A Disruptive Defense

In an exciting game, LSU handily beat Ole Miss in the first real test of the Orgeron Era. The contest was also the first old school Tiger Stadium game of the season, as it featured a large and lively crowd. Such home night games with a late start (8 CT) are usually good ones, and LSU hasn’t one since 1988.

And LSU’s players didn’t disappoint either, especially the peerless Leonard Fournette and the defense. Everyone knows about Leonard, a player who is at the same time mercilessly physical and vanishingly fast. What he did is deservedly the main story of the game, but for the purposes of this post, I wanted to focus on the defense.

My main interest in this was because I was concerned that Ole Miss’ capable passing game might expose one of LSU’s weaknesses. This might seem foolish to think, but LSU has at times struggled against the pass this season, and this has been especially true of Jackson and Tolliver.

But not only was my worry misplaced, it was totally rebuffed. Ole Miss’ excellent tight end, Evan Engram, was almost non-existent, and Chad Kelly, a possible first round pick, was held in check. This helped limit Ole Miss to 325 total yards and 21 points. Considering that Ole Miss scored 36 offensive points and gained 522 yards against top ranked Alabama, LSU did really well. Another, somewhat arbitrary piece of data to consider is Ole Miss’s offensive performance after their first 2 scoring drives[i]:

Number of Plays Yards Gained Result
4 24 Punt
1 Interception Interception
13 80 Field Goal
3 2 Punt
3 13 Punt
3 9 TD (Etling fumble)
3 9 Punt
3 0 Punt
3 9 Punt
5 12 Interception
3 7 Punt
4 7 Punt
8 50 End of Game

In 13 drives, Ole Miss had 8 punts, 2 turnovers, and only 5 drives with more than 3 plays. How was LSU’s defense so effective?

LSU’s Rushing Defense

To help explore what LSU’s defense did well against Ole Miss, I decided to chart some statistics for LSU’s run and pass defense. I thought it would be handy to keep track of Ole Miss’ runs, as I figured LSU might sell out on the pass, giving Hugh Freeze and company a lot of opportunities for long runs.

So to look at their rushing attack and LSU’s rush defense, I used football prospectus’ 4 categories of rushes: stuffs, 1st level runs, 2nd level runs, and 3rd level runs.

Stuffs, the first category are runs where the defense allowed 0 or even negative yards on the rush. 1st level runs are rushes that gained between 1 and 5 yards. The “stuff” and “1st level” categories are indicators of how good LSU’s front seven was and run-safety support. Generally, the line and linebackers are tasked with clogging holes, filling gaps, maintaining the edge, and making tackles around the line. The more stuffs and 1st level runs, the better LSU’s front 7 was playing.

Stuffs

0 or negative yd. gain

1st Level Runs

1-5 yd. gain[ii]

2nd Level Runs

6-10 yd. gain

3rd Level Runs

gain of more than 10 yd.

7 17 7 1

As the chart above illustrates, LSU’s rush defense was good. It’s front seven, with some safety support from Adams, was able to limit Ole Miss’ runs. Whatever Ole Miss tried, running around the edge and between the tackles, didn’t really work well. At And the Valley Shook, Seth Galina used a variety of videos to demonstrate how LSU’s defensive line, especially their defensive ends were able to stymie Ole Miss’ power running game.

A very simple synopsis is that LSU’s defensive ends were very disciplined, and resisted Ole Miss’ blocking scheme. This tampered with Ole Miss’ timing and gap creation, which forced runs to the edge where linebackers and Adams were able to make tackles. Here’s one example that Galina used to show how Arden Key forced an inside run play to the outside.

The side ways running gave fast LSU players more time to recognize what was going on, and come up and make tackles/support. One result of this was that few Ole Miss running plays were able to get to the 3rd level. In fact, their only 3rd level run was a Chad Kelly scramble, as were at least 2 of their 2nd level runs. In other words, Ole Miss had very few designed run plays that LSU did not stifle.

For the sake of comparison, here’s a chart that shows how LSU’s rushing attack did when compared to Ole Miss.

Team Stuffs (0 or negative yards) 1st Level Runs (1-5 yd. gain) 2nd Level Runs (6-10 yd. gain) 3rd Level Runs (gain of more than 10 yd.)
Ole Miss 7 17 7 1
LSU 9 12 7 5

The big difference is the 3rd level category, and that was Fournette’s three big TD runs. And before discussing the pass defense, here’s how Ole Miss’ total offense compared to Leonard Fournette’s total offense.

  Leonard Fournette Ole Miss
Total Plays (rushes + passes/receptions) 19 69
Total Yards Gained 312 325
Yards Per Play 16.42 4.71
TDs 3 3

LSU’s Pass Defense

LSU’s pass defense was perhaps even more impressive than its rush defense. As noted earlier, Ole Miss is a formidable passing team, and LSU was still able to hold them in check.

Before the game, I devised two categories, “comfortable passes” and “uncomfortable passes”. Comfortable passes were those in which Kelly wasn’t moved in the pocket, didn’t have a defender/s in his face, and made the throw in what appeared to me a comfortable way. Bootlegs and plays in which Ole Miss intentionally had Kelly moving also counted as comfortable. Generally, though, these were fairly quick throws with Kelly standing unencumbered in the pocket.

Uncomfortable passes were the opposite—plays in which LSU collapsed/penetrated the pocket, got in Kelly’s face, or made him run and throw when that was not Ole Miss’ intention. Hurries, sacks, and holds that were committed to avoid sacks/protect the passer were counted in the uncomfortable pass metric, but so were instances of lesser harassment. And it’s important to state that Kelly did just fine on many uncomfortable passes, though he did throw one pick and another pass that should have been intercepted (when LSU’s two DBs ran into each other) on such plays. It’s also important to point out that there’s a lot of subjectivity in determining what a “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” pass was, so take everything here with a few grains of salt. Some folks could use the same categories and come up with very different numbers, so this ain’t a science.

A third category emerged during the game—positive scrambles. These were plays in which it appeared LSU had moved Kelly out of the pocket and disrupted Ole Miss’ passing play, but Kelly gained yards on a rush. I couldn’t tell on several occasions if some of these plays were intentional draw plays for Kelly or were scrambles, so I just lumped them into their own category.

Comfortable Passes Uncomfortable Passes Positive Scrambles
27 12 5

As the chart above shows, Kelly was fairly comfortable. This is somewhat misleading, though, as LSU only ever rushed 5 players 5 times according to the Advocate’s Ross Dellenger. Galina noted that LSU only blitzed once. There may be different counting systems these guys used to determine what a blitz/rush was, but the theme is clear—LSU rushed only 4 players on most plays still achieved a degree of consistent pressure on a quick passing offense. Due to this efficient pass rush, LSU was able to have more players covering receivers or spying on Kelly.

But what is really interesting about LSU’s pass defense and defense in general is Aranda’s use of multiple fronts. This is something Dellenger mentioned, as he noted that sometimes Arden Key would be used to rush the passer, but other times Key would drop back. Aranda did the same thing with other players too, which creates a kind of uncertainty about who on the defensive is doing what.

But perhaps the most deceptive aspect of Aranda’s defense is that some of the players seem to read certain cues from the offense, and based on what they see the offensive players do, they alter their behavior. Sometimes, they’ll drop in coverage very quickly if screen pass/pass in the flat appears evident based on the offensive line’s behaviors. Other times, the defensive linemen avoided being down blocked by reading their would-be-blockers. This is all done very quickly, so an what may have seemed as an opportunity for the offense very quickly disappears.

None of this is really new, as defenders are trained to react to the offense. It just seems that LSU has become much better at it than they have been in the past. The result is that the offense must execute very cleanly, which is a difficult standard to maintain for an entire game. This is something Ole Miss found out the hard way.

