LSU offense aims to keep pace with high-powered Clemson
ATLANTA — The first two times LSU and Clemson met in bowl games the scores were 7-0 and 10-7.
In Monday’s Chick-fil-A Bowl, good chance one team will make it 7-0 on the game’s first drive. It could be 10-7 after the first three possessions.
The defensive tug-of-wars and three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust sensibilities that marked LSU’s 1959 Sugar Bowl win and its 1996 Peach Bowl win over Clemson are so 20th century.
This time, it’s much more likely that a modern offensive shootout will be on display inside the Georgia Dome and on ESPN (6:30 p.m. CST kickoff). Both teams are preparing for the likelihood that they will have to put points on the board — in bunches.
“They have a highly powered offense and the things we’ve been doing the last few weeks forces us to score a lot of points,” said wide receiver Jarvis Landry, whose contortionist one-handed touchdown catch at Arkansas in LSU’s regular-season finale is ringing up hits on YouTube.
“The more they score, the more we’ll have to score.”
Clemson possesses one of the nation’s most prolific offenses, averaging 42.3 points and 518.3 yards per game to rank sixth and ninth, respectively. Twice in 2012, Clemson piled up more than 700 yards of offense: a frightful 754 yards against North Carolina State, 718 against Duke.
The Tigers attack is led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, whose 43 total touchdowns equaled the number of passing and rushing TDs by Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Clemson also possesses a 1,000-yard receiver in DeAndre Hopkins (69 catches, 1,214 yards, 16 TDs) and a 1,000-yard rusher in Andre Ellington (201 carries, 1,031 yards, 8 TDs).
LSU’s offense has creaked more than it’s been cranked up this season, ranking 46th nationally in scoring with 30.3 points per game and 68th in total offense with 387.2 yards per game.
But there are indications that it may be up to the task of keeping pace with Clemson’s Usain Bolt-like offense.
First, LSU’s showed signs of improvement throughout most of the season, especially in November.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for more than 200 yards in each of the last four games after cracking the 200-yard mark just twice in his first eight games. That includes a season-high 296 yards against No. 2-ranked Alabama.
“We had a very good game against Washington (in Week 2) then we started digressing,” Mettenberger said. “I don’t know what really happened, but we did have some injuries up front. Then we found the right combination of guys to go out there every play and lead us to victory.”
LSU wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said Mettenberger’s steady progress has been evident, though at times it was hard to see during the first two months of the season when the Tigers were plagued by dropped pass after dropped pass.
“People can say what they want about him,” said Beckham, whose fumble at the end of a 56-yard catch-and-run at Florida doomed the Tigers’ hopes to win in Gainesville on Oct. 6. “But as a receiver corps there have been some drops that we’ve got to make plays on.
“It’s going to take time, but it’s slowly developing. The last four games have been the jump start of what we expect.”
Another encouraging aspect of this game for LSU: Clemson’s defense has at times been as bad as its offense has been good.
The team that got crushed 70-33 in January’s Orange Bowl was rolled up for 400 yards or more six times in 2012 and ranks a dismal 74th in total defense allowing 411 yards per game.
“We have confidence knowing the stakes are high,” Landry said. “We’ll have to throw the ball against this team.”
Despite some of its own defensive woes — LSU gave up over 300 yards passing in its last three games against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas — it still ranks a respectable eighth nationally allowing 296.2 yards pre game.
LSU coach Les Miles said his team has put an emphasis on defending the pass in pre-bowl practices.
“They’re focused on it,” Miles said. “The number one way to stop a passing attack is to keep the ball on offense. Two it’s to make sure there’s a variety of ways that he has to see coverage and the pass rush.”
While Clemson’s offense has been much more prolific this season than LSU’s, Swinney recognizes his opponent has found a way to get the job done to post the same 10-2 record as his team.
“(Arkansas) physically competed well with LSU,” Swinney said. “But at the end is when LSU is at its best.”
At the end of this season, against this team, LSU’s offense will likely have to be at its best to come up with a victory. LSU — and the Georgia Dome scoreboards — will be put to the test.