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Since a National Title, Some Very Difficult Days at L.S.U.

PASADENA, Calif. — Max Johnson, Louisiana State’s sophomore quarterback, backpedaled several steps as he felt the heat of the U.C.L.A. pass rush …

Since a National Title, Some Very Difficult Days at L.S.U.

PASADENA, Calif. — Max Johnson, Louisiana State’s sophomore quarterback, backpedaled several steps as he felt the heat of the U.C.L.A. pass rush. When that maneuver didn’t buy him enough time, he pivoted and began to run backward until, with another Bruins defender closing in, he realized that was a bad idea.

So Johnson came up with a worse idea: With his back to the line of scrimmage, he flung the ball backward, sending it up in the air like a bride blindly tossing a bouquet to her bridesmaids.

Johnson wasn’t punished for his frazzled indiscretion — the ball miraculously hit the turf before it hit the hands of any Bruins — and the Tigers kicked a field goal on the next play. But Johnson’s brain cramp, in the Tigers’ 38-27 loss to U.C.L.A., was a fitting metaphor for what has become of L.S.U.’s football program since it stormed to a national championship 20 months ago.

In the Superdome in New Orleans that night, which ended with Joe Burrow puffing on a cigar, Odell Beckham Jr. handing players hundred-dollar bills and Coach Ed Orgeron — the first L.S.U. coach who the natives said didn’t talk funny — capping a redemptive career turn, seems like an epoch ago.

Now the Tigers look like a mess.

They were not just beaten on Saturday night. It looked in their season opener as if last year’s backslide to 5-5 was not an aberration. When the new offensive and defensive coordinators who were supposed to fix broken schemes weren’t being bamboozled, the players, who were part of three consecutive top-five recruiting classes, were beaten up along the lines of scrimmage by a team that has historically been as soft as its baby blue uniforms.

In fact, Orgeron, after being heckled by a fan while walking into the Rose Bowl earlier in the day, shot back, telling the fan to bring it on — “in your little sissy blue shirt.”

The episode was very much in character for the barrel-chested, gravel-throated, former defensive line coach, who, after snapping an eight-game losing streak to Alabama in 2019, told his team it would beat the Crimson Tide “every time we see them,” on the field or in recruiting.

Perhaps what he witnessed on Saturday night had left him chastened, but Orgeron was unusually measured — clinical even. There were no outbursts on the sideline, and when he spoke to the news media on a video teleconference, he bottled any fury that might have been percolating in his gut. He said he would have to look at the film, the results of which he would share with his players on what he calls Tell the Truth Monday, before questioning his team’s toughness. Really, though, he could have just looked at a stat sheet: U.C.L.A. (2-0) outrushed his team 210 yards to 48.

The soft touch may be in response to a difficult week the Tigers endured.

Linebacker Mitchell Agude celebrated U.C.L.A.’s win over Louisiana State on Saturday in Pasadena, Calif.Credit…Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

They were chased out of Baton Rouge last weekend ahead of Hurricane Ida, busing in the dead of the night to Houston, where they practiced all week while the players whose families lived in the path of the storm checked on their loved ones, a handful of whom had serious damage to their homes. Orgeron’s high school in Larose, La., had extensive damage.

“It’s been a long week, a long seven days,” said Kayshon Boutte, a sophomore receiver from New Iberia, La.

But Boutte, who carried the offense with nine catches for 148 yards and all three of the Tigers’ touchdowns, said the travails had little to do with the loss.

“I’m just going to be real,” he added. “We got beat tonight. Got beat up front and beat all around.”

The championship sheen has not been dulled only by performance. An investigation, spurred by reporting by USA Today, found this year that L.S.U. athletic department administrators covered up sexual assault complaints against a former running back, Derrius Guice, and fought to keep quiet sexual harassment allegations against a former coach, Les Miles. Two administrators who failed to act on the assault complaints were disciplined but not fired. Orgeron was added to a Title IX suit in June, which claimed the coach knew about and failed to report an alleged rape by Guice.

“It’s very troubling to hear all those things that went on,” said Jeb Butler, a physician from Ruston, La., who was among the 20,000 or so L.S.U. fans who found their way to the Rose Bowl for this weekend’s game. As many of them tailgated on the Brookside golf course around the stadium, they seemed to relish a game-day experience that had been on hiatus last season when gatherings were either restricted or prohibited because of the pandemic.

“It’s another way to incorporate Mardi Gras into a random weekend,” said his friend Forrest Wright, a doctor from Shreveport, La., before pointing to his trousers. “Where else am I going to wear purple pants?”

Such a festive atmosphere has been absent at U.C.L.A. for years.

The Bruins have had five consecutive losing seasons, their attendance dwindled in 2019 to its lowest since moving to the Rose Bowl in 1982 — barely cracking 40,000 per game — and interest in the program had diminished to the point where six sections of seats in the north end zone were covered by tarps. To boost the crowd on Saturday, U.C.L.A. gave away thousands of tickets to U.C.L.A. students, youth football programs, high school students and veterans.

The crowd, swelled by the freebies and announced at 68,123, saw what might be the start of a long-anticipated awakening under Coach Chip Kelly. Patience had been wearing thin with Kelly, who seemed to have a cheat code with his fast-break offense at Oregon before he left for the N.F.L. But he seemed intent on a methodical rebuild that is now in its fourth year.

His record at U.C.L.A. stands at 12-21, and the athletic department was more than $40 million in the red — even before accounting for last season, which was played without in-person spectators.

“This is the year it has to happen,” Troy Aikman, who was on the search committee that landed Kelly with a five-year, $23.3 million contract, said on the field before the game. “There’s got to be progress this year. The time is now.”

Aikman was among 150 or so former Bruins who attended a private memorial service in Beverly Hills on Friday for the longtime coach Terry Donahue, who died in July. Donahue was the embodiment of the Gutty Little Bruin, a 190-pound defensive lineman who helped the Bruins win the Rose Bowl as a player and then coached the team to four more appearances and three more victories in the game.

Saturday’s performance surely would have pleased him.

The Bruins’ defense mixed its coverages and sent an assortment of rushes at Johnson, leaving him battered and at times bewildered, and thwarted a running attack that Orgeron admitted had become predictable. (It did not help that a top back, John Emery Jr., was one of three L.S.U. players held out for academic reasons.)

On the other side of the ball, the Bruins, using clever schemes, repeatedly gashed L.S.U. with their two best players. Running back Zach Charbonnet, a transfer from Michigan, had 117 yards rushing and one touchdown on 11 carries, along with 35 yards receiving — an audition that surely caught the eye of eight N.F.L. scouts who watched from the press box.

And staying away from L.S.U.’s elite cornerback tandem, Eli Ricks (who nevertheless managed an interception) and Derek Stingley Jr., the Bruins targeted tight end Greg Dulcich, who caught three passes for 117 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown reception in which he ran through three Tigers.

When receiver Kyle Philips made a similar run, breaking two tackles — including an attempt by Stingley — for a 45-yard touchdown with 6 minutes 31 seconds left, droves of L.S.U. fans adopted a familiar Los Angeles ritual: They headed for an exit early.

Along the visitors’ sideline, there was disbelief. Safety Todd Harris Jr. sat on a stationary bike without pedaling, staring into the distance in the final minutes. The offensive linemen huddled around two coaches, trying to solve the puzzle of the pass rush.

And when the clock expired, and U.C.L.A. quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson chucked the football in the air and fireworks crackled, Orgeron and his players made their way to the tunnel at the south end of the stadium. As the Tigers did, they passed through a sea of confetti that not long ago was meant for them.


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