Pulling the ball back off a play-action fake, Zach Mettenberger rolled right, cocked back his right arm and floated a throw to an uncovered Jarvis Landry.
Before the ball spiraled from the LSU quarterback’s finger tips, the play call against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl oscillated from brilliant to deranged over the one-second span until the ball fluttered over the finger tips of the outstretched Landry, who broke open on a flat route.
Landry peeled himself off the Georgia Dome’s turf. Mettenberger squatted and shook his head. And LSU watched a sure first-down conversion on an routine second-and-2 morph into a subject of scrutiny.
“The coaching staff called a great play,” Landry said. “It’s just unpredictable. Who would have thought that we’d miss the pass by a hair?”
The postgame critique picked up more fodder on third-and-2 at the Tigers’ 48 — a scenario where the choice to turn and hand off seemed evident.
Instead, Mettenberger took a three-step drop. Yet Clemson’s Malachi Goodman plowed into right guard Vadal Alexander, won a split-second tussle and stuck his right paw up to knock down the throw. LSU punted, and Clemson quarterback Tahj Boyd drove his team for the game-winning score in a 25-24 victory.
And it’s a prime example of why LSU coach Les Miles is keen on addressing the four-minute span where LSU can close out victories in preseason practices running up to the season opener Aug. 31 against TCU.
“We’ll talk four minute, four minute is kind of a sore point for me,” Miles said Sunday. “I want to practice it significantly in these next couple of weeks.”
On Tuesday, Mettenberger frowned and drummed his fingers on a podium when the subject of finishing off opponents was broached. The topic, pointed to by Miles as the difference in knocking off Alabama and snagging a shot at an SEC title game, has been oft discussed inside the Charles McClendon Practice Facility.
“It’s a drill that we usually work a couple times a week,” Mettenberger said. “Obviously, everybody knows our history (from) last year losing a couple games late. We’re just trying to reassure the fact that we can close out games.”
So in trying resolve the problem, is it simply a matter of execution? Or is there an aspect of the Tigers’ philosophy of trying to close games that could be revamped with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Baton Rouge?
Since his arrival, Cameron has stressed the Tigers offense will look to be on the attack and assertive in its style, but will there be a temptation to fall back on the old NFL standby of running the ball, burning clock and forcing opponents to burn timeouts?
“We just want to keep it managable,” Landry said. “The last thing you want to do is get behind the sticks on first down and second and third, then everyone in the stadium knows what you’re doing.”
Parsing the statements of the Tigers skill players, it appears there’s a likelihood LSU might be assertive as time wanes — a mentality warmly greeted around the LSU program.
“It puts a team in that calm state,” running back Alfred Blue said. “You want to keep attacking and attacking to put them away. The faster you do that, the sooner you can think about all the other things.”
Yet Landry said the approach is fundamentally and traditionally based on what looks the Tigers see at the line of scrimmage, a mentality that would seem to square up with how LSU approached Clemson. The ACC foe packed the box, anticipating LSU would follow standard procedure and hand off. Instead, they called three consecuctive pass plays.
“The things coach Cam and the offensive staff are developing right now will help us attack defenses, whether it’s quickly or vertically,” Landry said.“Coach Cameron is going to do a great job getting us in the right sets and the right formations so that when the defense presents (its looks) we can be ready to adjust and attack them on each play.”
Cameron and Miles have said the scheme hasn’t been dramatically overhauled, outside of perhaps an implied change of pushing the ball vertically and reading out progressions differently. Right guard Trai Turner said the same logic exists in evaluating what LSU does in its four-minute offense.
“It’s definitely a little more balanced, and we really still run the same plays,” Turner said. “It’s just about executing. It’s not too big of a change.”
And the question of largely standing pat systematically raises the other portion of the subject. Holding all other variables constant, were LSU’s woes simply tied to the wrong play call from the coaches box?
That’s a murkier matter.
“That’s a tough answer,” Turner said. “At the end of the day, the quarterback can audible out of it or you can stick with what the offensive coordinator called on that play. With that, it can be a touchy subject, and I don’t know if there is a right answer.”
There’s no better example than the loss to Alabama.
It’s easy to forget LSU led 17-14 when it took over on its 19 with 7:43 left in the fourth quarter.
Before three failed running plays deep in Crimson Tide territory and a missed 45-yard field goal, Mettenberger picked up first downs with completions on back-to-back thrid-and-6 situations to keep the drive trudging forward. Don’t forget his 27-yard completion to Odell Beckham to the Bama 32 with 2:45 showing on the clock either.
Chewing up four minutes of clock and picking up three first downs left little reason to be skeptical.
And the stats offered some evidence for the impending play calls sent in to the huddle. On the season, LSU executed 157 snaps in the area between its opponents’ 40-yard line and 20-yard line, running the ball 68.1 percent of the time for an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
That night, Alabama limited LSU to 3.5 yards each hand off. Yet given the field position and time left, running the ball still seemed to have some logic. If the Tigers got in a bind, they had shown they could convert through the air, picking up 14 first downs passing against the Tide.
On first down, LSU called a dive play with fullback J.C. Copeland to the left side. Next came second-and-7, another run call out of a power I on toss-sweep right by running back Jeremy Hill, who lost three yards after being swarmed under by three defenders.
Facing third-and-10, Miles remained conservative in calling a toss power play that netted 4 yards before Drew Alleman pushed a 45-yard kick wide left.
LSU never disguised its intentions during the sequence, going with a two-tight end set and and Power I formation. On Hill’s failed sweep, wide receiver Russell Sheperd shifted in from the slot. All total, eight men were at the line of scrimmage for LSU. And on third down, they shifted tight ends Chase Clement and Travis Dickson to the right side of the formation — a nod toward the direction of the run.
So, the question is whether an alternative approach might have produced a different outcome lingers.
“The play call against anyone else might have been a great play call, you know?” Landry said. “Our ability and the things we were doing that night, it seemed like everything was working for us. An unpredictable scenario took place at the end.”
Still, the entire issue is distilled to a simple essence.
“Any offense in that situation has the same mentality,” Mettenberger said. “Get first downs and wins.”