Tigers’ air game representative of improved offense
ARLINGTON, Texas — The LSU offense provided some obvious examples of how it has improved since last season during a 37-27 victory against TCU on Saturday night in the Cowboys Classic.
The 448 total yards were more than the Tigers amassed in all but two games last year — they had 508 against North Texas against 472 against Idaho — and they gained the yards against a team that had the top defense in the Big 12 Conference last season.
The Tigers had two 100-yard receivers — Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. — for the first time in 12 years.
They converted third downs at a higher rate than they did in any game last season — .684 (13-of-19). Last season, LSU converted 50 percent or more in just three games, the highest percentage being .600 (9-of-15) against Mississippi State.
The passing and the converting went hand in hand as 12 of Zach Mettenberger’s 16 completions went for 10 or more yards, including gains of 20, 26, 26 and 44 yards.
“We’re throwing the ball for bigger plays,” coach Les Miles said. “We’re being able to convert on third downs. I think that’s one of the real successes of the offense at this point.”
But there are other less glaring examples of how this offense under first-year coordinator Cam Cameron looked more capable than last year’s offense.
Though the Tigers, despite a slow start, showed that they still plan to, and can succeed at running the football (48 carries, 197 yards, 4.1 average) — they also demonstrated better balance that will be trickier for opponents to defend.
Mettenberger threw 32 passes and passed for 251 yards and a touchdown. He threw more passes than that in just two games last season: 35 against Alabama and 37 against Ole Miss.
But what makes the number more significant is that LSU showed a greater willingness to pass when it wasn’t forced to. In the game against Alabama, the Tigers led for just 25 minutes, and against Ole Miss they led for just 9½ minutes. On Saturday night they led for all but the first 5½ minutes and never trailed.
So LSU was more aggressive in calling pass plays, using them not just trying to convert long third downs or playing catch-up, but to move the ball regardless of the score and force TCU to reduce congestion around the line of scrimmage and create running room for the backs.
“The plan was, ‘Let’s see if they can cover the pass.’ And certainly we did move the ball through the air very well,” Miles said. “And it was still sticky on the ground.”
The Tigers also played with a faster tempo, and it showed as they ran 80 plays, more than they ran in any game last season.
“We don’t want to be the LSU offense we’ve been in the past: huddle, slow, methodical,” Mettenberger said. “We wanted to push the tempo.
“The balance was there. We were passing really good and running the ball well at times.”
The Tigers’ approach at the outset didn’t look appreciably different, but there were immediate signs of improved execution. LSU ran the ball on its first two plays from scrimmage — a familiar approach on first and second down from last season — and netted four yards. Then on third-and-6, Mettenberger completed an 8-yard pass to Travin Dural for a first down.
The next two plays were runs that each gained 1 yard; on third-and-8 Mettenberger completed a 10-yard pass to Landry.
Ultimately, LSU drove to Colby Delahoussaye’s 23-yard field goal.
Though three of the six red-zone possessions ended in field goals instead of touchdowns, the Tigers’ ability to move the chains even when the running game was sluggish was an improvement over last season, when short gains on first and second down usually led to three-and-outs.
Mettenberger said the players “buying into” Cameron’s system has led to greater confidence on offense.
“We’re getting older,” he said. “We’re more comfortable playing football now under the big lights. A lot of things contribute to that: running back protecting well, offensive line protecting well, receivers running the right routes and catching the ball. It’s a pretty special thing when all 11 guys are doing the right thing.”
The execution extended beyond the first 11 as reserve running back Terrence Magee had a career night, running for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
“The guys in the locker room know he can do that,” Mettenberger said. “He’s a very versatile player; we’ve even had him at wide receiver because his hands are so good and he runs such good routes.
“He’s been a guy that’s just sort of gotten lost in the mix a bit his first two years, but he definitely made his stamp (Saturday night), and I guess he won’t be flying under the radar from here on out.”
LSU has put a big emphasis on its four-minute offense, when it needs to move the ball and preferably score points to secure a precarious lead late in a game. An inability to do that last season cost the Tigers in two of their three losses: to Alabama and to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Beckham made things easier by returning a kickoff 75 yards to the Frogs 25 after TCU had gotten within three points with 7:35 left in the game.
Then on third down, Mettenberger fired a 20-yard touchdown to Landry, helping to secure the victory.
“We definitely want to be able to close out games like that from here on out,” Mettenberger said. “Coach Miles always preaches finish, and we did a pretty good job of that (Saturday night).”
Magee said Cameron has been preaching to the offense “that we can move the ball on anybody.”
“It just took us believing in him,” Magee said. “(Saturday night) is testimony that we bought into his system, and we believe in what we’re doing on offense.”