Pressure was the last thing on Garrett Nussmeier’s mind when he stepped onto the field during the first quarter of the game at Tiger Stadium.
It was a crisp 45 degrees in Death Valley, but that didn’t stop thousands of fans from showing up, who eagerly watched LSU’s second-string quarterback make his debut. The Tigers were trailing early, and the freshman knew that this would be his best chance to prove what he’s capable of.
The son of a former Saints quarterback who’s now the quarterback coach of the Dallas Cowboys, the kid has been surrounded by college football for years and didn’t want to view it any different from the game he’s played his entire life.
“It was awesome. I’ve dreamt of that moment my whole life,” Nussmeier said. “It did not go the way I wanted it to, but all it is going to do is make me hungrier.”
Ed Orgeron has called Nussmeier a ‘gunslinger’ before, a guy who’s willing to take risks and make a play even when the offense isn’t really present. His playing style proved to have both its pros and cons — It gave the Tigers their sole touchdown of the game, while also spelling their defeat at the end.
Nussmeier has been itching to say goodbye to his redshirt for weeks now. Previously, he and Orgeron agreed to preserve his redshirt freshman status for the year. However, on Monday, Orgeron announced that the backup quarterback would compete for equal time with Max Johnson against Arkansas.
"It’s time to let the kid play," Orgeron said. "We've decided to let Garrett play, he's a great quarterback. Max is still our starting quarterback, but I will give Garrett a chance. He wants to play, so we'll play him, and the guy who plays the best will play the most."
Johnson was still chosen to be the starting quarterback, but it’s safe to say Orgeron was happy with his decision to bring the 19-year-old in, who played from the first quarter to the end of overtime. Nussmeier struggled a bit when entering during the third drive. A few of his first passes fell incomplete, but the boost of energy from the entire team couldn’t go unnoticed.
It was like seeing the offense get a breath of fresh air. In just a few minutes, the team had switched up their tempo, and now had the Razorbacks on their heels. The defining moment of LSU’s offense came at the start of the second quarter.
Nussmeier spun around multiple defenders before throwing a 29-yard pass to Jack Bech in the corner of the endzone. Bech, a true freshman wide receiver out of Lafayette, proves time and time again that the freshmen class has a lot more potential than Nussmeier alone.
“This confidence that [Bech] competes with now was earned by always preparing harder than anyone else,” James Hightower, Bech’s former high school coach, told The Reveille earlier this month. “He was always the last guy to leave the practice field.”
The freshmen duo’s hunger for opportunity and desire to prove what they’re made of finally came into fruition during Saturday night’s big play. As the Tigers took the lead, fans were struck with a new sense of hope for the future of LSU football in the form of Nussmeier and Bech.
Nussmeier went 18-31 with 179 yards by the end of the game, while Bech finished with 66 yards on four receptions. Along with the shared touchdown, the duo has proven that LSU has a vast amount of young talent on their team.
Dating back to the Ole Miss game, LSU’s last four touchdowns have actually been scored by true freshmen: Bech scored two himself, while Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. each scored one respectively.
Although their names weren’t mentioned much this game, the likes of freshmen Corey Kiner, Deion Smith and Armoni Goodwin add to the potential strength of LSU in the coming years. The wide receiver Smith had five catches for 135 yards in a game earlier this season and has scored 2 touchdowns despite his limited play in five games. The running back Kiner has rushed for a total of 239 yards this season along with 2 touchdowns.
"They're very capable of playing against the best guys on our team already, they've shown that," Orgeron said of the freshman earlier this season. "They've won some one on ones against some pretty good players. They're very humble and hungry and want to learn, they catch the ball well."
After the game, Orgeron still wanted to remind everyone that the team has a lot to learn and must take away a lesson from their mistakes.
"We have to call better plays. We have to be smarter with the football and that's obvious. It was obvious last week,” he said. “We were down on the eight-yard line against Alabama, had the No. 2 team in the country on the ropes.”
The previous week, LSU gave one of their most valiant efforts in the past decade against Alabama despite it being one of their arguably roughest seasons. The defense held the second-ranked powerhouse to 20 points, but the offense struggled to capitalize on key opportunities throughout the game.
“There’s a lot of chances that we had to make plays to win this football game, but again we have to find a way to do it. They did, and we didn’t,” Orgeron said. “If you want to be at LSU, you have to do that."
Orgeron knew mistakes were inevitable, but urged that it’s important to limit how often they’re made or they can cost the game. That truth came to light in overtime when Nussmeier threw an interception to Arkansas defensive back Montaric Brown. The turnover resulted in a field goal, which gave the Razorbacks the win.
Of course, all the blame can’t be put on the young quarterback alone. With guards Ed Ingram and Chasen Hines injured, the team’s offensive line power was spread thin. The explosive force of LSU’s defense, who held their opponent to 57 yards on 27 plays in the first half, could not defeat the Razorbacks alone.
"It obviously hurts. We had more than enough chances to win the game, this week and last week," center Liam Shanahan spoke after the game. "I feel bad for everybody, especially the defense. They laid everything on the line. It sucks to be the ones holding us back from getting a couple wins that could've been really big for us."
As for Nussmeier, the second-string quarterback finished with more passing yards thrown than Arkansas’s KJ Jefferson, who’s been a starting quarterback for three years now. Despite his costly mistakes, the freshman made some impressive plays for just his fourth collegiate game. The guy has a lot of growing to do, but his level of talent shouldn’t be overlooked. If he can restrict his number of errors and step up to the challenge that veteran Johnson and five-star LSU commit Walker Howard will pose, Nussmeier could be the key to giving the LSU offense the spark they desperately need. For the rest of the season, he’ll now have the chance to compete head-on with Johnson for playing time and make invaluable improvements.
Bech’s impact on the team will be crucial as well. The tight end has seen early success on the field not just for his talent, but for his immense drive. A freshman with offensive and defensive skill, his dedication to the game and his team will prove to make him a definite asset in LSU’s future.
All in all, by utilizing the youthful talent on the team and continuously developing its players with a well-rounded coaching staff, the Tigers could climb back up to the top of the SEC in no time. As for now, fans are still looking forward to what LSU can bring to the table during the last few weeks of Orgeron’s time here.
“Well, first of all we said we’re going to fight,” Orgeron said. “They know I got two weeks left, and we’re giving it everything we got.”