Extra Points

  • For those with a lot of time, Arranda designed a few presentations that have some slides how defenders can read offensive players’ cues. Here’s one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] All data per ESPN box score http://www.espn.com/college-football/playbyplay?gameId=400869032

 

[ii] Ole Miss had 3 first level runs that were excluded from this tally—a 3rd and short, a goal line run, and a 2 point conversion run. All of these were left out because the offense only needed a couple of yards (1-5), so it wouldn’t be fair to give LSU’s defense credit for holding them to a small gain.

Winning Big with Big Plays

 

Making History

Against Southern Miss, LSU ran 42 plays, the fewest number they had run in a game since 1963.[i] Additionally, it was LSU’s first win with fewer than 25 rushing plays since 1949, and their shortest amount of possession in a victory since beating Bama in 1984. One might think that because of all of these low points, that the game was close. Yet, LSU scored 45 points and won by 35. How did this happen?

Southern Miss’ Game Plan

Southern Miss must have noticed that Missouri’s hurry-up offense allowed LSU to have the ball for over 42 minutes. In this time, LSU ran 82 plays and got 30 first downs. There’s some mystique to the idea of running 80 plays, with many coaches claiming that running 80 plays equals certain victory. That’s probably not true, but if you run 80 plays or more, you’re likely going to win.

Southern Miss didn’t want LSU to run so many plays and have so much possession, so they slowed down their offense. Southern Miss relied on its accurate quarterback and its tall receivers to run a kind of short-yardage, West Coast-type attack that resulted in completing 25 of 37 passes. Miss was balanced too, running the ball 36 times with their small, but solid running back. All of this resulted in controlling the clock for 37:59, limiting LSU’s opportunities. But while Southern Miss executed their ball control game plan well, they still lost in spectacular fashion.

Big Plays

LSU’s big win was largely due to their many big plays. LSU had 8 plays that gained 20 yards or more. I’ve listed them all below, including one 19 yard play—D.J. Shark’s TD run.

Player Gain
DeSean Smith 25 yd.
DeSean Smith 31 yd.
Darrius Guice 61 yd.—TD
Darrius Guice 20 yd.—TD
D.J. Chark 19 yd.—TD
D.J. Chark 80 yd.—TD
Malachi Dupre 63 yd.—TD
Darrius Guice 21 yd.
Malachi Dupre 23 yd.—TD

There are 9 total plays here for a combined 343 yards, 74.73% of LSU’s total yards. Another way to think about that is that roughly 1/5th of LSU’s plays resulted in about 3/4th of LSU’s offensive yards. There were also 3 “super big” plays—a 61 yard run, a 63 yard reception, and an 80 yard reception. Combined, these three plays gained 224 yards, or 48.80% of LSU’s total offensive yards.

All of these big offensive plays also meant that LSU didn’t have long drives, and didn’t have many plays in the Red Zone. In fact, LSU ran only two plays inside the Red Zone—one from the 20 and one from the 19. Both of those plays resulted in TDs. So despite running only 2 Red Zone plays and running 0 plays inside Southern Miss’ 15 yard line, LSU managed to score 45 points.

Does this Mean Anything?

Southern Miss is a solid team. Last year, they won their division in Conference USA, had 10 players who were first or second team all-conference, and were competitive against Washington in their bowl game.[ii] This year, they suffered a bad loss to UTSA, but did beat Kentucky at Kentucky. Southern Miss isn’t Bama, but their no slouches.

Badly beating a solid mid-major team is what good teams do, so LSU’s win is heartening. LSU’s big scoring plays were very welcome. Such plays shorten drives, which is bad for time of possession, but good because the shorter a drive, the less likely a turnover. The more plays on a drive, the more likely one will eventually result in a turnover.

Hopefully LSU can get more big plays in their next five games—Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas A&M. More importantly, though, these games will go a long way in determining if Coach O can hold onto the job.

 

 

 

 

[i] These first paragraph stats are courtesy of Todd Politz’s twitter handle, a good resource for interesting LSU stats and history.

[ii] Phil Steele’s 2016 College Football Preview

Winning Big with Long Drives

LSU’s offense was notably better against Missouri than it had been in the recent past. According to Todd Politz’s twitter, the Athletics’ Dept. Director of Digital Media, the football team achieved the following benchmarks:

  • 7th most yards ever in a game
  • Highest time of possession on record (since 1978)
  • 2nd most rushing yards in a recorded SEC game

This is pretty remarkable considering that LSU has been playing football for decades, including SEC football since the 1930s.

Another way to look at this is to look at the drive lengths, specifically what I call long drives. I defined “long drives” as drives of 40 yards or more, and then counted all such drives that LSU has had this season against FBS opponents (so everyone but Jacksonville State).

I set the number at 40 yards for a few reasons: (1) There’s a decent chance that a 40-yard drive will get a team into field goal range, (2) LSU’s offense hasn’t been great this year, so I didn’t want to set the threshold at 50-yards as there might not have been enough of those drives get a decent sample size, and (3) I have to set a threshold somewhere, and 40 seemed fine.

So first, let’s look at LSU’s two losses, against Wisconsin and Auburn. The tables below list all of the “long drives”, including their drive length, number of plays, result, and time of possession.[i]

Wisconsin Game

Drive Length Number of Plays Result Time of Possession
49 yards 7 Punt 3:49
41 yards 2 TD 0:18
40 yards 6 Interception 2:50

Auburn Game

Drive Length Number of Plays Result Time of Possession
75 yards 6 TD 3:45
41 yards 7 Missed FG 4;02
63 yards 8 Field Goal 4:07
43 yards 3 Fumble 1:03
60 yards 13 End of Game (overturned TD play) 2:56

So, clearly, LSU’s offense was terrible against Wisconsin, with only 1 long drive resulting in points. Against Auburn, it was better, and even recorded 3 drives of more than 60 yards. Unfortunately, though, 3 of LSU’s 5 long drives against Auburn resulted in 0 points—a missed field goal, a fumble, and the infamous game-winning-not-game-winning play. In the Auburn game, LSU only scored 10 points on their 5 long drives.

Now the first win—Mississippi State.

Mississippi State Game

Drive Length Number of Plays Result Time of Possession
82 yards 11 TD 5:53
64 yards 7 TD 2:10
46 yards 7 TD 2:51
68 yards 12 FG 3:24
65 yards 13 Fumble 7:01

This is much better. 4 drives of more than 60 yards, and 4 drives that ended in points. Not great, but good enough to win the game.

And here’s the Missouri game.

 Missouri Game

Drive Length Number of Plays Result Time of Possession
84 yards 9 TD 5:13
63 yards 10 Turnover on downs 5:24
89 yards 13 TD 6:01
93 yards 5 TD 2:08
75 yards 8 TD 3:51
41 yards 8 Missed FG 4:01
86 yards 10 TD 5:46
75 yards 4 TD 1:39

LSU had 8 long drives in the Missouri game. For comparison, before the Missouri game, LSU had 13 long drives against FBS opponents. In their losses, LSU had 8 combined long drives (3 against Wisconsin, 5 against Auburn). The Missouri game was an incredible outlier in the number of long drives LSU maintained, and it occurred at the same time the offensive play calling changed. This is probably not a coincidence.

Another way to make this point is to look at the top ten longest drives of LSU’s season thus far. Here’s a chart that does that, and notice how frequently Missouri appears as the opponent.

Longest Drive Against FBS Opponents

Drive Length Opponent
93 yards Missouri
89 yards Missouri
86 yards Missouri
84 yards Missouri
82 yards Mississippi State
75 yards Missouri
75 yards Missouri
75 yards Auburn
68 yards Mississippi State
65 yards Mississippi State

6 out of the top 10, including the top 4, are drives against Missouri.

