By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Before taking a tour of the facilities Tuesday and being introduced as offensive coordinator Wednesday, Matt Canada’s only real connection to LSU was with his defensive counterpart, Dave Aranda.
Real estate connection, that is.
Canada served one season as Bret Bielema’s offensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2012 before moving on to North Carolina State. Upon moving, he put his house in Madison on the market.
Not long after, it was purchased by Aranda, the incoming defensive coordinator who spent three seasons at UW before coming to LSU last offseason.
“He actually bought my house back up in Wisconsin, when I left and he was coming,” Canada revealed with a smile. “So that’s the history we have, so that’s how it works out, and now we’re coaching at the same place, but obviously, the best defensive coordinator in a nation.”
Now that both up-and-coming assistants have made their way far south to Baton Rouge, the defensive wizard and the only offensive coordinator nominated for this year’s Broyles Award find themselves taking equal part in helping Ed Orgeron lead what he says will be “the best staff in America.”
There’s no question what Aranda can do with the elite talent that funnels into LSU. He orchestrated one of the nation’s toughest defenses to score on en route to earning a three-year extension that makes him the highest-paid assistant in college football.
Aranda’s defense allowed all of three touchdowns in four LSU losses during his debut season. Now the onus falls on Canada to do what his predecessor routinely failed to accomplish: field an offense capable of playing complementary, winning football opposite its routinely dominant D.
That’s all that matters to one of the few offensive coordinators you’ll ever hear say “stats are overrated.”
“We’re going to do a great job of winning games, period,” Canada said. “If we win 10-7, we talked to coach and that was what is important, we want to win. If we need to score more than that, we’ll find a way to score more than that. But we want to use our personnel. I think the best thing we’ve done is find a way to maximize our strengths, and minimize our weaknesses, maximize strengths of players that we have at the moment.”
That’s music to the ears of LSU fans who’ve grown weary of watching an outdated, stubbornly-ran offense break down in winnable contests against stout competition. It’s been like an anvil tied to the feet of a program that’s defended at an elite level through personnel turnover and coordinator changes.
That’s why Orgeron’s top priority upon accepting the full-time coaching gig was to retain Aranda, no matter the cost. Second on the to-list was to find an offensive mind who could match him on the other side of the ball.
Orgeron’s a CEO-style boss whose plan for success was to attract elite assistants to extrapolate results from the blue-chip talent he’d recruit and motivate. He’s executed it well so far — on paper, at least.
“They’re both great minds,” Orgeron said. “They’re both creative. They’ve both had success. They both want to be at LSU. I just can’t wait for those guys to butt heads in spring ball. Two of the best coordinators in the country on the same staff.”
Just how creative is LSU’s newest coordinator? His system includes running a healthy diet of jet sweeps off motion, some shovel passes and a few throws to the big guys up front using unbalanced formations.
Pitt right tackle Brian O’Neill took home the 2016 Piesman Trophy — like the Heisman, but for linemen who run, pass or catch the football — thanks to a throwback screen pass, designed by Canada, that O’Neill caught and rumbled into the end zone untouched for a score.
“Our offensive tackles better start working on catching passes,” Orgeron joked.
The presence of Canada and Aranda on one staff sets up practice to be quite the chess match. On one side a variable, almost amoeba-like defense that doesn’t give much of anything away before the snap.
On the other an unpredictable, balanced offense with enough creative gimmicks to keep a defense guessing. And Orgeron isn’t the only one excited to get an up close and personal look.
“The misdirection he does with all the motions and shifts and the quarterback runs,” Aranda said, “I think, as a defensive coordinator, you love to be able to see this type of offense in the spring because you see everything. You’ll see empty (backfield). You’ll see two-back runs. You’ll see spread run. You’ll see three-step drops and bootlegs and waggles and things. When we come out of spring, there won’t be one thing we haven’t seen.”
LSU’s pair of beautiful minds have faced off before, actually. Canada’s Wisconsin offense went against Aranda’s defense in 2012 when the latter was still at Utah State — he’d move into Canada’s old house in Madison one year later.
The Badgers edged out a 16-14 decision that day, a result Aranda says his side should have and could have won. His defense held a rushing attack that featured Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White in check all day long, but Canada’s offense scored just enough points to get it done.
That’s his M.O. — outscore the opposition by any means necessary.
“Really, the biggest stat I look at for us is scoring points,” Canada said. “That’s what I’ve always said, but in a game it’s scoring more points than they score. We’re not going to keep being silly to try to get this score up, so we have this kind of a scoring average. We’re going to go. Coach O will certainly dictate what the plan is for each game, and like we said, we’ve got a great defense and great talent. We just want to win. There’s nothing like Saturday night when you win a football game.”
Now on the same staff, each coordinator’s strengths can play to and feed off of the others. No more will one side of the ball have to routinely carry the other. No more will one unit routinely let the team down. LSU’s offense has lagged behind its defense for years, and the one year the Tigers boasted a great offense, back in 2013, the defense stunk.
Orgeron knows he’ll need both units executing at a high level to win, and by pairing Canada with Aranda, he’s put together the first two pieces of what could be a special puzzle.