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Matt Canada's new offense falls flat in debut at LSU spring game

LSU defensive back Andraez Williams knocks the ball free from wide receiver D.J. Chark during the second quarter of the annual purple-gold spring game at Tiger Stadium. Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

BATON ROUGE, La. -- An LSU offensive coach let out a big sigh as he walked out of the Tigers’ football building Saturday night, then summed up the night by saying, “Boy, that was rough.”

The Tigers’ spring game, that is.

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada might have had his way for much of spring practice, but his Tiger Stadium debut before outside eyeballs fell flat. Among the lowlights: shoddy quarterback play, too many dropped passes and a mediocre performance from the offensive line.

“I think the defense was tired of getting their butts kicked all spring,” Tigers coach Ed Orgeron said late Saturday night. “I think the defensive coaches did a tremendous job of getting them ready. And again, [defensive coordinator] Dave Aranda’s an excellent play-caller, and I think obviously he’s had 15 practices to defend Matt, so he knows what hurts Matt and he showed it tonight.”

LSU produced statistics only for the portion of the scrimmage that took place at Tiger Stadium -- before lightning in the area with 2:54 left in the second quarter forced the Tigers to move across the street to their indoor practice facility -- but those stats sufficiently explain the night for the offense.

The White team, featuring the starting offense, drove for a field goal on its opening drive and then accounted for little to nothing the rest of the way. Before moving across the street, the White’s next four possessions ended in three punts and a Kevin Toliver interception of Danny Etling that led to the only touchdown of the half.

The Purple drove 56 yards for that score behind runs from Lanard Fournette -- younger brother of former Tigers star Leonard -- on every single play on the eight-play drive. Otherwise, backup quarterback Justin McMillan and the rest of the second-team offense were just as inefficient. The Purple punted on their other three possessions and had gone 12 yards in reverse with third-string quarterback Lindsey Scott making his first appearance of the night when the nearby lightning halted play.

More disappointing for Orgeron than the offensive-line play (“We were getting overpowered on the offensive line,” Orgeron said of a group that was without probable starters Will Clapp and Toby Weathersby) and dropped passes (“Those guys looked nervous tonight.”) was the poor effort at quarterback.

It’s not just that Etling (4-for-11 for 53 yards and one INT) was bad, it’s that nobody offered reason to believe there might be a better option. McMillan showed off some mobility, but was also sacked four times and completed just one of three passes for 10 yards. Scott is clearly well behind the other two in his coaches’ estimation and didn’t accomplish much of anything after the Tigers moved to their IPF. And while early Lowell Narcisse has an outstanding arm, his performance at the IPF proved that he needs time to digest the offense and hone his accuracy.

“Here’s the deal: Nobody has earned a starting spot. You can see tonight,” Orgeron said. “If we had to name a starter tonight, there’s not a clear-cut winner. And most of this spring, Danny has been better. Nobody has took him over. But here again, tonight underneath pressure, the guys didn’t perform the way we want to, so they’re going to have to show me who performs under pressure and get ready to be the LSU quarterback.”

Orgeron assessed Etling’s night by simply saying, “He didn’t have a good night,” which seemed problematic since the fifth-year senior had played well in the Tigers’ most recent scrimmage.

“He was awesome most of the spring, but tonight with the pressure and stuff, we didn’t protect him, balls were off and just didn’t look like we were in sync right there,” Orgeron said.

The other side of the token is that the defense stood out throughout the evening, even without eight starters from last season. Among the standouts were sophomore linebacker Devin White (four tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss) and early enrollee Grant Delpit (four tackles, 1 TFL), who played with the starting defense and tied White for the team lead in tackles.

“[Delpit] did a tremendous job, made plays. Now we’ve got to watch the film,” Orgeron said. “But he’s a guy that we consider may start. Also [early enrollee safety] JaCoby Stevens, he’s got a shot there. We’ll be playing a lot of young guys on defense.”

The likelihood of playing youngsters was a theme throughout Orgeron’s post-scrimmage press conference. Redshirt freshman Ray Thornton “will play a lot for us,” he said. Freshman Kary Vincent could grab the nickelback job. Linebackers Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor and Patrick Queen “are going to have to play next year” because of a depth shortage in the middle.

“We have a great class coming in. I can’t wait to put this team all together,” Orgeron said.

What he had Saturday was an incomplete roster playing without expected contributors like center Clapp, right tackle Weathersby, outside linebacker Arden Key, defensive end Christian LaCouture, linebacker Donnie Alexander, safety John Battle and fullback J.D. Moore.

To be fair to Canada, he offered a taste of the pre-snap motion and frequent jet sweeps that are his trademark, but also showed only a tiny portion of his hand so that future opponents will not yet get a good look at his scheme.

The end result was a disjointed offensive performance, making it clear to Orgeron and his staff that the Tigers have a long way to go before they will be game-ready.

“It’s going to be important for us as coaches to push the right buttons. We played preseason game No. 1 and we have three more of these things [in August], and we’ve got to get better,” Orgeron said. “We’ve got to put them in situations that are game-like to see how they really perform.

“You can go out there in skelly and complete all your balls. You can go out there in a third-and-3 scrimmage and look good. Then when you get under the lights and you’ve got to perform underneath the pressure, we want to find out who makes the plays. That’s the only way to do it.”