What about Last Year?

To provide another point of comparison, I compiled last year’s last 4 games (Texas Tech was excluded as it was a Bowl Game). These games were of course Cam Cameron/Les Miles games. Again, notice that only two of the games had more than 3 long drives (Texas A&M and Ole Miss), and that many long drives failed to result in points.

Last year’s last 4 games (excluding Texas Tech)

Opponent Drive Length Number of Plays Result Time of Possession
Alabama 75 yards 6 TD 2:39
  45 yards 6 Field Goal 1:26
  43 yards 4 Punt 0:58
 
 
Arkansas 92 yards 9 TD 3:31
  67 yards 8 TD 3:50
  59 yards 7 Interception 1:21
 
 
Ole Miss 73 yards 8 Missed Field Goal 3:48
  75 yards 6 TD 2:10
  54 yards 6 Fumble 2:06
  80 yards 15 Fumble 4:52
  40 yards 5 End of Game 0:52
 
 
Texas A&M 44 yards 9 Field Goal 3:29
  70 yards 13 Missed Field Goal 6:40
  54 yards 11 Missed Field Goal 2:25
  63 yards 3 TD 1:21
  80 yards 13 TD 8:05

What Changed?

When you consider 2015’s last 4 games and this season’s first 3 FBS games, it is clear that the Cameron/Miles regime had a tough time sustaining drives. So what changed?

There are lots of different ways to detail how LSU achieved such success against Missouri: Missouri is bad, LSU was at home, the team was clearly hyped for the game, they got lucky, etc. One thing, though, was that LSU used a new offense, one that used some formations more than it had in the past.

Ross Dellenger’s film room article reviewed a number of offensive plays, examining how LSU was so successful. One piece of data he provided was LSU’s use of formations intended to spread out Missouri, which of course makes it easier to run up the middle.

Dellenger noted that in the first 3 quarters, LSU had 3 or 4 wide receivers on 26 plays, I-formation with mostly 2 receivers on 20 plays, and was in Ace formation (2 TEs, 2 WRs, 1 RB) 19 times.

Formation Number of Plays Run in Quarters 1-3
3 or 4 Wide Sets 26
I-Form. w/ “mostly 2” receivers 20
Ace Form. 19

LSU passed more in these sets, which spread the defense out. Then, Guice had an easier time running up the middle. That’s an oversimplification of what happened, but that’s the general ideal.

In addition to this, radio host Charles Hanagriff reported on Monday’s Sports Today show that David Folse, presumably a friend/spotter of Hanagriff’s, counted 24 first down plays—14 were pass, 10 run. Additionally, Folse observed that LSU had the play in, and was ready to run it with 20-23 seconds left on the play clock. Think about those two stats—the balance on first down and the extra time in the play clock that could be used to change out of plays. When was the last time LSU had those luxuries?

All of this—the diversity of offensive looks, the balance on first down, getting plays in on time, the large number of wide receivers on the field consistently, etc—stands in contrast to what was happening before it. It is reasonable to think that these new trends helped make those long drives possible, and hopefully such trends will continue. But one variable will be changing—the defenses only get more challenging from here on out.

Coach O Observations

[i] All stats on offensive drives are from ESPN box scores

Les Miles’ One Safe Way

 

After 2600 years, Aesop’s Fables still provide wisdom and valuable insight into the human condition, and also for something as relatively trivial as SEC football. Countless pieces have been written in the days since Les Miles was fired by LSU. He’s been praised for his wacky charm, his humanitarianism, his daring play calls in high-leverage situations, and yes, his .770 winning percentage.

What hasn’t been discussed adequately, at least in my mind, was the nature of Les Miles as an offensive strategist. What characteristics and habits did Miles possess that led to his overall success? Were they also his downfall? That’s where Aesop’s Fables come in handy.

One of the most widely-cited fables is about a fox and a cat (or, alternatively, a fox and a hedgehog). The fox brags that he can escape from his enemies in a wide variety of ways. The cat replies that he has just one way to escape. When hounds descend upon them, the cat goes his usual route and climbs up a tree to safety. The fox, meanwhile, can’t decide which of his modes of escape to use, and his hesitation results in his death. The lesson we’re supposed to take from this: “Better one safe way than a hundred on which you cannot reckon.”

After watching Les Miles coach at LSU for 12 seasons, particularly the last few years in which the offense has struggled so mightily, it’s safe to conclude that Les Miles is the cat from the fable. Like the cat climbing the tree, the “one safe way” of playing offense according to Les Miles is the power running game. Whether lined up in the pistol or I-Formation, whether the quarterback was a threat to run or a plodding pocket passer, the run game was the centerpiece of the Miles offense through thick and thin. To his credit, this strategy racked up a lot of wins, put dozens of players in the NFL, and grew the LSU football program into the juggernaut it is today. He is by any measure the most successful LSU football coach in history. As the fable teaches us, the One Safe Way has tremendous value.

The fable demonstrates that having a mastered, defined strategy—not stubbornness—is a virtue. In the context of football, that means it doesn’t matter if your offense is the power running game or the air raid or the triple option. You’ll be better off picking a strategy and mastering it rather than trying to continually make ad hoc choices like the fox. In that regard it is similar to the old Wall Street adage, “Bears make money, bulls make money, but pigs get slaughtered.”

What the fable doesn’t envision, and what Les Miles seemingly didn’t recognize in the latter years of his LSU tenure, is that circumstances change both across seasons and within them, and thus your One Safe Way might need to change with them. Imagine if, instead of hounds, the cat in the fable had one day been chased by a tree-climbing bear.[1] The cat’s One Safe Way would be obsolete. It would benefit greatly from having another escape route, but it doesn’t have one. That, in a nutshell, is what happened to the LSU offense under Les Miles.

A slow, steady, grind-it-out style works against the lesser powers of college football (see: 2015 Texas Bowl), and it resulted in a lot of victories during the Les Miles years. But as talent became more evenly distributed across the conference, defensive schemes adapted, and teams geared up to stop the run, the Les Miles One Safe Way was shown to be obsolete. This is evidenced by performances like the embarrassing 2011 National Championship game (0 points; 92 total yards of offense, 2 turnovers), the 2014 drubbing at the hands of Arkansas (0 points; 123 total yards of offense, 1 turnover), or this year’s season opener against Wisconsin (7 points; 257 total yards of offense, 3 turnovers). All those performances came against teams that were well-suited from both a scheme and personnel standpoint to stop the power running game. In other words, they were tree-climbing bears. And yet Les Miles trudged on, running the same offense, believing to the end that his way was best no matter the opponent.

Whoever the next LSU coach turns out to be, let’s hope he doesn’t overlearn the lesson of the Fox and the Cat. Being the cat has its advantages, but college football is an ever-changing landscape, and because of that it pays to be more foxlike. Nick Saban, Bob Stoops, and Gary Patterson all understand this, and have changed their offenses over their coaching tenures. They all still have jobs.

Before embarking on his next coaching venture, Les Miles would be wise to read the fable about the two goats. The lesson from that one? “It is better to yield than to come to misfortune through stubbornness.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] They exist: http://imgur.com/gallery/lEwhIi0

We All Know Why

 

Someone I trust who was close to LSU’s athletic administration told me this story: Near the end of the 2007 national title game, LSU was soundly beating Ohio State. Fans started to celebrate and revel. One area of the Superdome seating was occupied by many members of LSU’s administration, including one individual from the athletics office. The athletics office person was drunk, and while everyone else was cheering this individual yelled out: “Don’t you get it! Now we’re going to be stuck with this guy forever!”

