Unpredictability hasn’t been a trademark of LSU’s offense, but the Tigers have been less predictable the last two weeks.
The improvement in the passing game against Alabama and Mississippi State has been well-documented and the most noticeable change in the offense.
Zach Mettenberger has had his two most productive games the last two weeks, and Jarvis Landry has emerged as a go-to receiver. As a result, the running game and the passing game both represent a credible threat on any down.
“You’re seeing the coaches have more confidence in us,” Mettenberger said after the 37-17 victory against State on Saturday night. “They are mixing it up, more run-pass, and being more balanced.
“Guys are making plays, having confidence and having fun out there. That’s all you could ask for, to have fun out there.”
Perhaps the most unpredictable things the offense has done in recent memory came at the end of the first half Saturday night.
The Bulldogs had just kicked a field goal to get within 13-10. After the kickoff, the Tigers started at their 29-yard line with just 48 seconds left until halftime. Even bolder offenses than LSU’s might have chosen to run the ball or try a safe pass, but the suddenly more aggressive Tigers attacked.
Mettenberger and Landry connected for a 15-yard gain. Mettenberger then found James Wright wide open up the right sideline and hit him for a 36-yard gain.
Suddenly LSU was at the State 20-yard line and had 25 seconds to work with. Offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa went straight to the end zone. Mettenberger went for Odell Beckham Jr., but threw into traffic and was fortunate the pass wasn’t intercepted. On the next down, he led running back Spencer Ware up the right sideline and Ware laid out to make a diving catch for a touchdown.
Just like that, the Tigers had a 10-point lead instead of three, and they and not the Bulldogs had an emotional lift going into halftime.
“I think Zach knows where he wants to go with the ball,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “He had some nice touch on the ball, the way he uncorks it and makes all the throws. I think our passing game is coming.”
LSU coaches and players spoke throughout the offseason and preseason about the expectation that the passing game would be more successful with Mettenberger under center than it was last season. It took awhile, but the productivity is now matching the expectations.
“He’s always thrown the ball like that in practice,” safety Eric Reid said, “so I guess things have just started to click for him in the games. We’ve always known that they can do it, and he’s been showing it in the past couple of weeks.”
Just three games ago, Texas A&M was routinely putting eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the running game. LSU couldn’t make the Aggies pay for it and passed for a season-low 97 yards.
But the past two weeks, the Tigers have forced opponents to respect the passing game, and the passing game is gaining more and more respect.
“It’s coming along,” said Ware, who had more receiving yards (32) than rushing yards (13) against the Bulldogs. “That’s going to open up well for the running game. Now defenses can’t just scheme on our run game. They are going to have to scheme on our run game and the pass game, which will make it more difficult for them.”
LSU’s wide receivers caught 16 passes against State, matching the season-high they set against Alabama a week earlier. Landry caught a career-high nine for a career-high 109 yards and a touchdown. In the past two games, he has 17 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Landry emphasized the win after the game, saying, “I don’t dwell on individual or personal things.”
Though the receivers had a few drops, which has been a season-long problem, the plays they made offset that.
Beckham caught four passes for 55 yards and Kadron Boone had two catches for 14 in addition to Wright’s big play.
The Tigers’ 119 net rushing yards were their second-fewest of the season, but their 38 attempts were their third-fewest because of the added emphasis on the pass.
LSU’s new-found unpredictability isn’t limited to the improved passing game. The Tigers have started using wide receiver Russell Shepard more in the running game.
Shepard, who was a standout quarterback in high school, had a season-high eight touches against State, and all were running plays. He was the team’s second-leading rusher with 33 yards.
LSU also brought sophomore running back Kenny Hilliard back into the mix. Hilliard, who had rushed for two touchdowns in each of the first three games, had faded from the backfield as Jeremy Hill emerged with three consecutive 100-yard games going into Saturday’s game.
Hilliard didn’t touch the football against Texas A&M or Alabama, but had five carries for 29 yards, a game-high 5.8 yards per carry.
So the Tigers’ last two opponents — Ole Miss and Arkansas — find themselves with a lot more to consider than their predecessors did when they scout LSU’s offense.