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LSU Football’s Future Rests on the Shoulders of Matt Canada

The Tigers’ new OC hopes to bring its offense into the 21st century

NCAA Football: Louisiana State Spring Game Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

The LSU Tigers fan was angry and probably a little drunk. It was after 11:00 PM at this point in Death Valley and he’d had just about enough.

Alabama safety Ronnie Harrison was greeting some of the Tide faithful who made the trip to Baton Rouge and the LSU fan knew it was his last chance to salvage something positive from the evening so he decided to throw some shade Harrison’s way.

Harrison, who’s not the most controlled player in moments of duress, simply pointed in the direction of the opposite end zone and said “Scoreboard.”

This was November 5, 2016 and it was following Alabama’s 10-0 victory over home team LSU. For Harrison, there was much to brag about since his defense just held the Tigers’ offense to 125 yards and zero points.

So it wasn’t just that Harrison was pointing out the Crimson Tide’s low-scoring victory to this Tiger fan. It was, also, a slight directed to the entire LSU community: “We know how to stop you. We’ve always known how to stop you. This game is proof of that.”

By the way, this was the first time since 2002 that LSU had been shut out at Tiger Stadium. Do your historical math and you’ll realize that Nick Saban was the Tigers’ coach at that time. The winning team? Alabama.

If any LSU fan, coach or player tells you that it’s not about beating Alabama, they aren’t aware of the conference in which their team competes.

The Problem

For every team in the SEC at this point it’s just about catching up to Nick Saban. None have gotten as close without having a game-changing quarterback than LSU.

LSU is a mirror image of Alabama. They recruit the same type of players from the same territory of the United States and they are developed in much the same way.

So what’s kept them from competing for conference titles over the last five years? A lack of offensive identity.

Most defenses could suss out what Les Miles and his maligned OC, Cam Cameron, were doing with their offensive game plan over the last four seasons. Alabama was not most defenses. LSU didn’t score more than 17 points against the Tide from 2012-2015.

The conventional wisdom was that an Alabama-LSU game was always going to be a defensive struggle, but over the last six meetings between the two, the Tide mustered enough offense to win. Their defense did what it always does against an offense it’s tailor made to stop and the offense put together miraculous final drives to either win or take games into overtime.

In the old days (2005-2010), Les Miles would rely upon trickery and derring-do to outmatch his opponents. Fake punts and kicks, double reverses on 3rd and short. Rece Davis coined the term “Mad Hatter” for Miles, because when you go for five fourth downs in a single game, you’ve got an air of lunacy about you.

That all seemed to dissipate by the time Cameron got on campus. Miles was certain that his friend’s NFL pedigree would translate well to his preferred style of offensive play. Plus, Zach Mettenberger, a gunslinger, was going to be the starter. It was foolproof.

And for those two years with Mettenberger, the offense did seem to gel, especially in 2013. They went from averaging 355 yards per game in 2011, to 374 in 2012 to an astonishing 453 in 2013. From a personnel standpoint, they had all the pieces in place those two seasons with Mettenberger throwing the ball to Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. Still, they finished 10-3 both years, second and third in the SEC West, respectively.

When those three left for the NFL in 2014, though, it was up to a completely new batch of players to continue what appeared to be a resurgence of offense in Baton Rouge.

Those players had serious expectations coming into college, too: Leonard Fournette, Ethan Pocic, Malachi Dupre, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Jennings and Harris were the two blue-chip dual threats coming out of high school with major upside. For much of 2014, they battled back and forth for the starting position, with neither really making much headway in passing the other. The dependency fully on the run game in Cameron’s final two-and-some-change seasons at LSU is what left fans frustrated with the Les Miles regime.

There is no issue with talent acquisition in Baton Rouge and one can’t even say that the Tigers weren’t bringing in capable quarterbacks. The problem was Miles and Cameron had little to no idea of how to develop them in a modern offensive setting.

This led, obviously, to Miles’ ouster in late September of last year following their last-second loss to Auburn. With him, went Cameron and, presumably, the antiquated style with which LSU played offense.

Then-interim head coach Ed Orgeron decreed that the Tigers’ offense would be the uninhibited, go-for-broke spread that the fans had been pining for since HUNH took the conference by storm. And the following month seemed to bear that out.

The first four games, LSU averaged 339 yards and 21 points per game and the next three (after Miles was fired) they averaged 536 yards and 41 points per game.

Then, they ran into Alabama.

From there, it was impressive offensive showings against Arkansas, Texas A&M and Louisville that gave LSU much-needed wins, but it was a defensive slog against Florida which ended in a loss that left Orgeron’s campaign for the permanent position in doubt.