It wasn’t quite forever, but a decade is a long time. Now, though, we all know why Les was fired. Time management, quarterbacks, play calling, failing to adapt to new offensive schemes/methods, etc. It was the offense. This resulted in a poor record against SEC teams, especially against SEC West teams.

To review this, I aggregated two simple charts, one looking at LSU’s wins against SEC West teams and one looking at the number of offensive TDs LSU scored in those same games. The charts only feature the 2014-2016 seasons, as those were the post-Mettenberger seasons when Miles struggled the most.[i]

LSU wins and losses against SEC West Teams

SEC West Opponent 2016 2015 2014
Alabama TBD L L
Arkansas TBD L L
Auburn L W L
Ole Miss TBD L W
Mississippi State W W L
Texas A&M TBD W W
Overall 1-1 3-3 2-4
All years combined 6-8    

As of now, LSU has only beaten 2 SEC West teams twice in the past 3 years—Texas A&M and Mississippi State. Ole Miss could be added to that list, depending on how this year’s game goes. LSU has lost twice in a row to Arkansas, and hasn’t beaten Alabama since 2011. Auburn has also beaten LSU twice in the last three games. Overall, LSU was 6 and 8 against SEC West foes in the last 14 games of the Miles’ Era.

One reason LSU was so bad in these games was because their offense was terrible. There are many ways to explore this ineptitude, but one of the simplest ways is to count the number of offensive touchdowns LSU scored. The chart below presents this data for the same 2014-2016 period.

Number of Offensive TDs Against SEC West Opponents

SEC West Opponent 2016 2015 2014
Alabama TBD 2 1
Arkansas TBD 2 0
Auburn 1 6 1
Ole Miss TBD 2 1
Mississippi State 3 3 3
Texas A&M TBD 2 2
Total 4 17 8
Average offensive TDs per game 2.00 2.83 1.33

All of these data are quite bad. Averaging under 2 offensive touchdowns in 2014 helped contribute to one of Mile’s worst seasons. Averaging 2.83 was better, but without that 6 touchdown game against Auburn, LSU’s 2015 offense wasn’t too good either. We all know about this year’s struggles against FBS teams, 0 offensive touchdowns against Wisconsin, 1 against Auburn, and 3 against Mississippi State.

As a way of comparison, here’s Arkansas’s TD data for the same time period.

Arkansas

SEC West Opponent 2016 2015 2014
Alabama TBD 2 2
Auburn TBD 3 (did not count OT TDs in this game or in Ole Miss game) 3
LSU TBD 3 2
Ole Miss TBD 6 2
Mississippi State TBD 7 1
Texas A&M 3 3 4
Total TBD 24 14
Average offensive TDs per game 3.00 4.00 2.33

Clearly, Arkansas has done better than LSU over the past two and one third seasons. What makes this noteworthy is that (1) Arkansas runs an offense that isn’t too different from LSU’s and (2) they run it with inferior talent. It’s not like Arkansas runs the spread like Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the hurry up like Texas A&M and Auburn, or has supreme talent like Alabama. They’re fairly similar to LSU, or at least as similar as any SEC West team is. And yet, they’re more successful.

These struggles happened despite the fact that over this period LSU has put many players into the NFL, and has recruited at an incredibly high level.

The chart below lists the number of current alumni in the NFL (as of early September 2016). This data was drawn from an NCAA article that listed the top fifty schools for putting college football players into the pros.

Team Number of Current NFL Players
Alabama 43
LSU 42
Auburn 31
Texas A&M 22
Arkansas 22

LSU not only has more players currently in the NFL than Arkansas, they have about as many pros as Arkansas and Texas A&M combined.

This excellence is largely the result of recruiting. Again, LSU has done very well compared to the rest of the SEC West. Here is a breakdown of every SEC West teams recruiting ranking from 2013-2015. The 2013 players would’ve played on the 2014 team, so I’ve included that year in the chart.

Recruiting rankings from 24/7 Recruiting Rankings (2013-2015)

SEC West Team Year Rank
Alabama 2013 1
  2014 1
  2015 2
     
Auburn 2013 10
  2014 5
  2015 6
     
Arkansas 2013 24
  2014 28
  2015 21
     
LSU 2013 5
  2014 3
  2015 4
     
Mississippi State 2013 23
  2014 34
  2015 18
     
Ole Miss 2013 4
  2014 14
  2015 15
     
Texas A&M 2013 8
  2014 6
  2015 12

Here’s the same schools’ average recruiting rank over that same 3 year period.

Team National Average Rank
Alabama 1.33
LSU 4.00
Auburn 7.00
Texas A&M 8.67
Ole Miss 11.00
Arkansas 24.33
Mississippi State 25.00

It’s amazing that every team in the West averages in the top 25 over a 3 year span. What’s also amazing is how well Alabama has recruited. But, LSU has done very well too, averaging a rank of 4.00 over the 3 time frame.

And yet, despite all of those talented recruits and future NFL players, LSU has performed poorly against its SEC West rivals, especially on offense. It has struggled to score, and has recently struggled to consistently beat many of its less talented divisional opponents. When you have some of the best players, much is expected. And when you have the highest paid staff, are paid millions of dollars, and have countless other resources at your disposal, much should be expected.

Les was a great coach, but he was no longer helping the program. It may have taken a decade, but Les’ time finally came. LSU is forever for alumni and fans, not for coaches.

[i] All data on wins and TDs was collected from CollegeFootballReference; Recruiting data was from 24/7; Players in the NFL data was from the NCAA

Les’ Last Game

Miles’ firing is obviously more important than the loss to Auburn. With that said, I briefly reviewed some features of the Auburn loss, and will write something more substantial on Miles later.

Schematic Failures

The offense was bad again. This was so despite excellent rushing stats, including 6.9 yards per carry and 3 rushes that resulted in 35 yards or more. It was mostly on the passing game, again, with Etling playing his worst game yet for LSU. Though, the primary culprit may have been the offensive line, which was terrible. Etling rarely had time to set his feet, let routes fully develop, and keep his eyes downfield. Weathersby didn’t make the trip to Auburn, and Teuhema is probably still fighting through injury. Pocic played poorly as well. But still, this is the second time in four games that the offensive line has been soundly beaten (Wisconsin being the first).

Another contribution to the failure was the game plan/play calling. It’s always unclear what pass play was called, and often what happens was the back-up plan. Etling might throw it to a tight end, but that may have been a check down. Watching the games on TV prevents direct observation of receivers’ routes, which could help decipher what is actually going on.

With that limitation in mind, I think a fundamental problem with ex-coordinator Cam Cameron’s offense was his strict adherence to some features of the Air Coryell offense. Air Coryell is a version of the West Coast Offense that emphasizes attacking the entire field, forcing the defense to defend the entire field. The scheme is named after Don Coryell who made the offensive style famous while coaching the Chargers and NFL Hall of famers Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, and Kellen Winslow.

To force defenses to defend the entire field, the Air Coryell has several principles, some of which include:

  1. Quarterbacks need a big arm so they can stretch the field vertically.
  2. You need at least a couple of fast receivers to stretch the field vertically.
  3. The offensive line needs to be good, to buy the QB time to stretch the field vertically and open up running lanes.
  4. The running back needs to be pretty good at pass protection and obviously running.
  5. Slot receivers and tight ends will need to catch short passes, like slant and drag routes.

So, the defense needs to defend the deep part of the field (3rd level), the mid part of the field (2nd level), and the line of scrimmage part of the field (1st level).

This may all seem kind of basic–have a lot of good players attack lots of parts of the field. But at the time of Coryell the heavy passing element was somewhat new, especially using the tight end to catch a large number of balls. And in principle, it’s a good philosophy and approach and has served as the basis for many NFL offenses. In practice, though, a team needs a lot of talent to effectively implement this model. If the QB, O-line, RB, TE, or WRs are significantly weak, that allows the defense to cheat, and no longer have to defend the entire field.

