At first it seemed like a joke. I was at Saturday's Vanderbilt-Northwestern game and the public address announcer explained that if Vandy scored 14 points in the game, fans could redeem their ticket stubs for a free crunchy beef taco at Taco Bell.
This was nearly 25 minutes into the game. Vandy had completed six drives... and punted six times.
But suddenly Tim Fugger showed superhuman speed and sacked Dan Persa, stripping the ball and leading to a John Stokes recovery. On the next play, Larry Smith hit Turner Wimberly for 37 yards.
We wouldn't punt again for the rest of the game. We'd gain more than 400 yards of total offense.
So what happened?
• Larry Smith found a rhythm. He wasn't perfect, but he was much improved.
• The starting line of Bailey, Burrow, Johnson, Fischer and Welchans played the entire game with a limited amount of glaring errors. While Smith was often running for his life, the line looked promising run blocking and opened up some big holes for Stacy and Norman, though the backs also got themselves out of more than a few jams.
• Jonathan Krause entered the game. While Wimberly had a big reception, he struggled to separate from the Wildcat defenders, and so did fellow starters John Cole and Udom Umoh. We cannot survive with the same starting receivers as last year. Krause was a revelation, grabbing some clutch passes and darting away from defenders. It was a similar debut to the one by Earl Bennett, who had a few big catches and runs in his first game against Wake Forest.
• Brandon Barden got involved in the offense. He made some big catches and is a big-time weapon.
So we scored 21 points and my four children went crazy because they got a free crunchy beef taco which I might have gotten for them anyway but it sure is fun to win free stuff.
Take away the victories over weak Western Carolina and Rice teams, and we scored 21 points or more only once last season.
While things will only get tougher, here are reasons for optimism:
• Massive sophomore tackle Richard Seymour, who was benched Saturday for team policy reasons, should return soon. He's an improvement over Caleb Welchans, who performed admirably and will be a solid backup.
• The staff will take the wraps off Jonathan Krause and likely insert him in the starting lineup — and Jordan Matthews, who played on special teams and got some offensive snaps in the second half, could be a starter too by mid-season. Also expect to see Chris Boyd get worked into the offense. John Cole is scrappy and Udom Umoh looks bigger than last season and Turner Wimberly is a hard worker and had a big catch, but these guys are not starting receivers in the SEC. Call me mean or whatever, but we're not going to get better on offense if we don't get the freshmen WRs on the field fast, and we're headed in that direction.
• Larry looked much improved. He still has work to do for sure, but he looked especially good rolling out and throwing on the run. The only time he had any room to throw was on his interception. And apart from Krause, none of his receivers could separate from their defenders and get open.
• The offensive line and wide receivers are young, young, young — and they're going to improve. Against Northwestern, seven of our top 10 linemen and three of our top six receivers had never played in a college football game before. That's astounding. It's a miracle that we stuck with a veteran team like Northwestern.
Again, I'd like to reiterate that we should be realistic here. LSU is a ridiculously talented team. They've got a massive defensive line and skill players who'll be in the NFL in a few years. We need to fight hard and get out of this one without incurring major injuries. Our young guys are going to gel soon and it's going to be fun to watch. Robbie Caldwell is going to take some chances — I wholeheartedly support the decisions he made Saturday — and he's going to have a sense of urgency because (1) he wants to win, (2) he wants to keep his job and (3) he can only keep his job if he wins now.
The winning can start in a couple of weeks. Be patient. It'll come.