Within the hours ahead of kickoff in LSU’s home opener against McNeese State, lines of fans stretched along the Pete Maravich Assembly Center ramp to get the COVID-19 tests or vaccines necessary to comply with the stadium’s recent mandate.
That set the stage for LSU to host a full capacity crowd for the first time in 651 days. Campus buzzed throughout the day as tailgaters made their triumphant return. The student section, filled to the brim, was loud in the first half, then slowly dissipated as LSU took a commanding lead.
The crowd of 94,220 wasn’t quite a sellout, and it’s still unknown how well LSU tackled the logistical challenge of checking for vaccines and tests at the gates. Overall, it was a sleepy night. But it’s a start, a taste of normal times as the sports world moves into the post-pandemic era.
That’s exactly what LSU’s win over McNeese state was Saturday night: a normal game. An FCS opponent came to Death Valley early in the season, took a licking, collected a check and went home. How long has it been since the Tigers played a normal game?
Though LSU won by a large margin like it was supposed to, their performance left viewers hunger for more. On offense, many of the same concerns of the UCLA game popped up against McNeese.
At halftime, LSU tallied only 62 yards on 20 carries. They converted only two of nine third downs. As the offensive line, without three starters, struggled to open up lanes for the Tigers’ backs and protect quarterback Max Johnson from pressure, an eerie quiet fell over Tiger Stadium. The offense looked as sluggish as it had against UCLA, and this performance was against a far inferior FCS opponent.
On one of the Tigers’ few promising first-half drives, receiver Jaray Jenkins let an easy catch slip through his hands on a 3rd and 11. LSU punted the next play.
On the flip side, the defense held firm. At the half, McNeese had collected only 53 yards. They went three-and-out five times and managed only 1.7 yards per play. Sophomore noseguard Jaquelin Roy breathed some life into the crowd by forcing and recovering a fumble deep in McNeese territory in the second quarter. That led to the Kayshon Boutte touchdown that put LSU up 14-0.
As the second half started, the crowd thinned out, and LSU’s offensive problems continued.
The first two drives of the half stalled. The first was a three-and-out that ended with a drop. The second fizzled after only four plays, and punter Avery Atkins trotted out for the fifth time.
The third drive, perhaps LSU’s best since the opening one, went 49 yards and ended in a Boutte score. After Johnson completed a couple nice passes—one to freshman tight end Jack Bech and one to Boutte—and evaded a rush and scrambled 10 yards, his night was done. Freshman signal caller Garrett Nussmeier took over the rest of the game.
After the game, the main topic of conversation was the offensive line. Ed Orgeron turned a question about LSU’s third down conversion rate into a criticism of the protection. He bemoaned the fact that some of his lineman were getting beat one-on-one too frequently, something that a program like LSU should not have to worry about against an FCS opponent. Orgeron said that the coaches can scheme receivers open and put their athletes in space all they want, but it won’t mean anything if Johnson is not protected.
“If we can’t protect the quarterback,” he said, “it’s not going to work.”
Boutte, fresh off scoring two more touchdowns and bringing his season total to five, lamented the offense’s slow start.
“I feel like we could’ve did more,” he said. “I felt like it shouldn’t have been a close game at all. We could’ve put up 60.”
Overall, LSU noted some improvements over a week ago. But if the Tigers want this season to be a success, they still have plenty of work to do.
This year, sellout crowds will give the team a boost. Post-game, Orgeron was more cheery than he was after UCLA. Perhaps the crowd, fully vaccinated, was the difference.
“What a great day,” he said. “Tremendous day. Our fans were amazing. I want to thank them.”