Ultimately, LSU AD Joe Alleva went all in on Orgeron and Orgeron promised a new era of Tiger football, one that involved a dynamic offensive game plan.

The Solution

Matt Canada was Orgeron’s choice for the permanent OC position and, coming out the 2016 season, it appears to be a home run hire.

Canada just finished a one-year stint with Pat Narduzzi and the Pitt Panthers where he took an offense that did well enough under current UGA OC Jim Chaney and turned it into a monster that helped hand the eventual 2016-2017 national champs its only loss of the season.

In 2015, according to the S&P+ Ratings, the Panthers’ offense finished 46th and in 2016, Canada’s lone year with the team, they finished 3rd. If you looked at the basics, Canada took Pitt from a team that averaged 377 yards and 28 points per game to 446 yards and 41 points per game in one season.

He did this using some of the same pieces that were in place from the year before including quarterback Nathan Peterman and receivers Dontez Ford and Scott Orndoff.

Prior to Pitt, he was the OC at NC State from 2013-2015 where the offense improved from 92nd in S&P+ his first season to 40th his second to 35th in his third. While his four-year stint as the OC at Indiana (2007-2010) was less than prolific, he went to Madison in 2012 and kept Wisconsin’s offense moving after having to replace Barry Alvarez/Bret Bielema stalwart and future Badger head coach, Paul Chryst.

At his current stop, Canada has much of the same pieces that LSU had in 2016. He has quarterback Danny Etling, who could find himself in the same position as Peterman did at Pitt last season. While Leonard Fournette is gone, the Tigers’ still have Derrius Guice, arguably the best running back in the conference. Wide receiver D.J. Chark, who was LSU’s #2 leading receiver on last year’s team, also returns.

Those are three players at three skill positions with plenty of experience with whom Canada can work.

The beauty of LSU’s situation with Canada is that he’s very much a player-specific coach rather than of a particular scheme. This breakdown of his multiple offense confirms that he tailors his philosophy to the talent on his roster. And he does it using seemingly-infinite formations.

Given that he loves to substitute and run a variety of personnel groupings in a single series of downs, this means he can use Derrius Guice not only as a ground-and-pound runner, but as a decoy for bubble screens on 3rd and short. As the above article discusses, you begin to enter RPO territory, which is an aberrant concept for Tigers fans.

Lest we forget that SB Nation’s 2016 Piesman Winner Brian O’Neill was gifted this masterpiece out of Canada’s arsenal:

If you think that Canada wouldn’t be up for trying maneuvers like this against Alabama and Florida, you would be incorrect. He needs to try maneuvers like this to gain an advantage over them. This is the type of sorcery Les Miles pulled out in his mad dog days and it needs to return if LSU wants to play in Atlanta any time soon.

This is no time to be timid. Matt Canada has the pedigree, he has the experience and he’s on the hottest streak of his career. Tom Herman brought this same mentality to Urban Meyer’s offense at Ohio State in 2012. They were a smash mouth, “three yards and a cloud of dust” team under Jim Tressel/Luke Fickell and, in one year, they went 12-0 and averaged 423 yards per game from 318 in 2011.

Canada can be that guy. His willingness to try new things is exactly the type of culture that LSU needs right now. The fans, the administration, hell, even the coaches are sick of stasis. They’re tired of seeing great players used ineffectively. Canada has a phone book of schemes and misdirection plays that can be used with the talent that is already on campus.

This is the time to get after it.

The Future

It’s probably unfair to say that the Matt Canada experiment is what’s going to make or break LSU football in the years to come, but it’s hard not to feel that way when the alternative was what it was the last three seasons. Certainly, we can get on board with this making or breaking Ed Orgeron’s tenure in Baton Rouge, short as it’s been thus far.

Nick Saban yearns for what LSU offenses have done over the last decade. It’s why he gets up every morning. The game plan is low stress and he can just allow his base 3-4 to annihilate the opposition.

This is a terrific opportunity for the Tigers to finally match what’s always been a top-notch defense with an offense that sizzles, as well.

If you think about it, Dave Aranda’s 2016 defense and Matt Canada’s 2016 offense were two of the best units in college football last year. Orgeron, now, has both coordinators on the same team.

Big picture, one could legitimately see this team competing and possibly winning the West within a year.

Matt Canada looks to be the guy who can put this team over the top. And with his resumé, it may not take too long to get them there.

*Fun fact: 2017 will not be Matt Canada’s first trip to Tuscaloosa as an offensive coordinator. In 2003, his first OC gig was with Northern Illinois when a senior named P.J. Fleck was his top wide receiver. That year, the Huskies traveled to play Alabama in Mike Shula’s first season as the Tide’s head coach. Final score: NIU 19 Alabama 16.