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LSU Tigers Football: Running is for Winning, Not for Its Own Sake

Les Miles wants to win more than anything else.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

There is a general idea out there that LSU runs the ball all the time because Les Miles just prefers the power running game over passing, period. While it's true that the Tigers are running 75% of the time right now, it's also true that it's a rate that is far above what Miles teams typically have. Only one of the Gary Crowton-led offenses went over 60% run, and LSU's 2012-13 teams were at 60% and 62% run, respectively.

For perspective, Georgia is at 61% run this year and was 63% last year, and South Carolina is at 60% this year. Nine of Miles's 15 teams, including his Oklahoma State days and this year, did not exceed a run rate of 60%, and Mark Richt and Steve Spurrier didn't even need to play and coach under Bo Schembechler to beat out the average Miles team in that regard.

Miles prefers to win more than he prefers to run. Given what he has this year, why wouldn't he call for runs so much of the time? And even accounting for the superiority of Leonard Fournette over Brandon Harris and the passing game, things aren't entirely as skewed as they seem.

Take last Saturday's game against Eastern Michigan. Unless you're an LSU fan, you probably didn't watch it or do much besides skim the box score. Don't worry. I broke it down for you.

A quick look at the box score shows 14 pass attempts and 50 rushes. That's a 78% run rate. Well, Harris took two sacks, which are really pass plays and not runs. EMU also committed pass interference on three pass plays that don't appear in Harris's line for the day. Really, it was 19 pass plays and 47 runs, which is a 71% run rate.

Furthermore, LSU ran the clock out with a 44-22 lead with an eight minute, 14-play drive. All of the plays on that drive were runs, and 13 showed up in the box score with the kneel down at the end not being there. That drive wasn't representative of the normal offense, as again, it was just running out the clock. Toss that drive and the Tigers' realistic play mix was 19 passes and 34 runs for a 64% run rate. That's still a clear run preference, but it's not absurdly high. It's a perfectly reasonable run rate when you have Fournette and an iffy passing game.

The iffy passing game isn't all on Harris, by the way. Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre both dropped a pass against EMU, and that's not the first game where drops have been an issue. Harris's interception in this one came when the ball popped up out of his hand after being hit while trying to throw. It basically was no different than a strip-sack, and he took two other sacks in the game. Not all of those hits were Harris's fault.

So to sum it up, we have a team with a preferred run rate well north of 60%. Its starting running back is the best player on the offense by far. The passing game isn't great thanks to an underwhelming quarterback who is deceptively good at running, a receiving corps that doesn't always live up to its recruiting rankings, and a line that's better at run blocking than pass blocking. The result is a bunch of games with pass attempts in the mid-teens, lots of runs, and a great defense backing that attack up.

In other words, 2015 LSU is 2012 Florida. The comparison isn't perfect, but I think it largely fits. The Gator defense back then was better than this Tiger defense is now, but Fournette is better than Mike Gillislee was. That UF team ran 65% of the time, and Jeff Driskel had five games where he attempted fewer than 20 passes. Harris already has four games with fewer than 20 attempts, so he'll beat out Driskel in that regard. LSU is more run heavy now than Florida was then because—believe it or not—Driskel and that passing game were actually better than what Harris and his passing game have been so far, and again: Leonard Fournette.

LSU is running so much because it would be foolish not to. Eastern Michigan put seven or eight guys in the box all game and still couldn't stop the rush. Even accounting for it being EMU, that's still tough to run on consistently. The team is undefeated, and let's not forget: that 2012 UF team finished the regular season 11-1. Even in this era of high tech passing spread offenses and such, you can still win a lot of games with little other than an effective run game and great defense.

A 10-1 regular season finish for the Tigers is on the table because I'm not sure anyone but Alabama can stop Fournette enough to pull out a win. Maybe Florida or Ole Miss can, but I wouldn't bet on that today.

When a team goes far in one direction whether to the run or pass, there's usually a good reason for it. That 2012 Florida team's 65% run rate was actually the highest for the Will Muschamp era. His other teams were 59%, 60%, and 60%, respectively. Muschamp leaned on the run that much because it won him games.

It's no different for Miles this year. You can criticize him about his offensive coordinator hires since Crowton or his recruiting and player development at quarterback. But the Tigers are lopsided towards the run not because Miles planned it that way, but because, given the realities of what he has this year, it gives him the best chance to win.