FAYETTEVILLE — In 54 games as LSU’s football coach, Ed Orgeron never has lost two in a row.
Orgeron and the Tigers hope to avoid the program’s first back-to-back losses since 2015 when LSU (2-3) plays the University of Arkansas (3-4) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
It will be the Tigers’ first game since Oct. 31 when they were pounded 48-11 at Auburn. That game marked LSU’s most-lopsided loss since 1996, when No. 1 Florida beat the Tigers 56-13.
LSU’s scheduled game against Alabama last week was postponed due to COVID-19 positive tests and contact tracing among the Tigers.
“Last week, most of our guys that weren’t able to play was because of quarantine,” Orgeron said Monday. “It wasn’t because of the number of guys who had covid.”
Orgeron said the players will need to be eased back into practice.
“They’ve been working out on their own,” he said. “They were in good shape when they stopped, so they haven’t been out that long.
“Hopefully the workouts kept up the pace, they can come and practice. I think it will be fine. But we’re going to have to limit their reps in the game.”
The Tigers, who had 14 players from last season’s national championship team picked in the NFL Draft and six others sign free agent contracts, have played 17 true freshmen, including quarterbacks TJ Finley and Max Johnson.
But Orgeron said he’s not going to have a youth movement even with LSU struggling after being ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press preseason poll.
“It’s all about winning the games,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys playing … but I’m not going to take out an older guy just to play a younger guy to give him reps. This is about winning the game, giving our guys the best chance to win.”
LSU has lost several players who decided to opt out this season to focus on the NFL Draft, notably All-American wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, but Orgeron said he’s not worried about some of the Tigers’ older players looking ahead to pro careers rather than focusing on the rest of the season.
“They want to go out and win, and they want to represent the purple and gold,” Orgeron said. “And they don’t like the results on the field, either.
“But you know what? A lot of them have got a lot of things to prove on the field to go into the NFL, and put it on tape.”
Finley is expected to make his third start in place of junior Myles Brennan, who is averaging an SEC-best 370.7 passing yards but hasn’t played since LSU’s 45-41 loss at Missouri on Oct. 10 when he suffered abdominal and hip injuries.
Finley’s first start against South Carolina couldn’t have gone much better. He completed 17 of 21 passes for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns with 1 interception, and he had a rushing touchdown in the Tigers’ 52-24 victory. His second start at Auburn couldn’t have gone much worse. He threw two interceptions, lost a fumble and completed 13 of 24 passes for 132 yards.
Johnson replaced Finley in the second half and completed 15 of 24 passes for 172 yards and 1 touchdown without an interception.
Orgeron said the plan after the Auburn game was for Johnson to compete with Finley for the starting job, but Johnson wasn’t able to practice last week.
“We’ll see who is the best guy available,” Orgeron said. “Right now, it’s probably going to be TJ unless Max can have a great week. We’ll probably play both of them in the game.”
Orgeron said Finley needs to take care of the ball.
“Make smart decisions, which he did the first game,” Orgeron said. “The second game he didn’t, and we had three turnovers. You can’t go on the road and turn over the football.
“It’s not all on him. It’s on the play-calling, keep it simple for him. It’s on the other players surrounding him playing better. It’s about the offensive line protection. It’s about everybody.”
With Chase opting out, junior Terrace Marshall has become LSU’s top receiver with 31 catches for 540 yards and 9 touchdowns. Freshman tight end Arik Gilbert has 22 catches for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Running backs Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery, both sophomores, have rushed for 246 and 245 yards, respectively.
Senior safety JaCoby Stevens leads the Tigers with 36 tackles and has 2 1/2 sacks. Freshman defensive end BJ Oljulari has a team-high four sacks, and freshman cornerback Eli Ricks has three interceptions, including a 45-yard touchdown return against South Carolina.
Sophomore Derek Stingley Jr., the Tigers’ All-American cornerback, is averaging 30.7 yards on three punt returns with a long of 46. Sophomore receiver Trey Palmer had a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against South Carolina and is averaging 36.5 yards on six returns.
“They lost a lot of great talent on that team, but obviously they’ve recruited exceptionally well there,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “They have LSU written all over them — big, physical.”
Orgeron, who has a 42-12 record at LSU, said there’s no question the program will be back among the elite nationally.
“I know we’re going to build a championship team,” he said. “I know it’s coming. But you have to go through some adversity, man.
“You have to develop some grit and toughness. You just can’t go roll your helmet out there. We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to pay attention to details.
“It all starts with me. I’ve got to get this program better.”