With Etling, LSU has used more Coryell principles than with Harris, but one strategy they’ve used all year is to stretch the field vertically with those long pass plays. The problem with this has been (a) It appears that Etling’s arm is a little weak to be making those deep throws with the necessary velocity, (b) Harris has the strength, but is too inaccurate for those throws, (c) Dupre has played poorly and not caught some deep passes, and (d) the offensive line has not provided adequate time. Consequently, a big cornerstone of LSU’s offense is not very effective.

The chart below has the number of incompletions and sacks in the Auburn game. Some of these occurred on high difficulty, vertical pass plays. Additionally, I tallied the number of run and pass plays that gained 0 or negative yards, and the number of offensive penalties.[i]

Negative Plays   Total Yards
Incompletions 12 0
Sacks 3 -17
Turnovers 1
Pass or run play with 0 or negative gain 5 -9
Offensive Penalties 3 -30
Total 24 -56

What’s interesting, is if you add up all of the “negative plays”, you got 21. Penalties are of course excluded as they aren’t plays, but are pre-snap infractions or negate an occurred play. If you take the 21 and divided it by 59 (the total number of offensive plays for LSU), you get .3559, or about 36%. Which means that 36% of LSU plays got 0, negative yards, or a turnover. That’s more than 1 out of every 3 plays.

There’s obviously more at work here than the lack of a successful vertical passing game. But, I think that that’s a part of it. Modern spread offenses have realized how hard it is to consistently have success stretching the defense vertically. To counter this, they take their players, spread them all across the line of scrimmage from sideline to sideline, stretching the defense horizontally. This creates many one-on-one matches where a defender or two doesn’t have safety support as there are only a few safeties available and many receivers. What results is little vertical security. So, a defender making a mistake, like failing to jump a route or failing to tackle, can result in massive gains and scores, as the safety coverage is elsewhere. This can easily happen when the offense has large and fast receivers, like Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell. If the defense is successful, the offense can still get a short gain on a more easily completed pass than a deep ball. So even when the spread’s vertical threat fails, it still has an opportunity to gain yards, unlike LSU’s over-reliance on deep passing and play action that can very often result in the “negative plays” catalogued in the table above.

Defense

 Passing Failure

The Auburn game continued the disturbing trend of bad LSU pass defense. Auburn averaged 9.0 yards per pass attempt, almost a guaranteed first down every time they threw. As a way of comparison, here’s how Auburn’s passing attack did against their other opponents.

Auburn Opponent Auburn’s Passing Yards-Per Attempt
Clemson 5.8
Arkansas State 10.6
Texas A&M 4.7
LSU 9.0

By this metric, LSU’s pass defense was closer to Arkansas State’s than to Clemson’s. Of course, there are limitations, like Arden Key’s sack-fumble which doesn’t show up in the passing data.

But while LSU’s pass defense did poorly, their red zone defense was exceptional, keeping Auburn out of the red zone entirely. This was highlighted by a goal line stand that stopped Auburn on third and fourth down. This stand reminded me of LSU’s game-winning goal line stand against Mississippi State.

I thought that Auburn’s field goals and that goal line stand were interesting, and wanted to see just how well LSU’s defense did inside the red zone. Here, red zone was defined as all Auburn offensive plays inside the 20, including the 20. Outside the red zone were all of the plays not inside the 20.

LSU’s defense inside and outside of the red zone.

Inside/Outside Red Zone Total Yards Allowed Total Plays Yards Per Play
Outside 358 58 6.17
Inside 30 17 1.77

As was the case with the negative play data, a couple of things stand out here. First, Auburn had a ton of plays inside the red zone—17. That’s almost 30% of their total plays (and there were several plays that Auburn ran from the 21 yard line). Yet, they consistently did poorly on those plays, averaging less than 2 yards per play. Outside of the red zone, LSU’s defense was less stout, allowing 6.17 yards per play.

I have no definitive reasons as to why this is, though I have two theories. One is that LSU’s pass defense is bad or at least not great. Inside the red zone there’s less room to stretch the field with the pass, so for some reason that helps LSU’s pass defense. While this idea is purely guesswork, the second theory seems more likely—Auburn’s quarterback, Sean White, isn’t good at directing Malzahn run-heavy offense. Gus’ last effective quarterback was Nick Marshall, who played for Auburn in 2013 and 204. Marshall rushed for 46 and 119 yards against LSU in his two games. White rushed for -9 yards against LSU. For a more complete picture, compare Sean White’s yards per rush with Nick Marshall’s.

Auburn Quarterback Year 1: Whole year average yards per rush Year 2:Whole year average yards per rush
Nick Marshall 6.2 (2013) 5.2 (2014)
Sean White 1.2 (2015) 2.5 (2016)

Somehow, White’s issues running Gus’ offense may show up more prominently in the red zone.

We won’t see Auburn for another year, so there’s plenty of time to think about White and Gus. And there’s plenty of time to continue to watch the pass defense. For now, though, there is one certainty–the next time these teams play, LSU will have a new coach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] All states were taken from ESPN’s box score, except the data used to compare Nick Marshall and Sean White—that was drawn from College Football Reference. Information on the Air Coryell was obtained from this book.

A New Mississippi State and an Underperforming Defense?

 

This year, the Mississippi State game was very familiar and unfamiliar. It was familiar because it was just like last season’s game, when State was down early, came back late, almost won, but missed a last second field goal. It was also familiar because it was similar to the 2014 game, except the roles were reversed this time. Then, Dak Prescott and State were winning handily, until LSU scored 19 points in the fourth quarter. State still won by intercepting Brandon Harris’ last second Hail Mary, but the final score was close—34-29.[1]

What was unfamiliar about the Mississippi State game this year was State’s offensive ineptitude. In 2014 the Dak Prescott-led team gashed LSU for 570 yards, almost 150 more yards than LSU gained in the same game. In 2015 Prescott’s team was less successful, but still gained 378 yards, about 40 more than LSU. In 2016 Mississippi State only gained 270 yards.

Another way to look at this is in large or big plays. I defined “big plays” as plays in which at least 10 yards were gained. So basically, any offensive play that gained between 10 and 99 yards is a “big play”. This is of course a limited framework, as a team could have no plays of at least 10 yards, but they could still average 8.5 yards a play and gain 500 yards. But still, totaling the number of big plays offers a perspective on how effective State has been against LSU over the past 3 years.

Below, I’ve compiled such plays, dividing them into “Big Pass Plays” and “Big Run Plays”. Then, for each game I divided State’s total number of big plays by the total number of plays they ran. So in 2014, State had 8 big pass plays and 8 big run plays, for a total of 16 big plays out of the 73 total plays from scrimmage. 16 divided by 73 is about .22, meaning that 22% of State’s plays went for at least 10 yards. In 2014 if State ran 5 plays, one of those plays was going for 10 yards or more.

Mississippi State Game Big Pass Plays

 

Big Run Plays Percentage of plays that were Big Plays (10+ yards)
2014 8 8 16 of 73 plays for

22.0%

2015 17 1 18 of 61 plays for

29.5%

2016 8 1 9 of 64 plays for

14.1%

State did very well in 2015 as well, with 18 total big plays accounting for 29.5% of all of their plays. 3 of every 10 plays they ran went for 10 or more yards. What’s interesting is that State went from a balanced big play team in 2014 to an unbalanced big play team in 2015 and 2016. Both the 2015 and 2016 teams had only 1 big run play, whereas the 2014 team had 8 big run plays.

On this big play measure, the 2016 Mississippi State team was significantly worse than its predecessors, having only 9 total big plays accounting for 14.1% of all plays.

