Inside: Why play action has been more effective; what a healthy Leonard Fournette adds
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
One offense heads into Saturday’s LSU-Ole Miss showdown fresh off an explosive performance that produced more points scored than plays ran and resulted in a victory despite possessing the football for just 22 minutes.
But even a week ago, nobody in their right mind would have predicted it’d be LSU.
“No, I didn’t think so,” responds senior center Ethan Pocic, asked if he ever imagined an LSU victory featuring so little ball control.
Not for a team coached by Les Miles, anyway. And that’s a major reason why Ed Orgeron and Steve Ensminger are the ones calling the shots these days.
LSU hasn’t embraced the “basketball on grass” offensive philosophy to the extreme extent that Hugh Freeze and the Rebels have.
Then again, who has? Ole Miss has scored 39.7 points per game this season against stiff competition while possessing the ball for 23 minutes per game, tied for lowest among FBS programs.
The thinking is simple. Play no-huddle offense at break-neck speed and allow Chad Kelly, the best quarterback in the Southeastern Conference, to shred vanilla defenses not afforded any opportunity to substitute or adjust. It makes them incredibly difficult to defend once a drive gets rolling.
Under Miles and Cam Cameron, facing such a high-powered foe would mean implementing the same ball control gameplan LSU employed in every big game since 2013. Three yards and a cloud of dust. Run the ball. Run the clock. Shorten the game and try to steal it in the end.
The Tigers can follow a different script these days. Orgeron promised as much the day he accepted the interim job.
If the Ole Miss offense comes out firing on Saturday night and puts up points in bunches — the Rebels have scored at least 30 points in every game this season and hung 43 against top-ranked Alabama — LSU suddenly has an offense capable of holding its own in a shootout if need be.
“(Orgeron) is definitely a believer in keeping your foot on the gas and keep going,” right guard Josh Boutte said. “And we can throw 100 passes in a game if that’s what he wants, so we’re up for it. It feels great, him trusting the offensive line and trusting the offense.”
Nobody within the program is anticipating such a need arising. Not with a defense that’s allowed six touchdowns through six games. But if it does, for the first time in a long time, there’s reason for confidence LSU’s offense could win a football game that turned into a boat race.
“We’re trying to become a faster paced team offensively,” fullback J.D. Moore said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we came out aggressive. The two teams we’ve played already under Coach O were up-tempo, so I think our defense would have a nice foundation of preparation for what Ole Miss runs.”
LSU rattled off five touchdowns in the second half against Southern Miss. Each covered at least 20 yards. Three of the five scoring plays went for 61 yards of more. Two came on the first play of the respective drive and only one of the five drives lasted more than 92 seconds.
Big plays and taking shots downfield have been major points of emphasis under Orgeron. It’s easy to spot to influence of Pete Carrol in that regard dating back to their time together at USC.
Orgeron circled the long scoring plays as the single greatest improvement he saw from game one to game two of his team’s “new season.” Particularly with regards to quarterback Danny Etling, who threw three touchdowns in the win.
The deepest throw of the bunch came via a 63-yard touchdown to Malachi Dupre on a deep post route off play action. The cornerback opposite Dupre blitzed and the deep safety bit on the play fake to Derrius Guice, leaving Dupre wide open streaking down the middle of the field. The defender who nearly made a play on the ball was actually the cornerback from the opposite side who broke off covering Russell Gage.
“Our play action game will definitely be a huge part of our offense moving forward,” Dupre said. “Especially with the running game that we have. It’s not like it’s a secret.”
That’s true, but it only recently became such an effective part of the offense.
According to ESPN Stats and Info, Etling has thrown for 333 yards on 29 attempts off play action with two touchdowns and four 20-plus yard completions in two games since the coaching shuffle. That equates to a QBR of 75.0.
For reference, Etling and Brandon Harris combined for a QBR of 17.5 off play action during the first four games of this season, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
Wideout Travin Dural pointed to more patience on the part of the receivers to explain the production surge, an adjustment he credited to Dameyune Craig. Dural explained receivers were previously breaking off their routes too soon, messing up their timing with Etling.
There’s another explanation for the general ineffectiveness. Aside from the occasional bomb down the field, LSU didn’t do enough of it. There wasn’t enough of the short passes to backs and tight ends — now staples of LSU’s attack — to set up those deep heaves downfield.
“To be honest, I’ve always wondered why we didn’t use them,” tight end DeSean Smith said of those plays. “But now they’re coming out and we’re doing great things with them.
Last season, LSU quarterbacks played to a total QBR of 49.5 off play action, and that was with a healthy, record-setting Leonard Fournette toting the ball out of the backfield. Far too modest a number considering the amount of eight-and-nine-men fronts LSU regularly faces.
The expectation around LSU is this offense will only grow more explosive and dangerous with its All-American tailback rejoining a group already executing at a high level.
“It adds a lot,” Dural said. “Everyone knows what he’s capable of. Just having him there, his presence, it opens up a whole different world. The play action is going to be there. We know people are going to stack the box to try to stop him, so that means more opportunities for the receivers.”
All those factors could add up to a shootout at Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, and for the first time in years, LSU has a big-play offense of its own for the occasion.