OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi running back Jerrion Ealy took a handoff on third and 12 and dashed down the right field sideline, dancing around multiple Louisiana State defenders on his way into the end zone.
After crossing the goal line for a score that gave the Rebels a 24-point lead over L.S.U., Ealy passionately wound his right arm in a celebratory windmill as teammates ran over to him.
On the other side of the end zone, some members of the L.S.U. defense stood with their hands on their hips, momentarily motionless, looking toward the spot where Ealy had blown past them for the touchdown.
Here was a play that encapsulated opposing realities at the two Southeastern Conference schools. One is making an assertive ascension to the top of the conference with a high-powered offense and a quarterback in Matt Corral who is a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. The other is a program engulfed by turmoil, slowly tumbling — temporarily, it hopes — out of S.E.C. prominence.
Many wondered how the Tigers would respond a week after the program and Ed Orgeron, L.S.U.’s head coach since midway through the 2016 season, agreed to part ways.
Saturday’s 31-17 loss to Ole Miss provided a dismal answer as L.S.U. dropped its fourth game of the season in a contest that was even more of a blowout than the final score indicated.
Orgeron’s departure, which won’t be until the end of the season, finalizes a tenure in Baton Rouge that is highlighted by one of the most dominant single seasons in college football history, but marred by sexual assault allegations and, ultimately, too many losses in the past two years.
Those highs and lows were mirrored Saturday afternoon in front of the sixth-largest crowd ever at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
The Tigers forced Mississippi to punt on the Rebels’ first drive and scored a touchdown on their first possession. Receiver Trey Palmer caught a 35-yard pass from quarterback Max Johnson on the drive and excitedly stomped his feet on the field. L.S.U., briefly, looked like it might follow last week’s upset of Florida with an unlikely win over No. 12 Ole Miss.
Any momentum the Tigers had dissipated by the end of the first quarter, though. Johnson threw an interception on fourth and goal from the 3-yard line, and Mississippi scored 31 unanswered points.
“I know our guys came to fight. We had a good week of practice. We didn’t capitalize,” Orgeron said after the game, adding later, “We had a great mind-set. I thought they came with a lot of energy this morning. We had a great week. I just think we didn’t execute.”
Orgeron, a Louisiana native who’d landed a dream job, has insisted that his looming departure will not affect the team for the rest of the season, but he is in a unique position. He will coach the Tigers through four more regular-season games, a rarity for fired coaches. Some leave the team immediately after being officially let go, others agree to coach through a bowl game before their departure. L.S.U.’s remaining schedule includes a trip next week to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama, and it ends with an at-home matchup against Texas A&M.
Orgeron’s job security had been a hot-button topic after a 5-5 season in 2020. His Tigers followed that with a season-opening loss to U.C.L.A. and back-to-back losses to Auburn and Kentucky. Athletic Director Scott Woodward seemingly had no interest in delaying the inevitable.
In the news conference immediately after he was let go, Orgeron said he knew by the end of the Tigers’ Week 6 loss to Kentucky that his time in Baton Rouge might be ending.
“I just knew it wasn’t L.S.U. style football. It wasn’t pretty. I was embarrassed,” Orgeron said of the 42-21 loss.
Despite the impending separation, Orgeron has emphasized a commitment to L.S.U. He has appeared content with the situation, expressing relief that his fate with the program is no longer in question.
“Everybody was hearing all of this stuff. Now it’s done,” said Orgeron, whom L.S.U. will owe $16.9 million as a part of a separation agreement. “Now we can just go out and concentrate on football and play football. I think we’re going to play a lot freer.”
Still, questions remained about how the players would respond.
Liam Shanahan, a center, said he finds little struggle in keeping himself motivated.
“We’ve been working pretty much every day, it feels like, for this season, dating back to right after the Ole Miss game at the end of the season last year,” Shanahan said. “We’ve put so much time and effort into this. I don’t see how there could be a lack of motivation.”
Others will draw on their personal lives.
“Biggest thing that is keeping me going throughout the season is my daughter,” said linebacker Damone Clark after Saturday’s game. “I have a 1-year-old daughter. I don’t want anybody else to put food on the table for her. I want to be the one that puts food on the table for her. It just hit different when you have a daughter. You have more to fight for.”
Few things went right for the Tigers on Saturday. They gained only 77 yards on the ground, were 4-for-12 on third down and allowed Mississippi to convert all three of its fourth down attempts. But Clark was a bright spot on the defense with a game-high 20 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.
After the loss, Orgeron was asked if he is now questioning his decision to coach the team for the rest of the season.
“Never,” Orgeron said emphatically, repeating the word once more.
“Not even a thought.”