'We've got our swagger back' — LSU quarterback TJ Finley after win over South Carolina
BATON ROUGE — When Steve Ensminger became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for LSU on Nov. 20, 1976, he completed 5 of 8 passes for 56 yards in a 17-7 win over Tulane.
TJ Finley beat that on his first two drives Saturday night as the true freshman from Ponchatoula High led the downtrodden Tigers to a 52-24 victory over South Carolina at Tiger Stadium.
Finley, starting because injured regular starter Myles Brennan has an abdomen tear, hit five of his first six passes for 60 yards in taking the Tigers to a 10-7 lead in the first quarter. He was 14 of 18 for 216 yards and two touchdowns by halftime with his team safely ahead at 31-10.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Finley finished with 17 completions in 21 attempts for 265 yards and two touchdowns and left the game with 7:39 still to play, so fellow true freshman Max Johnson could get some work.
But Ensminger gets credit for a lot of Finley's performance. He is the offensive coordinator and an excellent quarterbacks coach.
"Steve had a game plan that he knew TJ could operate, and he never blinked," LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. "I thought he did a tremendous job of leading the team. You see how he has a tremendous arm, scrambled around, and made some plays on the run. He made some good decisions. He did a phenomenal job. He's tall, man. He can see the field. He was not nervous."
In the first half alone, Finley's 14 completions were four more than the last two true freshman to start at quarterback for LSU - Brandon Harris at Auburn in 2014 and Anthony Jennings versus Iowa in the Jan. 1, 2014, Outback Bowl - combined over eight quarters at 10-of-33 passing for 140 yards and no touchdowns.
By a mile, it was the greatest true freshman quarterback debut in LSU history.
Ensminger started Finley off with short passes, which tends to be the way to grow a new starter's confidence.
"He was patient with TJ," Orgeron said of Ensminger. "I thought Coach Ensminger did a good job of planning all week. He had a great game plan. You know, Coach Ensminger gets to work at about 4:30 a.m. and leaves about 11 p.m. Sometimes, he sleeps in the office. He's a great Tiger, was a great player here, and is a great coach."
Finley, though, did not need all the baby steps. He was flinging darts effortlessly all over the place with alarming accuracy. He flicks his wrist, and it's a fastball, reminiscent of Cam Newton. He doesn't always need to put his body into it.
"I entered the contest really relaxed," Finley said, and it showed. "Coach Ensminger was amazing. I wouldn't say I didn't have any pre-game jitters, but if I did, it was very little."
Finley spoke as confidently as he threw the ball.
And when he said, "Honestly, I didn't feel any different than when I played at Ponchatoula High," he was not being brash or cocky. He said it in a matter-of-fact fashion.
"I'm so happy," said LSU sophomore tailback John Emery Jr. after gaining 88 yards on 18 carries in the first start of his career. "TJ was so calm the whole game. I had no doubt. For him to come in and stay composed was sensational."
This was not Ponchatoula, though. This was an LSU season on the brink of 1-3 and maybe 4-6. Now, the Tigers are 2-2 and breathing again with an Auburn team waiting on Saturday that is a very lucky 3-2, which could easily be 1-4.
LSU put up 541 yards in all and scored touchdowns on drives of 65 yards or more four times. The improved grades are in across the board.
"It felt amazing," Finley said. "I feel like we have our swagger back."
Finley sounds like a budding leader as well. Physically at least, he is not looking up to anyone.
"We had big plays. We came together today," he said. "The first three games and even at Vanderbilt (which LSU beat 41-7), it felt like the team was separated. Like Coach O said, as long as we stay together, we'll have success. This is a big win for LSU."
Yes, the Tigers have their season back.
"Everybody had had enough," Orgeron said.
That includes defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who got a decent performance from his unit after two embarrassing exhibitions against Mississippi State (632 yards in a 44-34 loss) and Missouri (586 yards in a 45-41 loss). South Carolina put up "only" 403. There were still some gaffes, but there was improvement.
The Tigers sacked South Carolina quarterback Collin Hill five times with three by true freshman defensive end BJ Ojulari. True freshman cornerback Eli Ricks, who had been an early disappointment, returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown.
"Guys weren't running wide open," Orgeron said. "But we still have a lot of things to shore up on defense, especially on coverage."
It's a start.
And if Brennan's abdomen tear is not healthy enough to play at Auburn, it looks like TJ's got another start under control. It will be like Ponchatoula at Hammond, right?
"If Myles isn't able to play next week, I'll be ready to play," he said.
Orgeron was asked about a quarterback controversy now with Brennan and Finley, and scoffed at it as he should have.
"It might be on your mind, but it's not on mine," he said. "Everybody's yearning for that, I can feel it. Myles is our starting quarterback, but if he's not ready, I feel good about TJ."