I made an additional chart showing how many plays State had that went for 20 yards or more.

Mississippi State Games Percentage of plays 20 yds +
2014 10 of 73 plays for

13.6%

2015 2 of 61 plays for

3.3%

2016 5 of 64 plays for

7.8%

Again, that 2014 game stands out, with State having 10 plays that gained at least 20 yards. This included a 66-yard Josh Robinson run, a 44-yard Prescott pass, a 56-yard Prescott run, and a 74-yard Prescott pass. In my memory, that 2014 game stands out as one of the worst beatings an LSU defense has had in the past ten years, and these data confirm it. The 2015 and 2016 State teams were far less explosive against LSU. This past Saturday, there were only 5 plays that went for more than 20 yards.

LSU’s 2016 Defense and Big Plays

While many are commenting on the new found liveliness of LSU’s offense, I think there should be some concern over the defense. Despite posting its best effort against State in the past three years, it clearly has some vulnerabilities on these big plays (again, plays of at least 10 yards). I noticed a lot of these against Wisconsin, and Jacksonville State had a few major plays as well. Below, I’ve added up all of our opponents’ big plays this season, and again divided them into run and pass. I’ve excluded what I refer to as “garbage time” plays. Garbage time refers to a period in the game in which the game is effectively over, but they’re still playing. I ignored scenarios when the defense was on the field, has a big 4th quarter lead, and then allows a 50-yard play.

I employed Football Outsiders’ “official” garbage time definition to maintain some level of consistency:

The criteria for “garbage time” are as follows: a game is not within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, 21 points in the third quarter, or 16 points in the fourth quarter.

According to this definition, only the Jacksonville State game included garbage time (parts of the 3rd and all of the 4th quarter). I excluded JSU’s big plays from this quarter.

Here are the big plays that LSU’s defense has allowed in 2016.

Breakdown of run/pass that are 10+ yards (non-garbage time)

Game Big Run Plays Big Pass Plays
Wisconsin 4 12
Jacksonville State 3 4
Mississippi State 1 8
Total 8 24

Clearly, LSU is more vulnerable to giving up the big pass play than the big run play, and this makes sense. Passing tends to result in more feast or famine scenarios—incompletions are 0 yards, whereas completions can result in big gains. Most defenses probably give up more big pass plays than big run plays.

What’s troubling, though, is that an opponent has a 28.92% chance of getting at least 10 yards on a pass. Only 5.72% of run plays had such potential. So, if an opposing team passes it 30 times in a game, they would get about 8 plays that resulted in at least 10 yards. In part because of these big plays, opposing teams have averaged 7.11 yards per pass attempt against LSU (2.93 per rush attempt). If you include the garbage time pass plays, LSU’s defense allows 6.8 passing yards per play, 61st in the country.

When you combine all pass and run plays (including garbage time), the defense allows an average of 4.2 yards per play, 15th in the country. It would appear that the pass defense might be weaker than the run defense. More troubling is that LSU’s pass defense has struggled against two, essentially first year quarterbacks (Houston and Fitzgerald), a backup (Damian Williams—who had more big passing plays than Fitzgerald), and an FCS, option-read quarterback who barely completed 50% of his passes against Coastal Carolina (Jenkins).

Why?

The most probable reason that LSU is struggling is that this is just a small sample size. There have only been three games, and it’s unclear how much LSU’s defense showed against Jacksonville State. The defense was on the field for a long time against Wisconsin and in the second half of the Mississippi State game. Aranda also had them line up in a 4-3 for much of the State game, probably in an effort to deter the run and force inexperienced quarterbacks to throw more (though LSU was often in nickel against State). All of this creates a lot of noise around the data, making definite conclusions foolish.

Lastly, while some defensive players have had bad games, like Tolliver this past weekend against State, the pass defense has played very well on some occasions. They’ve recorded several interceptions, including one in the end zone and a pick-six. They’ve also had a number of timely sacks, including one to end the Mississippi State game (sacks count as a run play in college football, so those negative yards don’t show up in the yards-per-pass-attempt statistic, though that stat wouldn’t be changed much if such negative yards were included). It is probable that as the season progresses, LSU’s defense will become more experienced and more used to Aranda’s style. One result will hopefully be a decline in big pass plays. This is an especially reasonable expectation given the passing abilities of Auburn. But for now, the defense’s susceptibility to the big pass play is a trend worth watching.

Random Thoughts

  • When you watch Kendell Beckwith play, keep in mind that he’s a cowboy and horse whisperer. Ross Dellenger originally reported this in the Advocate, but the story was picked up by Black Reins—a publication that describes itself as the “Premier Publication for Black Cowboys”. Here’s Kendell with two of his family’s horses, Coco Chanel and Vicki Marie, presumably named for the fashion designers. And another photo of Kendell working with Rambo and Rozay, his “boys”. This video provides more background. 

 

  

[1] All data was either from ESPN box scores or calculated using such box score data

Hope-then-Nope QBs

 

It’s another fall Saturday, and an LSU offense loaded with NFL-caliber talent takes the field with a question mark at the quarterback position. Out of necessity, Les Miles turns to an inexperienced yet highly touted prospect for an answer. The quarterback takes the field and commands the offense with unexpected precision. The fans feel a mix of joy, relief, and above all hope. Not only did the offense come to life on this particular night, the young quarterback displayed talent that could carry the offense in the games and seasons to come. LSU may have finally solved its quarterback problem.

Does this story sound familiar? It should. With his excellent first half against Jacksonville State on Saturday, Danny Etling, who entered the game in relief of a struggling Brandon Harris, could be the fifth quarterback of the Les Miles era to write some variation of this script.

Their names are notorious to LSU fans: Perilloux, Lee, Jefferson, Jennings, Harris. They’re the quarterbacks who’ve prevented LSU from getting back to the Promised Land since 2007. But all five of these quarterbacks started their careers on the right path, with early performances suggesting a future of competence and steadiness, or in some cases outright stardom. The opponents they faced in their debuts ranged from the FBS elite to FCS also-rans. The talent and experience of the players around them was varied. The circumstances in which they were called on were always unique. Unfortunately for those quarterbacks and for the LSU program, the common thread among all the stories is that they never had a happy ending. The careers of all these players ended in disappointment, with unmet expectations for some, and downright humiliation for others.

Ryan Perilloux was the most highly recruited quarterback in the class of 2005. When he was forced into action against Middle Tennessee State and the 2007 SEC Championship game for the injured Matt Flynn, Perilloux went a combined 40 for 55 with 4 TDs and 2 INTs. Both games were banner performances for the sophomore, who was already the heir apparent to the graduating Flynn. Unlike his other flash in the pan counterparts, Perilloux’s career at LSU was derailed not by on-field performance, but by poor off-field decisions. Les Miles dismissed him from the program in 2008. He transferred to Jacksonville State and was the Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year before going undrafted in 2010.

Perilloux’s unexpected departure was perhaps the most consequential moment of Les Miles’ tenure at LSU, as it set into motion the unraveling of the quarterback position that has plagued LSU for 7 of the last 9 seasons. When Harvard transfer and Perilloux fill-in Andrew Hatch was injured early in the 2008 season, redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee, a four star prospect from Texas, stepped in and performed admirably. Once the difficult SEC games started, however, Lee’s inexperience started to show. He proceeded to throw seven pick sixes in what turned out to be the worst season of the Les Miles era, finishing with a dreadful 117 quarterback rating on the season, with more interceptions thrown than touchdowns.

