Tigers still struggle with air game
LSU has been promising to pass the football more frequently, more efficiently and farther down the field since shortly after the 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship game last season.
The impotence of the passing game and offense in general in that game and the ascension of strong-armed Zach Mettenberger to a starting position convinced coach Les Miles and his offensive staff that an improved passing game was needed and attainable.
With another game against the Crimson Tide next on the Tigers schedule (Nov. 3), it’s hard to see where a whole lot has changed.
Sure Miles and offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa stressed that the Tigers would continue to be a power running team first and foremost, but they also insisted the offense would be more difficult to defend because of a greater passing threat.
“We’ll throw the ball more,” Miles said eight days after the BCS loss. “I think there will be a fun approach, a different view of our quarterback position now, and I think it will allow us to throw the ball more effectively and to approach a game plan that can feature some receivers and some balls being thrown down the field maybe a little bit more efficiently.”
LSU unveiled a more-balanced offense in the spring game. Mettenberger threw the ball 25 times in 44 plays, completing 14 for 270 yards and two touchdowns. The scoring passes covered 49 and 19 yards, and he had other completions of 53 and 32 yards.
“We think we’re improved throwing the football,” Miles said afterward. “I think the development of the offense is taking place. Our quarterback is very accurate on the deep ball. I think the ability to throw the football is just a little better.”
Studrawa was offensive coordinator at Bowling Green for four seasons when the Falcons had one of the highest-scoring offenses in the country, one that was balanced but defined more by the pass than the run.
“We’re going to throw the ball down the field more with Zach,” Studrawa said early in preseason camp. “We’re going to be efficient in the passing game, and we’re going to make big plays in the passing game.”
Eight games into the season, the Tigers have kept their promise to throw the ball more frequently than a year ago, but it has not done so more efficiently or more boldly.
LSU has run the ball 339 times and tried to throw it 218 times (including sacks). Through eight games last season, it had run it 352 and tried to throw it 183. So the Tigers have passed the ball on 39.1 percent of their plays compared to 34.2 percent last season.
But the Tigers have the same number of completions (112) on 35 more drop-backs. Their completion percentage is 56.0 percent compared to 63.4 percent at this point last season.
LSU is averaging 177.4 passing yards per game compared with 183.1 after eight games last season. It has seven touchdowns and four interceptions compared with 16 touchdowns and one interception at this point last season.
It should be noted that the percentage of plays on which LSU attempted to pass dropped from 34.2 percent after eight games to 33.4 percent for the season, its completion percentage dropped from 63.4 percent to 62.0 percent and its passing yards per game dropped from 183.1 to 152.5.
Those drop-offs were caused primarily by the BCS title game and a poor passing performance in the Southeastern Conference title game victory against Georgia.
The Tigers have an open date this week to self scout and work on their shortcomings before beginning game-week preparations for top-ranked Alabama, which leads the country in virtually every major statistical defensive category.
In its 24-19 victory at Texas A&M on Saturday, LSU threw the ball the most it has this season (29 times) but tied its season-low for completions (11). The Tigers had a season-low 97 yards passing.
That effort came against a defense that still ranks 11th in the SEC in pass defense even after LSU’s paltry numbers against it.
Miles has said the offense’s inconsistency has been a group effort. The blocking has been inadequate at times, receivers are often covered and have had numerous drops, and Mettenberger has been erratic.
The offensive line has lost three starters since the start of the season and has comprised five different starting units.
Though the current unit has played well the past two weeks, the Tigers have had to lean on tight ends and running backs to give it help.
On LSU’s first four possessions against the Aggies, Mettenberger completed four of 12 passes for 37 yards and was sacked twice as A&M took a 12-0 lead.
“When we run some of those max protections, there are really just one or two guys out in routes,” tackle Josh Dworaczyk said. “If they get covered, it’s up to Zach to make a smart decision with the ball and put it where it needs to be. Sometimes he might just overthrow a guy because he’s covered, and that’s just his way of throwing the ball away.”
Eventually the Tigers made enough plays in the passing game and elsewhere to win. Mettenberger threw his first touchdown pass in four starts against SEC competition when he found Kadron Boone for a 29-yarder that gave LSU a 14-12 halftime lead.
That was Mettenberger’s longest completion of the game, though the Tigers did try several deep passes. The Aggies, like other LSU opponents, put eight and sometimes nine defenders “in the box” near the line of scrimmage to try to contain the running game, essentially daring the Tigers to make them pay by completing a deep pass.
“Before this game, we really hadn’t taken a lot of shots down the field,” Mettenberger said. “(On Saturday) we had the opportunities, we just didn’t execute on it. I wasn’t very surprised at them having eight or nine in the box. When you game plan us, we run the ball very well. Everybody is going to try to stop the run against us.”
Mettenberger said the brisk wind at Kyle Field made it difficult to throw deep, though he said that wasn’t an excuse for not connecting more often with his receivers.
“You’ve just got to keep faith,” Mettenberger said. “If the defense is going to load the box and go man outside, you’ve got to take those shots.”
LSU has just one touchdown pass that covered more than 40 yards: a 53-yarder from Mettenberger to Odell Beckham Jr. against Towson. Last season at this time, the Tigers had five touchdown passes of more than 40 yards.
“We’re going to hit some of those deep shots eventually,” Miles said. “If everybody is going to stand in there around the ball, we’re going to enjoy throwing the ball.”
LSU linebacker Kevin Minter received more accolades Monday, being named SEC defensive player of the week and selected as one of three SEC semifinalists for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker. Also on the list are Alabama’s C.J. Mosley and Georgia’s Jarvis Jones. Minter had 12 tackles and his first career interception against Texas A&M. He leads the team with 75 tackles this season, including 41 stops in the past three games. On Sunday, Minter was named the Walter Camp national defensive player of the week.
Advocate sportswriter Scott Rabalais contributed to this report.