Lost in all of the excitement about the Mississippi schools surprising to the upside this week is the school that seems to be falling in response: LSU. For teams to rise, someone else has to fall. Right now, that someone is the Tigers.
I reviewed their losses to Mississippi State and Auburn one right after the other to try to get an idea as to why things are going sour in Baton Rouge this year. I think I have a decent handle on it, so here goes.
The old cliché that if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks is alive and well at LSU. Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris? I'm not sure how much it matters.
Harris got the starting gig against Auburn thanks to slicing up Mississippi State's prevent defense at the end of that game. It was a defensible move considering Jennings's struggles:
Jennings went 13 for 26 for 157 yards and was sacked three times. He was officially credited with 11 rushes for 6 yards. He finished was dismal 4.41 ATVSQBPI. Without his deep ball to Travin Dural, he doesn't add much to the offense. If we're going to discount Harris' fourth quarter numbers, which I think we should, we should do the same for Jennings' fourth quarter. Through three quarters, he was 10 of 20 for 99 yards and two sacks.
It's not all the quarterbacks' faults. The offensive line is down from past years, making the running game tougher than usual. Many of the key players around them are pretty young and make some mistakes. Two of the top three runners are freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams, while the top four receivers are Travin Dural (sophomore), Malachi Dupre (freshman), John Diarse (freshman), and Trey Quinn (freshman). Fournette and Williams follow them, meaning you have to get to seventh on the receiving list—senior RB Terrence Magee, five catches for 33 yards—to find an upperclassman.
LSU being LSU, those young guys are all very talented despite their inexperience. The Tigers sometimes do break some big plays, which, for my purposes here, I'm defining as gains of 20 yards or more. LSU had six drives with at least one big play against MSU, and four of them led to scores (a fifth ended on downs at the MSU 2-yard-line). The Tigers got deep into enemy territory on all but one of their drives with a big play against Auburn, with the one being denied by the first half ending. Problem is, there were only four such drives in that game and only one turned into points.
A grand total of two of those big plays came on the ground: one by Fournette against MSU and one by Harris against Auburn as time was running out in the first half. With the line struggling to open holes, that means big plays had to come through the air. Jennings or Harris combined for three such big plays against Auburn, but those three plays accounted for 129 of the team's 142 passing yards (91%). When they aren't hitting the deep ball, they're either wildly off target or dinking and dunking for almost no gain.
I really don't know what LSU can do about this. Harris's ceiling as a player appears to be higher, but Jennings doesn't fumble under-center snaps and might be a slight bit more accurate. I can't help but feel like Cam Cameron was a perfect hire for Zach Mettenberger but an awful one for Jennings and Harris. These guys simply can't make the throws Cameron is asking them to make with any level of consistency, and it's too late to overhaul the entire offensive system.
The biggest problem that the Tigers had against Mississippi State was the fact that they simply got mauled up front by both Bulldog lines. A lack of sure tackling by the back seven compounded that issue on defense terribly.
Josh Robinson's 66-yard run in the second quarter illustrates perfectly what the defense's issues were. Here is how the play set up ahead of time:
Screencap from ESPN broadcast. Watch this in motion here.
Let's take this one piece at a time. First, Dan Mullen's option-heavy run attack (and any option-heavy run attack) is based on numbers. MSU has seven guys in the core with four guys out wide. In order to adequately cover those guys outside, LSU is responding with just five guys in the box. That's spread-to-run philosophy to a T: spread out the defense to make it easier to run between the tackles. Robinson is going to be running left, so MSU actually leaves Jermauria Rasco (the guy marked with the 1) unblocked and pulls RT Justin Senior around to basically serve as a blocking fullback.
Despite the numerical advantage that Mississippi State has, this defensive alignment is not untenable. It can work with some combination of linemen beating their blocks and second level guys helping. As I said though, MSU's offensive line dominated LSU's defensive line most of the game. That was the case here, so now we look to those three second level guys.
