LSU football’s season opener couldn’t have come at a better time.
It’s been nearly a week since Hurricane Ida tore through south Louisiana, and much of the region is still working through recovery efforts to try and get back to some semblance of regular life. And anyone from the Pelican State knows that watching the Tigers play on a Saturday night can go a long way in bringing back that sense of normalcy.
So all eyes will be glued on LSU this weekend with a little extra stock invested in the Tigers as they head to Los Angeles for the 2021 opener against UCLA in the historic Rose Bowl.
“It’s an honor to play there,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said in his weekly press conference leading up to the game. “I’m so excited to bring our team there. I usually don’t take them to the stadium the day before … but I think it’s something that they’re going to want to see. Let them take pictures, let them be part of it, let them get that out the way.”
It’ll be the first time time the Tigers have played in the Rose Bowl, and the first time they’ve ever faced the Bruins in football.
UCLA already has one game under its belt after trouncing Hawaii 44-10 in “Week 0” of the college football season.
A strong run game led by junior tailback Zach Charbonnet’s 106-yard, 3-touchdown effort powered the way for the Bruins, who racked up 244 total rush yards in the game. Senior running back Brittain Brown added another 78 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, UCLA surprised many in the college football world by limiting the Warriors offense to just 269 total yards—including a mere 26 on the ground—while adding two interceptions, two sacks and seven tackles for loss.
“(They are) better than they were from last year,” Orgeron said of the Bruins’ defense. “I thought they had their guys playing. They were attacking. They were making plays all over the field, and I thought their cornerbacks tackled well in open space, so it’s going to be a challenge. But we have speed, too.”
LSU will look to utilize that speed in its first contest under new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, who has plenty of talented athletes at his disposal.
Sophomore quarterback Max Johnson will garner much of the attention as he’ll be tasked with leading the new-look offense out of the gate.
“I think (Johnson’s) understanding of our offense (has grown),” Orgeron said. “Jake has done a great job. (He’s) learning how to stay in the pocket, learning his reads, and I just hope he finds (sophomore receiver) Kayshon Boutte. I think he’ll be fine if he does that.”
Boutte will act as the security blanket for Johnson, who will be working with a relatively unfamiliar backfield behind him. Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery have been in and out of the first team with various injuries throughout the offseason, forcing a few younger faces to practice with Johnson in recent weeks.
All signs seem to be pointing toward them both being available Saturday, but it’ll still take a slight adjustment period for the offensive line and the backfield to get everything in lockstep.
“(Davis-Price) has gotten there at running back so he looks like he’s fine,” Orgeron said. “The offensive line is going to take time to gel a little bit because we haven’t had our starting offensive line the whole camp. I think that’s the area where it’s going to have to gel, and we have to gel fast—because UCLA looked pretty good on the defensive front.”
It’s just another added challenge for the Tigers, who already had their travel plans turned upside down due to the impacts from Ida.
LSU evacuated to Houston on Saturday before the hurricane hit and traveled to Los Angeles on Thursday to get some rest before the game. But even though the Tigers may be safe from the storm, many of their hometowns and family residences were hit hard and are still recovering.
“Some of the houses are really damaged, some of them need to be displaced in the hotels, but I think for the most part, everybody is fine,” Orgeron said. “The players and coaches have handled it great. … Our team has been focused. Everybody’s been early to meetings. We’re kind of in our own little protective cocoon here, so it’s been good.”
Along with being one of the marquee matchups across the nation, Saturday’s contest is sure to have a similar feel to the 2005 season opener that was moved to Arizona State following Hurricane Katrina.
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on FOX.
This story was first published by 225 magazine. See the original version here.