LSU special teams dependability dropping as of late
So many times during its run to the BCS National Championship Game last year, the LSU football team found itself locked in a battle and in need of a spark.
The Tigers often got it from the least likely of places.
“One little thing on special teams would set a fire to the team,” said LSU junior Seth Fruge, a starter this year on almost every special teams unit. “I always believe special teams can do that. It’s a game-changer.”
Much of the game-changing on special teams last year came courtesy of Tyrann Mathieu, who helped LSU overcome deficits against Arkansas and Georgia late in the season with punt returns for touchdowns.
But even when the Tigers weren’t explosive on special teams, they were steady, dependable and consistently effective there.
That hasn’t always been the case through the first four games this year.
LSU has been flagged 10 times for 85 yards on punts and punt returns alone. The Tigers were penalized four times for 40 yards in such scenarios against Auburn last week, including three personal foul penalties totaling 30 yards.
All-America candidate Brad Wing, who ranks third in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 45.4 yards per punt, had a 60-yard punt against Auburn. But his 20-yard shank in the fourth quarter gave Auburn favorable field position for a potential go-ahead drive.
Even the most accurate placekicker in LSU history has had some hiccups.
Drew Alleman missed from 34 yards against North Texas with Fruge subbing for Wing as the holder. He missed again from 34 in the final minute Saturday after Auburn declined a holding penalty and LSU, out of timeouts, was forced to rush the kick.
Odell Beckham Jr., who took over as the primary return man when Mathieu was dismissed from the team, returned a punt 70 yards for an early score in the 41-14 victory over North Texas.
But the next week, he fumbled the opening kickoff to set up Washington’s only score in a 41-3 win.
“It just goes with guys overextending, trying to make plays beyond themselves. Just not trusting the fundamentals of the game we’re taught,” said LSU sophomore Jarvis Landry, a mainstay on special teams the last two years. “We’re all here just trying to make a play. I just think with time, we will learn how to hold our composure and just learn how to make the little plays before we make the big ones.”
LSU could have used some of those special-teams fireworks in the 12-10 nailbiter against Auburn, a game the Tigers led 9-0 in the first quarter but struggled mightily to put away.
Instead, the special teams were sometimes a weakness.
Moments after Alleman supplied the go-ahead points with a 30-yard field goal, Auburn speedster Ontario McCalebb took the ensuing kickoff 43 yards through the teeth of LSU’s coverage. If not for an open-field tackle by Russell Shepard near midfield, McCalebb may have gone the distance to give Auburn a five-point cushion with five minutes to play in the third quarter.
“They kind of gashed us,” Alleman said. “But Russell made a great play.”
Alleman’s shot at extending the LSU lead in the final minute Saturday looked shaky from the start.
LSU had just used its final timeout to set up Spencer Ware’s 2-yard run on third-and-5 from the Auburn 18. LSU was flagged for holding, but Auburn — after some hesitation — declined the penalty to set up fourth-and-short.
Alleman and the kicking team rushed off the sideline.
“It’s an interesting scenario,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We put a timeout into our third-down call. The penalty was called, the opponent takes time with the decision, and by the time the decision’s made, we have to hurry to kick the field goal.”
Few kickers in college football are as reliable as Alleman, who has made 21 of 25 field goal attempts and 82 of 83 extra points in his two years on the job. Few punters can swing field position like Wing, who has 25 career punts of 50 yards or longer.
Meanwhile, kickoff specialist James Hairston is averaging 63.5 yards per kickoff this year and has induced 14 touchbacks.
But the Tigers will have to become more consistent across the board if they aim to match the legacy of last year’s special teams. If they hope to be the kind of group that can change games.
“We have a lot of guys stepping into these new positions,” Fruge said. “They have to learn when they need to pull off from blocks and little things like that. I feel like we’re right there. We just need to fix the little things.”