Robinson will pop through the center of the line after going left and making a quick cut. Kendell Beckwith is the closest to the line of the three Tiger defenders, but he's shadowing the near receiver. The receiver slides over after the snap as though he's going for a bubble screen, and it pulls Beckwith away. So, safety Rickey Jefferson ends up being the first guy getting to Robinson. The pulling tackle Senior ends up partially obstructing Jefferson's path, though they don't ever make contact, and it's enough to make Jefferson hesitate. That, combined with another Robinson cut, causes Jefferson to whiff on the tackle.
Beckwith recognizes the run, but he does so too late. He whiffs a couple yards upfield from where Jefferson missed. The last guy is safety Ronald Martin, who faded back after the snap to help cover receivers running verticals on that side. He also recognizes the run, but he takes a bad angle and Robinson flies past him. Martin ends up catching Robinson from behind to save a touchdown but not before the back ran down two-thirds of the field.
To recap: the defensive line got blocked entirely, one guy misses a tackle, the next guy is late and misses a tackle, and the last guy takes a bad angle and doesn't even get a chance to miss a tackle. Almost every problem LSU had defensively against Mississippi State came down to the line getting dominated, missed tackles from the back seven, or both.
On offense, LSU couldn't get a push and therefore couldn't get a real run game going. Combine that with ineffective quarterbacking from Jennings, and that about covers everything. It really was that simple: the Tigers couldn't run, they couldn't complete enough passes for enough yards, and they couldn't figure out something else to do instead.
Big Plays, the Reprise
Despite the disparity in the final scores, LSU's lines actually had a better game against Auburn. The Bayou Bengals actually had success running on first down on the Plains, and the D-line didn't get blown off the ball all that often. That fact should provide hope for future games, particularly those like the one coming up this weekend against Florida.
That said, the defense just gives up too many big plays. All of Mississippi State's points came on drives where the Bulldogs had a gain of at least 20 yards. LSU didn't prevent MSU from scoring on such a drive until well into the fourth quarter when Mullen was just trying to run clock. Auburn had five drives with a big play, and all five resulted in points. Those Tigers also scored twice without having a big play, but Gus Malzahn's a master at grinding out drives like that.
Bottom line, LSU prevented scores from MSU and Auburn on 12 of the 14 drives in which those teams did not get a big gain. For all of the issues at quarterback, the Tigers are still tied for fifth in the SEC in turnovers lost per game. If nothing else, the offense doesn't put the defense in big holes terribly often. LSU should be able to take advantage of that fact and get a lot of stops.
Unfortunately, once you factor out cupcake opponents, LSU allows the most gains of 20+ yards in the SEC at 7.3 per game. That number should tick down after this weekend's matchup against the Jeff Driskel Experience, but every other team the Tigers will face has a competent (or better) offense. Without some changes, the Alabama game is going to be ugly.
Summing It Up
The problems on offense are likely transient provided one of Jennings or Harris grows a lot over the coming offseason. LSU has just so much youth everywhere, it can't help but get better with time. I've seen enough from Dupre and Dural to think that they will be a pretty awesome tandem next year. Fournette seems to be getting better as the season goes along and will be an absolute beast next year, if not by November.
The decline on defense is a little more troubling, particularly because the line wasn't exactly monstrous last year either. We're all used to just assuming that LSU will have a bunch of skilled big men up front, and that's not true to the normal degree. The defense is still plenty fast, as both MSU and Auburn had problems with stretch plays and plays to the perimeter. The poor angles and tackling are fixable too, though they're probably not going to get worlds better until after an offseason of focusing on them. Sometimes John Chavis just doesn't have an elite defense—take 2007 at Tennessee, for instance—but he recovers well.
In short, this feels more like a blip than a sign of long term decline. That's an encouraging assessment for 2015, but there's a lot of 2014 still left to go. LSU is not going to outscore anyone left on its schedule other than maybe Florida, which allows almost as many big plays per game as the Tigers do. But at this point, even beating Kentucky is going to be more thanks to defense than offense.
LSU had a down year in 2008, and it's having a down year right now too. The Tigers are just going to have to hold on and ride it out.