In the closing minutes of their stirring, 45-38 victory Saturday at Texas, several LSU players waved goodbye to heckling fans at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. At the center of the trolling stood quarterback Joe Burrow, the performer of the night, the nation’s newest Heisman Trophy candidate and the deliverer of a contemporary passing attack to a notoriously conservative program.
As he celebrated with his teammates, Burrow mocked the crowd with a royal wave. It was silly. It was wicked. And after watching him throw for 471 yards and four touchdowns as he never let up on the road against a storied opponent, heck, it was appropriate.
Burrow owned this moment, but it was bigger than personal achievement. If the Tigers remain as explosive and ambitious as they were against the Longhorns, this game will be referenced as a revolutionary shift in approach for an elite program striving to be even greater.
Despite an impressive level of success and consistency, despite fielding so much NFL talent and athleticism, LSU has been a criticized perennial contender for its style — or lack of style. The Tigers often have had a team that could run past or around opponents, but they preferred to run through them. Although controlling tempo and slugging it out has worked for them, there was great curiosity about what they could be if they wanted more, particularly on offense.
The desire for something fresh became apparent in the latter years of former coach Les Miles’s tenure. As LSU slipped from its championship standard and failed to reach 10 victories in the coach’s final two full seasons, it started to feel ancient. Since Ed Orgeron took over the program, there had been open discussion of diversifying the offense, but LSU refused to abandon its slow, run-first, defensive-minded system.
But after airing it out and winning the best matchup of this young college football season, the Tigers figure to stick with a modernized offensive system. It wasn’t a shock that they went to Texas and came out victorious; the Tigers were seven-point favorites and won by that margin. But it was surprising to see them engage in a game that gradually turned into a Big 12-style shootout and keep initiating the attack.
They can do that because they have Burrow, the Ohio State transfer in his second season in Baton Rogue. They can do that because, before this season, Orgeron wisely hired New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady, a brilliant 29-year-old offensive mind, to be the team’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. They can do that because Orgeron, for as much of a character as he can be, is evolving as a head coach.
In the past, LSU won with talent, defensive versatility and a lot of late-game toughness. Those characteristics still exist as the program’s bedrock. But through two games, there are strong indications that you must include offensive scheme and elite quarterback play to the Tigers’ strengths. If it all stays together, they will be scary good — and they were already top-10 good. Their SEC slate will be tough with Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M on the schedule. But only the Alabama game is on the road.
A sleek new offense doesn’t mean the Tigers won’t have to win a defensive battle or two in conference play. The point is that they have an understanding — and a signature victory — that proves a wrestling match isn’t the only way. They should stay aggressive. To win the SEC, to make the College Football Playoff — to win the national title — the flexibility to win in different ways matters much.
In a 55-3 victory over Georgia Southern in the season opener, Burrow threw five touchdown passes in the first half. Fourteen receivers caught passes. After an offseason of vowing to be different, they were different. The level of competition made it easier to dismiss the Tigers, but they had already committed to offensive creativity.
“The scheme is a lot better this year,” Orgeron said. “We have answers.”
Burrow, ever confident, played coy. “We showed everything we got,” he joked after the opener. “All of it. Make sure you write that.”
Of course, there was more to show. Just before waving bye-bye to Texas, Burrow faced third and 17 with just under three minutes remaining in a 37-31 game. Classic LSU would play it simple, run a safe play such as a draw, punt and let its defense close the game. New LSU had another gear. Burrow evaded the pass rush, ad-libbed and found wide receiver Justin Jefferson open. Jefferson caught the pass and outran the rest of the Texas defense for a 61-yard score. Then LSU went for two, and Burrow made another fantastic escape before completing his pass to Ja’Marr Chase.
Burrow completed 31 of 39 passes. In two games, he has thrown for 749 yards with nine touchdowns and just one interception. Three LSU receivers — Jefferson, Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. — surpassed 100 yards against Texas. This isn’t the offense that failed to fully unleash Odell Beckham Jr. anymore. LSU seems intent on utilizing all of its speed and playmaking, which should mean it has the potential to score 35 points on just about any defense in the country.
The Tigers have to stay committed, and to test that, you have to wait for their response to a few disastrous offensive moments. That will happen eventually. But for now, consider LSU more dangerous than it has been in several years.
Maybe Burrow didn’t do the royal wave just for people wearing burnt orange. Maybe he used the opportunity to dismiss the old, rigid LSU way, too.