rhythm, and that’s why we had a little bit more success in the second half.”

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This week, against Vanderbilt, the Tigers were faster, cleaner and more efficient on offense. In the first quarter, they ran seven times for 47 yards. With the help of an effective run game, Myles Brennan had less of a burden to carry and was more effective when he dropped back to pass. LSU scored three first-half touchdowns.

“There were a lot less mistakes in this football game than there were in the first,” Orgeron said.

The first score was a screen to Jontre Kirklin, who weaved through Commodore defenders behind a key lead block from Cameron Wire and a pancake by Ed Ingram.

Terrace Marshall Jr. scored the second and third touchdowns. First, he nabbed a red-zone bullet from Myles Brennan at the top of a post route. Then, he caught a deep pass and outraced four Vanderbilt defenders on his way to a 51-yard score.

“We got to make it easier on Myles,” Shanahan said after the Mississippi State game. “He had a decent game. He’s getting a lot of unfair criticism.”

LSU carried the second-half momentum of the first game into its second game. The offense was comfortable all game, and the defense held Vanderbilt to seven points. The Tigers won a snoozer of a game 41-7 on a quiet Nashville night.

Sophomore running back John Emery Jr. had a breakout game. His play was a large part of LSU’s commanding victory. With Chris Curry out for an unspecified reason, he seized the opportunity of a larger role. Emery took 12 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown, and he caught three balls for 21 yards. He was the hot hand.

“This is not a surprise to us,” Brennan said. “I feel like [the running backs] performed really well tonight, and I’m excited to see them progress throughout the season.”

Coming out of high school, Emery was ranked the second-best running back in the country by 247sports. The Destrehan, Louisiana, player was figured to be in line for a decent-sized role in the 2019 offense. But Clyde Edwards-Helaire emerged as a force and took the reins. Freshmen Tyrion Davis-Price and Chris Curry rotated in behind him, as Emery struggled with fumbling issues.

“What I’m most proud of is him protecting the football,” Orgeron said.

In the offseason, Emery opted for LASIK surgery, The Athletic reported, correcting one legally blind eye. He bulked up too, Orgeron said, packing even more muscle onto his imposing 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame. Against Vanderbilt, he was slicing, cutting and juking into space. He took advantage of a slower Commodore defense, and he may be ready to emerge.

“Being able to run the ball successfully opens up the passing game,” Brennan said after the game.

Orgeron agreed. He said he wants an even split between rushing and passing.

The offense was clicking all game. It was noticeably faster, with more short, quick passes designed to keep Brennan comfortable and in rhythm. It worked. Brennan was much better in game two, completing 23 of 27 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns and an interception.

Even after Mississippi State bludgeoned the LSU defense and only rushed for nine yards (sacks included), the rhetoric coming out of Baton Rouge was that LSU wanted to double down on the running game. Despite its early success against LSU, maybe the air raid offense hasn’t fully infiltrated the Southeastern Conference. KJ Costello threw three interceptions, and the Bulldogs only tallied 14 points in a loss to Arkansas.

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In what’s shaping up to be a wild college football season, Brennan stressed the importance of remaining level-headed from week-to-week. That will require a consistent approach to the offensive game plan.

When the LSU offense emerged from the stone age in 2019, the story was that it had undergone a passing revolution. Without a Heisman-caliber QB, without two first-round picks at receiver and one in the backfield, LSU may need to lean more on a running game to maximize its developing talent on offense.

It may need to sprinkle in some traditional LSU football into its new, modern, spread offense, connecting Tiger football past with Tiger football present. Orgeron wants to run the ball, and Emery seems capable.

“It’s what we need to do,” Orgeron said.

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