Sunday, September 4, 2011

LSU Merits Appreciation Not Disregards


Clearly in the huddle, in midfield of Cowboys Stadium, Jarrett Lee stood in place of suspended quarterback Jordan Jefferson. For now, the responsibility lies at the feet of Lee, whose a stellar passer if not an aristocrat of quarterbacks for a unit with national championship ambitions -- and maybe even the accountability lies in the hands of LSU head coach Les Miles.

The vast majority who disliked Lee, though, tried hard to influence him to transfer discontent with his performance on the field. He could have easily descended because of the booing, jeering and utmost disrespect, but he earned his respect. He could have fled the university and gave up on himself, but he chose to endure the challenge and has risen as a fine thrower with a gifted hand.

It's an obligation the Tigers should consider taking on now, and the folks of Southern hospitality in Baton Rouge should be rooting for the fifth-year senior. Miles is probably now angling to name Lee his everyday starter -- and for one reason only -- LSU can actually win.

Before he does evaluates and switches the toughest position on the field, giving it to the hottest passer or the man worthy of handling the pressure as the starter, he might want to look in a mirror and ask himself does Jefferson merits the role or does Lee. It's not too difficult to name Lee the starter -- rightfully so -- after he clearly gave it his divine effort.

The off-the-field troubles of an egregious bar fight and, more incredibly, losing one of the finest playmakers to NCAA violations wouldn't matter. The latest chapter in the midst of tumult is that LSU still can win without a splendid player ineligible for a bar fight and his actions off the field. There's nothing that stopped the Eye of the Tigers.

There was a little bit of a message sent to everybody nationally for doubting LSU and its depleted roster. The Tigers had been preparing for hours and now they proved to the nation that they are ready to contend for a national title. The mood quickly shifted and LSU prevailed in an eventful showdown -- pulverizing No. 3 Oregon by a score of 40-27 for an opening-night win, a rout to awaken the nation, to presumably favor LSU of landing atop the rankings in the next few weeks if teams somehow disappoint and drop in the rankings.

It was so lopsided, that the Tigers' perennial power was an overmatch for Oregon -- thought to be administered on opening night as cupcake games usually are seen in the early weeks of the season, but it definitely was unexpected for this particular showdown that turned into an annihilation. For another night in Death Valley it seems -- it's time to turn all eyes towards LSU and, yes, after one game the Tigers are proven to be elite and noteworthy.

What defied all confidence was the Tigers defense, only a year after losing three defensive players chosen in the 2011 NFL Draft. All things considered, the most unbelievable surprise of the night came from LSU as a whole. The players at the center of trouble, however, are Jefferson and Russell Shepard suspended by the NCAA, each ineligible for the violation of NCAA rules.

An ugly stormed stemmed from Jefferson and Russell, but it seems certain that the Tigers aren't affected by the ghastly messes and instead commits to teamwork, executes a convenient game plan and plays diligently. In the wake of the downfall, it has brought the team and athletic program closer together unified as a whole and energized to silent the nation by being one of the dark horses in college football.

Meanwhile, Shepard -- a junior who was believed to be a starter and an explosive wideout if not a target offensively -- has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA and missed the season opener, and could miss more than one game for consulting with a teammate regarding an NCAA investigation. Even after catching 33 passes for 249 yards and a touchdown last season, he wasn't missed. Even after rushing 32 times for 226 yards and two more touchdowns, his versatility wasn't required to demoralize the Ducks and the Quack Attack in one of the largest, spacious palaces in sports.

It took the suspension of Jefferson to mend LSU, and while there's a chance the Tigers may be the best program in the nation if they continue to shine, this team needs to win to cure the anguish and purge the badness. The Tigers are now in conversations to climb into the No. 3 spot in the nation, following a beautiful date with the Ducks on Saturday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, a ranking that respectively declares LSU's relevancy viewed a national power in college football.

