By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
GREEN BAY, Wis. — So much for that revamped offense.
Ever since LSU AD Joe Alleva strolled to the podium inside Tiger Stadium’s interview room after the Texas A&M game last November and informed the media contingent that Les Miles would remain head football coach, the topic de jure around LSU has been offensive reconstruction.
Out with the old, stale I-formation of the Big 10’s yesteryears. In with a modernized spread attack that could properly utilize the abundance of skill-position talent Miles has at his disposal.
Alleva even stated publically that Miles, after his near miss with the firing squad, committed to him “that he understands there has to be some changes made.”
What followed was a hope-inspiring rout of Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl — the 56 points and 638 yards of total offense the Tigers racked up that night now looks more like an indictment on the Red Raider defense than an actual sign of progress.
Then came a whole lot of lip service throughout spring practices and fall camp. Miles regaled reporters with the laundry list of successful spread attacks he and Cam Cameron visited with and studied in hopes of gaining some insight. Extra ‘passing-intensive’ periods were added into every practice.
Cameron’s move to the sideline was made permanent in the name of keeping quarterback Brandon Harris comfortable. After all, that’s where Cam called the plays from as Harris and Co. dissected Texas Tech.
In the words of the great Bob Dylan, oh the times, they are-a-changing.
Saturday’s season opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field was as much about pulling the curtain off that new-look offense as it was about the debut of Dave Aranda’s defense.
Excitement and expectations abound as LSU boldly entered this brave new world of implementing the elite talent the program is often purported to have into the kind of schemes that can turn all that potential and athleticism into tangible production.
Instead, a popular refrain, although one not typically heard this early in the calendar: LSU’s offense sunk like a stone.
The only part that’s changed is, this time, LSU couldn’t figure out a way to win anyway. No come-from-behind drive or long field goal at the buzzer. No Miles-y magic to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat despite being utterly inept offensively. No “well, it wasn’t pretty, but it all worked out in the end anyway” for Miles and his staff.
Because this time it didn’t. Unranked Wisconsin upended No. 5 LSU 16-14 Saturday, dealing a devastating — though not yet fatal — haymaker to LSU’s lofty ambitions and expectations.
The ball Harris spiraled into the chest of Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon in the game’s final minutes sealed LSU’s fate. The vicious, flagrant shoulder charge massive right guard Josh Boutte delivered on Dixon as he celebrated the game-winning interception added an exclamation point to an already embarrassing performance given on the grandest of stages with the nation watching.
People tuned in hoping to see something new and exciting. To see an LSU team installed as a double-digit favorite in a de facto road opener have the kind of statement performance that springboards a season toward greatness.
Instead they got the same old song and dance. LSU came out in the I-formation on its first play from scrimmage and ran a toss dive to Fournette — as approximately 1/2 my twitter mentions accurately predicated when asked what LSU’s first offensive play call would be.
There were some jet sweeps and options sprinkled in, but for the most part LSU ran the offense its run for years now. Power running. Rarely more than two receivers sent out into pass patterns. For all the hype around D.J. Chark and Jazz Ferguson as emerging third and fourth targets, neither caught a ball. Harris still looked inconsistent at best. He threw two interceptions and managed to repeatedly fire high over the heads of his crew of tall targets.
If anything, the biggest change from last season is that LSU’s shuffled offensive line is no longer good enough to beat a disciplined, well-schooled defense at the point of attack. So much so that Fournette, valiantly as he ran, wasn’t able to load his sputtering offense up on his broad shoulders and carry them.
The Badgers pressured Harris all day. Wisconsin sacked him twice. At one point, linebacker Jack Cichi blitzed unblocked between Ethan Pocic and Will Clapp, LSU’s two returning starters along said line, and hammered Harris before he could even get to Fournette in the backfield. Pressure also forced Harris to scramble before uncorking the decisive interception.
“I really have to see the film, because it seems to me that there were some guys that were not necessarily blocked,” Miles said. “I know that some guys had a heck of a day and blocked extremely well. I’ll have to see how it goes.”
As currently constituted, LSU’s offensive line isn’t good enough to outmuscle experienced defenses playing traditional smash mouth football. College football has become a game of space and finding mismatches for playmakers. That doesn’t mean you abandon the power running game, but the fact is it’s far more difficult for an offense to operate when it insists the game be played in a phone booth.
Miles and Cameron have to be honest with themselves, because the offense must change. For real this time. Losing four of their last five regular season game — looking offensively inept in three — has made that abundantly clear.
Can such an adjustment be pulled off in-season? Unclear, but there’s far too much on the line for Miles and Cameron not to find out.
LSU has set its sights on winning the 2016 national championship since Fournette, Malachi Dupre, Jamal Adams, Harris and the rest of that heralded 2014 signing class arrived on campus.
The hype machine kicked into high gear following the hiring of Aranda and return of several key upperclassmen who put the NFL on hold to make one more run at a championship.
“We knew what was at stake,” said cornerback Tre’Davious White, whose 21-yard pick six and fumble recovery in the third quarter either accounted for or set up all 14 of LSU’s points. “Our goal is to win it all and go undefeated. It’s a hurtful feeling.”
The failure of Miles and Cameron to actually follow through on changing the offense has put those aspirations on the thinnest of ice.
Early losses are more forgivable in the eyes of the playoff committee. History bares that out. Still, LSU’s most realistic route to the playoffs now requires running the SEC gauntlet unscathed, up to and including the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
“I don’t know how you keep them up,” Miles said of his players. “The truth is, they’re going to have to come back to work and find a resiliency.”
Resiliency will help, but it won’t get LSU where it wants to go unless it’s coupled with some self-reflection, ingenuity and evolution.
The season will go one of two ways from this point. Either adapt and swim or refuse to and stubbornly sink to the bottom.
If it’s the latter, Miles and Cameron will be the ones who find themselves standing on the thinnest of ice.