By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
This is the first in a (hopefully) season long look into LSU’s quarterback play. I’ll be charting every throw made by an LSU quarterback in 2017, with as much detail as possible. If you’d like any particular aspect of the Tigers’ passing game analyzed, comment below or hit me up on Twitter, and I’ll track it. This week: throwing on first downs.
Throwing the ball on first down hasn’t exactly been a staple of LSU’s offense in recent years.
In 2016, LSU ran the ball 239 times on first down, to just 117 passes. In 2015, it was 261 first down runs to 107 first down throws. In 2014, it was 305 runs to 95 throws.
You get the point.
Part of that was poor offensive scheming. LSU was utterly, stubbornly predictable, quite literally a run (on) first (down) team. Part of that, though, was simply because LSU’s quarterbacks weren’t reliable first down throwers. Anthony Jennings is, strangely enough, the exception: his quarterback rating on first down was 148.69, by far his best down to throw on and well above his 118.33 season average. Brandon Harris was at his worst on first down, with a 118.35 passer rating, compared to 125.96 on second downs and 146.86 on third down. Danny Etling, too, struggled on first downs in 2016, posting a passer rating of 128.29, compared to passer ratings in the 140s on second and third down.
Quarterback, Year, 1st down Passer Rating, Overall Passer Rating
Anthony Jennings, 2014, 148.69, 118.33
Brandon Harris, 2015, 118.35, 130.49
Danny Etling, 2016,128.29,135.54 [/table]
LSU’s inability to throw on first down allowed defenses to stack boxes in big moments, taking away the power running game by outnumbering it and daring the Tigers to look to 1-on-1s in the passing game. LSU either took that dare, and failed, or simply ran it anyway, only to be stuffed in the biggest moments.
Matt Canada’s task of overhauling a passing game that, for years and with few exceptions, has been among the nation’s worst isn’t limited to one particular facet, but improving what LSU does through the air on first down is critical.
So far, so good.
On first downs against BYU, Etling was a perfect 6-for-6 for 108 yards. He picked up three first downs, hit on two plays of 25+, and had a passer rating of 251.2.
LSU was, overall, aggressive on those first downs, with an average distance of target (ADOT) of 13 yards. But Canada mixed it up. Two were play actions bombs to D.J. Chark and Russell Gage for gains of 52 and 32 yards, respectively, true shots down the field. Two were tosses to the tight end, a catch each for J.D. Moore and Foster Moreau. One was a checkdown to Guice in the flat, another a quick out to Gage. All in all, a nice balance of deep, intermediate, and short throws on first down – not at all predictable.
Let’s break it down even further. Etling had a success rate of 66.7% on first down passes, which is really good (LSU’s overall success rate in passing offense in 2016 was 41.0%, right at the national average). He threw three play action passes. He took two snaps from under center, and four from the shotgun. Two passes went to the right side of the field, two to the left, and two down the middle.
Danny Etling on First Down vs. BYU
[table] Attempts, 6
First Downs, 3
Passer Rating, 251.2
Success Rate, 66.7%,
Play Action, 3-of-3 for 95 yards
ADOT, 13 yards
Avg. Release Time, 2.435 seconds
Considering half of Etling’s first down passes were play action, for him to have gotten rid of the ball in an average of 2.435 seconds means he was decisive. He read the defenses, made quick decisions, and made accurate throws. It’s also a testament to his receivers, who were open and made plays for him.
Oh yeah, and he was pretty good on third downs, too.
LSU will face tougher defenses, and Etling will face more pressure: BYU rushed an average of 4.1 defenders on LSU’s pass plays. The Tigers were able to dictate to the Cougars, but the Tide and other SEC defenses won’t be so passive.
Still, it’s a good start, and a vast improvement on where LSU’s been on first down in recent seasons.