Lee played sparingly after his freshman year. That is, until, starter Jordan Jefferson was arrested in August 2011 for second-degree battery. Lee was once again thrust into the starter’s role and he shined in the early going. While Jefferson served his suspension, Lee posted an undefeated record, with an average quarterback rating of 170 in eight wins, including impressive victories over Oregon and West Virginia. But against Alabama, the wheels came off, and he once again looked like the Pick-Six King. Lee repeatedly stared down the Crimson Tide pass rush, threw 2 interceptions in the first half, and was quickly pulled from the game.

Four-star recruit Jordan Jefferson came to LSU with perhaps more hype than Lee due to his potential as a dual threat. Jefferson spelled the injured Lee at the end of the 2008 season and racked up over 500 combined passing and rushing yards, with 5 touchdowns and only one turnover in the final 3 games of the year. The bowl game in particular was a showcase for Jefferson, who led LSU to a rollicking 38-3 win over Georgia Tech in the Chick Fil A Bowl. Jefferson completed 16 of 25 passes in that game with a touchdown and no interceptions. He wasn’t able to build on that solid performance in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, finishing with quarterback ratings of 137 and 114, respectively. Jefferson was relegated to a situational role after being suspended until his steady performance in the 2011 Alabama game earned him the starting job going forward. Like Lee, Jefferson pulled off the rare feat of writing the Hope-Then-Nope story twice in his career. After the glory of the Alabama game, Jefferson quickly fizzled out, and so did the LSU offense. At the NFL Combine in 2012, scouts rated Jefferson as the worst overall player at any position. His transition from promising prospect to program fixture to embarrassment was complete.

In the fourth quarter of the 2014 regular season finale, Zach Mettenberger had his knee wrecked by an Arkansas defensive lineman. Down 27-24 with 3 minutes to go in the game, four-star prospect and true freshman Anthony Jennings took the field needing to drive 99 yards for the win. Jennings proceeded to complete 4 of 6 passes for 76 yards and the winning touchdown. He also rushed for 23 yards on the drive, displayed quick feet in the pocket, evaded rushers, and hit receivers in stride. In the afterglow of that performance, Jennings’ potential seemed endless. At last, it seemed, LSU had found the next Ryan Perilloux, a worthy heir apparent who might live up to the hype. The shine wore off 4 weeks later after a pitiful performance in the bowl game against Iowa. Jennings lost his job to Brandon Harris after a mediocre 2014 season, and he transferred to UL-Lafayette, where he is now the starter. To his credit, his numbers through 2 games there look vastly superior to the ones he posted at LSU (66 percent completion vs. 49 percent at LSU), but nothing he’ll do there can match the lightning in a bottle he captured for that one magical drive against Arkansas.

Brandon Harris, another four-star prospect, made his first meaningful appearance in relief of Jennings during the 2014 loss to Mississippi State. Going against a prevent defense, Harris went 6 for 9 for 140 yards, with two touchdowns and a late INT on a Hail Mary. He started against New Mexico State the following week and excelled again, going 11 for 14 for 178 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. Eager fans were again ready to believe they’d found their quarterback of the future. In the following game, Harris laid an egg against Auburn, a performance that portended the struggles he would have against elite teams going forward. Like Lee and Jefferson before him, Harris had a mini-renaissance later in his career, posting nine touchdowns without an interception in the first seven games of the 2015 season. But he then unraveled in 5 of the next 6 games before mercifully being benched in favor of Etling last week. It’s possible we’ve seen his last game as the starter for LSU.

Two questions should hover over this LSU program, one with near-term significance and one with long-term significance. In the near term: will Danny Etling break this pattern, or will he add his name to the list of Hope-Then-Nope quarterbacks of recent years? Only time will tell, but if he continues to struggle like he did in the second half against JSU, Etling might go down as the ultimate flash in the pan QB.

Even if Etling succeeds where others didn’t, the long-term, bigger picture question will remain: Why does this keep happening?

The charitable explanation is that all of these players—with the exception of Perilloux, who never got a chance to play after his early success—simply regressed to the mean. Perhaps they just got lucky early on, went up against teams that couldn’t scout them properly, weren’t that good to begin with, or played “out of their minds” for a short time. That might explain the brief resurgence Jefferson, Lee, and Harris had at different points in their careers. Maybe it’s random variance and their most memorable performances just so happened to be in their earliest games. Maybe Brandon Harris will fix his mechanical flaws and win back the starting job from Danny Etling, smashing this narrative to pieces.

The uncharitable explanation is that Les Miles is a quarterback killer. Perhaps his system, his coordinators, and his method of conducting practice simply grind away a quarterback’s skills, or don’t put them in a position to succeed. Maybe playing quarterback for Les Miles is like being exposed to radiation. You’ll be fine at first, but the longer you’re around, the sicker you’ll get. The fact that the only successful LSU quarterbacks from the last 13 years played for other coaches before playing for Miles is evidence for this explanation. That would be a major indictment on Les Miles as a coach, but it might bode well for Etling.

The truth, of course, is likely somewhere in the middle. The answer to the near-term question will ultimately decide Les Miles’ fate. If Les wants to be the coach at LSU beyond 2016, he’d better hope Danny Etling is able to write his version of the story with a happy ending.

QB Rivals Rank Hope

 

Nope
Ryan Perrilloux #1 QB Played sparingly in the 2007 regular season, but became the starter when Matt Flynn was out with injury. Led LSU to victory in the SEC Championship game and was awarded the game’s MVP award. Kicked off team for bad behavior
Jarrett Lee #7 QB In 2008, starting QB Andrew Hatch was concussed against Auburn. Lee filled in, played decently, and LSU won the game Lee set a record for pick-sixes that year. He was injured against Ole Miss and permanently lost his starting job to Jordan Jefferson.
Jarrett Lee   Took over for the suspended Jefferson and started against highly ranked Oregon. LSU won the game, and Lee started the first 9 games of the 2011 season, recording 14 TDs and 3 INTs Lee threw 2 of his 3 INTS against Alabama, and was benched for Jordan Jefferson.
Jordan Jefferson #8 QB Started the final 3 games of the 2008 season after Lee was injured. Helped defeat Georgia Tech 38-3 in the Chick Fil A Bowl, and staked his claim to the starting QB job for the next 2 seasons Posted QB ratings of 137 and 114 in 2009 and 2010, losing 6 combined games.
Jordan Jefferson   Replaced Lee in the 2011 Alabama game. Jefferson played well in the game, and LSU won 9-6. Jefferson started every game for the rest of the season, and LSU won the SEC title Threw for 83 combined yards in the SEC Championship and National Championship games. Rated the worst prospect in the entire 2012 NFL Draft.

 

Anthony Jennings #6 QB When Zach Mettenberger went down with a game and season-ending injury, Jennings helped LSU beat Arkansas with a long, game-winning TD drive Jennings played poorly in the bowl game and had a bad 2014 season (118 QB rating). He officially lost the starting job to Brandon Harris in 2015.
Brandon Harris #5 QB Relieved Jennings on several occasions, including against Sam Houston State and New Mexico State, where he played brilliantly. Won the starting job in 2015 spring practice and started off the season with 9 TDs and 0 INTs in 7 games. Harris played poorly against Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Wisconsin, and Jacksonville State. His fate is still uncertain, but he was replaced by Danny Etling.
Danny Etling #9 QB Relieved a struggling Brandon Harris, and led LSU on three consecutive TD-scoring drives against Jacksonville State. TBD

 

Off Schedule

 

1st and 3rd Downs

“Staying on schedule” is something coaches and football people talk about. It seems to me that “staying on schedule” means to move the ball at least a reasonable amount each down in order to insure that the third down is a manageable distance. This helps make sure that enough 3rd downs are converted to 1st downs, which increases the likelihood that the offense will score points.