There are other, more delightful things to discuss about LSU, such as its defense and how it precisely has withstood the drama and disturbance, not only Jefferson's alleged involvement in a bar fight or Shepard's loudmouth. If anything, the Tigers have grown from the havoc, hungrier and fiercer to win.

It was a ferocious blowout, the kind of blow where large fangs and sharp claws were used to physically overpower the third-ranked Ducks. It's a shame Jefferson would violate curfew, wind up in a bar fight and be arrested on a felony battery charge, and as a result, get suspended indefinitely by Miles when Baton Rouge police determined there was enough evidence to issue the warrants.

The common denominator right now, for each team that is, happens to be defense. By the time the game was over, however, LSU was still faster, stronger and more physical as the Ducks couldn't handle or slow down the Tigers. It was too much for Oregon to handle. It was too much pressure. It was too much athleticism to endure. And it hurt.

Having Oregon head coach Chip Kelly around isn't enough, even if the Ducks earned relevance and praise by winning a multitude of games with speed and talent, from quick plays to speedy players. At one point, Oregon came with a package of aggressiveness and toughness. It used to be the Ducks wearing down a defense, and then crazily taking off with the game in the second half. Not this time.

It was LSU doing what Oregon used to do to other teams in the past. What's hard to believe is that people honestly believe that the SEC is an overhyped conference, such as was the case when Oregon came all so close before losing in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game against Auburn in January and had hearts broken, leaving the desert without the crystal ball trophy.

And now Oregon drops one of the most critical games to LSU, unsuccessful in employing the rush attack against SEC teams and has not ran longer than 14 yards in two games. There was LaMichael James, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, but he was ineffective and useless against the Tigers, rushing for a total of 54 yards and looking too damn hesitant on a series of plays.

It was bound to happen for a team with no passing game to counterbalance for a prolific ground attack, but Darron Thomas isn't directed to throw it more frequently to balance the offense. Much credit belongs to LSU cornerback Tharold Simon and the Tigers defense. Those defenders were too agile and explosive in an onslaught to outrun and outplay the Ducks, a team that never had a completion longer than 18 yards, unable to break away or run pass LSU's almighty defenders.

It's not a myth, but defense truly win games and LSU studies show that LSU's defenders forced four turnovers and three of those miscues led literally to Tigers' touchdowns. Even with the answer so glaringly conspicuous, Miles prepared his players for the challenge and had his players run grueling drills in nearly every practice, since the spring. It paid off as well, running two separate offensive teams at the defense on consecutive plays.

This is one way of getting away from troubles -- winning games -- and when there's really no need to wonder if Jefferson will return for the next game after allegedly kicking a man in the face during a brawl outside Shady's, a well-known bar in Baton Rouge, there's reason to believe in the Tigers. It was as if the season was a total lost for LSU and as if a damaged blow was enough to hinder the Tigers from bidding for a BCS bowl game.

It turns out, after all, that Lee, Jefferson's replacement, isn't as bad as people make it seem. He has the experience and has played in plenty of football games for the Tigers during his five-year span, despite a horrid track record of 17 career touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. Whether his numbers were awful, he can still be given the starting nod, finishing 10-of-22 for 98 yards. He had one throw for a highlighted play when he hurled a beautiful touchdown pass to Rueben Randle, competent of handling LSU's offense.

But mainly, LSU forced fumbles to set up opportunities to score and it was successful when Oregon punt returner Kenjon Barner fumbled to give the Tigers six points. Before he turned it over, he retrieved a punt inside the Ducks' 10-yard line, and then he turned to the onrushing LSU defender. Running after Barner was cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a fast runner, stripping the ball loose, recovering it and returning it for his first collegiate touchdown.

This time, as opposed to the previous season, LSU is still in good position to prevail, even though the program is faced with heartaches and distress, the kind of distractions no team needs at the beginning of a brand-new season. The Tigers, for what it's worth, depended on their defense, survived by their defense and dominated by their defense.