In the Wisconsin game, LSU seemed to always be behind schedule, frequently in 3rd and long situations. At first, I thought that this might be entirely because of their poor first down performance. But, LSU was at times very effective on 1st down. The chart below lists all of the yards gained on each 1st down play (the awkward chart formatting is because of the blog, not by design).[i] There is no particular order to the yards presented below.

Yards gained on first down
0
3
11
5
5
15
1
0—Fumble
2
1
4
8
3
31
10
12
1
4
19
3
19
0
15
0—Interception (X 2)

It’s a strange distribution of results for 1st down. In 11 first down plays, LSU’s offense got 3 yards or less or turned it over (the two interceptions and fumble were on first downs). But on 8 first down plays, LSU earned at least 10 yards, insuring another first down. It was a peculiar mix of all or nothing for LSU on first down.

While LSU’s 1st down results were somewhat mixed, it’s third down results were generally poor, converting only 2 of the 10 opportunities. The reason for this ineptitude is simple—LSU had way too many 3rd and longs. Some of this is attributable to those poor first down performances mentioned above. I’m sure there were some bad 2nd down plays too, but I didn’t have the stomach to look further into LSU’s ineptitude. Below, the table lists the yards needed to convert a 3rd down.

3rd down yards needed for a 1st   (i.e. 3rd and 6, 3rd and 14, etc.)
6
6
3
8
12
6
7
1
10
3

On average LSU needed 6.2 yards to convert on third down. There were only three 3rd downs on which LSU needed less than 6 yards. If this seems familiar, it should be. In LSU’s 3 prior losses, to Alabama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss, there were also a lot of 3rd and longs. The chart below totaled all of the third down distances from the Wisconsin, Bama, Arkansas, and Ole Miss losses.

Total 3rd down distance needed for first 420
Total number of third downs 50

On average, LSU needed 8.62 yards to get a first down. Against Arkansas, they needed an average of 9.75 yards, against Bama they needed 9.0, and against Ole Miss they needed 8.35.[ii]

Loss Average yards needed to convert a 3rd down
Alabama 9.0
Arkansas 9.75
Ole Miss 8.35
Wisconsin 6.2
Total Average 8.4

Passing Downs for a Team that can’t Pass

It seems to me, an ignorant layperson who has never played football and knows little about it, that needing a lot of yards on most 3rd downs is bad, and inherently off-schedule. Being in such a situation makes LSU predictable, and puts LSU in a probable passing situation.

LSU does not have a good or even average passing game. There was word that Harris’ poor play in last year’s last four regular season games was attributable to a sports hernia that required off-season surgery. But this forgets that while healthy, Harris was 8 for 16 against Syracuse and 4 for 14 against Eastern Michigan, quite possibly the worst team in all of Division 1. He is an inaccurate passer, especially between about 5 and 15 yards.

It is not just Harris, though—receivers and the line are also responsible. But perhaps the coaches are most responsible. It is unclear to me what Harris does well outside of throw the deep ball. I think that that is in part because Harris’ skills, whatever they are, have never been utilized properly. Miles and his staff seem to have their offensive system, and they ram Harris into it as if he were a perfect fit. He clearly is not, and this appears to be a coaching staff failing to adapt its strategy to best suits its personnel. Really good coaches tend to use strategies that emphasize their players strengths and minimize their weaknesses. LSU doesn’t do this with Harris.

Anyway, it is clear that opponents have caught on to LSU’s current scheme. Because LSU is fairly predictable on 1st and 2nd down, opponents are often successful at forcing those 3rd and longs. As noted above, Wisconsin was able to put LSU behind schedule on 8 first downs, which means better defenses like Alabama will have no problem stymieing LSU early. This will continue to put Harris in a position in which he is likely to fail a large percentage of the time. This will probably result in more losses, as happened against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and now Wisconsin. It is a simple problem that will probably persist in some form for the entire season. The fact that it is so obvious makes it even more frustrating.

Random Thoughts

–LSU lost despite winning the turnover battle. LSU and Wisconsin both had 3 TOs, but one of LSU’s was an end of the half Hail Mary, which I don’t count as a turnover. Additionally, Wisconsin’s TOs were extremely costly—2 led to LSU TDs, and 1 prevented Wisconsin from getting at least 3 points.

Harris had 21 passing attempts—he only had 21 or more passing attempts in 5 games last year—against South Carolina, Texas Tech, Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. LSU was 3-2 in those games. He did have 20 attempts against Western Kentucky, an LSU win.

–If we’re going to be a one-dimensional team, why not run a veer-option, triple option type of offense? Or some crazy wildcat type of offense—with Guice and Fournette taking a lot of direct snaps? We could also never punt and go for it on every 4th down. It would of course be a disaster, but it would at least be a more interesting disaster than the same old boring offense we’re currently running.

 

 

[i] All data retrieved from ESPN’s play-by-play for the Wisconsin game.

 

[ii] All of this data was retrieved from archived box scores and play-by-plays on ESPN. For the Ole Miss and Arkansas games, there were some discrepancies. The box scores listed a few more third down plays than the listed play-by-plays. The difference was minor, only about 2, 3 total third down plays. Even if those plays were included in this data set, it wouldn’t have impacted the average third down distance that was calculated.

Passing on Wisconsin and Pre-Season Links

 

Passing on Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s first-string corner backs are Derrick Tindal and Sojourn Shelton.[i] Tindal is the taller of the two at 5’11, and Shelton is 5’9. The safeties, D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso are both 5’10. LSU receivers are significantly taller, with Malachi Dupre at 6’3 and Travin Dural at 6’2. LSU has other tall receiving targets too, like Drake Davis (6’4), Jazz Ferguson (6’5) and tight end Colin Jeter (6’7).

In addition to this height advantage, LSU’s receivers are far heavier than the Wisconsin corners. Dupre weighs around 190, and Dural is at 203. Tindal weighs 174, Shelton 173. So Dural will have about a 2ins. and 30lbs. on the corner covering him. Wisconsin could use their back-up CBs who are taller, but they are probably slower and less skilled, otherwise they wouldn’t be back-ups.

Player Comparison

Player Height-Weight Player Height-Weight
Sojourn Shelton 5’9—173 Malachi Dupre 6’3—190
Derrick Tindal 5’11—174 Travin Dural 6’2—203

For perspective, LSU’s smallest starting defensive back is Tre’Davious White, listed at 5’11—191. If White were on Wisconsin, he would be the tallest starting defensive back and heavier than their free safety, Leo Musso. This height and size advantage wouldn’t matter much if LSU’s receivers were slow, but they are probably at least as fast as the Wisconsin corner backs. Corners are often smaller than receivers, but being  significantly smaller is problematic. One would think that LSU would have an opportunity to attempt jump ball-type passes, fade routes, and rack up some yards after-the-catch. Missed and broken tackles might also be in the cards on Saturday. But, much of this relies on the staff’s willingness to call such plays and Harris’ ability to execute them.

LSU-Wisconsin Starting Secondary Comparison

Wisconsin Player Height-Weight LSU Player Height-Weight
Corner Backs
Sojourn Shelton 5’9—173 Tre’Davious White 5’11—191
Derrick Tindal 5’11—174 Kevin Tolliver 6’2—196
Safeties
D’Cota Dixon (SS) 5’10—206 Jamal Adams (SS) 6’1—211
Leo Musso (FS) 5’10—186 Ricky Jefferson (FS) 6’0—206

Projections and Strength of Schedule Links

 

 

 

Recruiting Data

 

 

 

 

  • And Dandy Don’s website published a map of LSU players’ hometowns. The map is interactive, and Tiger icons can be clicked that show the player, the hometown, their high school, and more. A reader of the site developed the map.

 

 

 

[i] All height/weight data was drawn from Phil Steele’s 2016 College Football Preview