Mitchell: What's holding back LSU, Part II
***ADVANCED TEAM ANALYSIS. Is this a case of the emperor having no clothes, no players to wear them, or is a young quarterback and patchwork offensive line merely taking a bit longer to gel? CFN's lead SEC Columnist Russ Mitchell examines this year's LSU offense by its parts in the hope of finding an answer.
READ MORE - Part One, Mitchell: What's holding back LSU
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
Last season the Tigers benefited from some steady play by fifth year senior quarterback Jarrett Lee, who would finish the year as the SEC's most efficient passing quarterback...if not the starter. The operative word in that sentence is either efficient or senior, take your pick…but they're largely interchangeable.
This year the Tigers welcomed with perhaps too much fanfare the talented but inexperienced Mettenberger. The JUCO transfer had only 11 pass attempts in mop up duty last season, and his lack of FBS experience is so far readily apparent.
The redshirt junior quarterback has been responsible for at least one turnover in every game he's started. To compound this, several of these turnovers have occurred in the red zone…both his opponents and his own.
When he's firing on all cylinders, which he has for spots in all five games, Mettenberger looks scary good. Not unlike this offense as a whole. However, those moments are at best sporadic, and he's not nearly as mobile or experienced as either of last season's quarterback duo. As such, he's looked stiff/confused at times and been more prone to getting sacked, which has stalled a good number of 2012 drives.
He performance to date reminds us a little of how Bama's A.J. McCarron looked in the first half of 2011. At this point it's hard not to expect Mettenberger will struggle against the Bama defense in November just like McCarron struggled against LSU in November 2011. Mettenberger must learn to feel the rush better and either step up into the pocket more or throw the ball away. This will likely come in time...but will he cost the Tigers two games before that? (Remember, LSU can lose to Florida or SC and still likely represent the West with a home win over Bama.)
The sacks allowed and missed assignments are merely symptoms of the cause, which for the Tigers is lack of experience. LSU had perhaps one of the nation's largest and most experienced first team offensive lines in the preseason, but after losing Faulk for the season and having to deal with several less serious but persistent injuries, LSU's offense looks more like 2009 than 2011.
Last season when LSU dealt with injuries to its starting line, it filled those holes with seniors who had starting SEC experience. Guys like Will Blackwell and T-Bob Hebert. This year, LSU's replacements are all big and very talented, but they lack the football maturity/experience that the unit's backups had in 2011.
If Saturday night was a hint, LSU's coaches may have found the right mix. Miles moved Alex Hurst from right tackle to left, benched the failing Josh Dworaczyk (albeit in the move from guard to tackle), and replace Hurst at right tackle with baby-faced Vadal Alexander, a 6-6, 350 pound true freshman from Buford, GA. On Saturday the line played much better, and wasn't responsible for any of the four sacks: three were on Mettenberger and on one a missed assignment by a running back.
I've watched virtually every SEC game at least once for more than a decade, and I can't recall a game in the Miles' era in which the Tigers fumbled the ball as many times as they did on Saturday against Towson.
While LSU has lost starting tailback Alfred Blue likely for the season and Spencer Ware is playing through a couple of nagging injuries, the Tigers depth at running back is hardly a secret. Ware, Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford are averaging 5, 7 and 6 yards per carry, respectively.
However, without a true passing threat, teams are once again starting to creep up to the line of scrimmage against this Tigers' offense. Against Auburn, LSU failed to convert on far too many third down and short running plays, as Auburn appeared to give little measure to the Bayou Bengals' passing "attack".
More important are the fumbles. If the Tigers' RBs play as carelessly as they did last Saturday against any SEC team, LSU will have a very difficult time achieving its goal of a championship season.
LSU hasn't utilized its tight ends as receivers in years – not since Jimbo Fisher left to take the FSU job. But from a receiving standpoint, the Tigers have still taken a material step backwards after losing DeAngelo Peterson to graduation last season.
Chase Clement is 3/37, with 28 of those yards coming on a wide open reception in the second half of the Towson game. Nic Jacobs had his first reception of 2012 for 21 yards, also in the second half of the Towson game…and also wide open. Sophomore Travis Dickson has one reception in his career…and that came in 2011.
However, in the rushing game LSU uses its tight ends extensively and effectively. Clement actually recovered Hilliard's fumble on the goal line against Towson (LSU's fifth fumble of the game). With Copeland likely out for a while, LSU's tight ends will be counted on even more to provide run blocking support.
Odell Beckham Jr. finally had a good receiving game against Towson, including catching wide open touchdown receptions of 27 and 53 yards (maybe LSU should throw a little more - it's receivers seem to be open a lot). However, for much of 2012 LSU's only returning starter at this position has been in a sophomore slump. Beckham emerged on the scene last year as a freshman very comfortable running routes in a pro-style offense, and earned his coach's trust by rarely dropping the ball. This year Beckham has taken a small step backward in that regard.
While the unit as a whole seems to be taking a step forward in recovering from its early season case of the drops, you can see the effect these drops have had on Mettenberger. Additionally, while as a unit LSU has some of the best pass blocking receivers in the country, there have been far too many examples of missed blocking assignments in critical situations – particularly on bubble screens and tailback passes. LSU's receivers need to improve their concentration in all facets of the game – receiving, route running and blocking.
This offseason, Les Miles conditioned LSU fans to expect that the Tigers would stretch the field a lot more in 2012, thanks to the arm strength and accuracy of Mettenberger. However, that strategy has yet to materialize. Zach was started very slowly…in the first game against North Texas only one of his 19 receptions was thrown more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. Moreover, as Mettenberger has struggled, it seems Miles has reverted back to his tried and true philosophy: run the ball and don't let your quarterback cost you a win.
In the Auburn game, we can recall only two deep throws, neither of which connected. Mettenberger's longest completion that night was a screen pass to Spencer Ware in LSU's final drive, which went for 33 yards.
On Saturday against a decent Towson secondary (ranked 1 in the FCS), LSU seemed to open things up a bit in the second half, with every deep throw not surprisingly leveraging play action. But so far LSU has done little to stretch the field consistently in 2012.
While LSU's punting has been its typical excellent self on the foot of sophomore Brad Wing, the punt return game has suffered in the absence of Tyrann Mathieu, which hurts field position for the offense. In 2011, LSU finished the season ranked 12 in the nation in punt returns, averaging 13.4 ypr. This year, after only one conference game LSU ranks 50 in this category, averaging 10.2 ypr.
We like the dynamic Beckham in the position, and to the average observer three yards might not appear like a big difference. However, in a statistic where most entries are less than five yards, that three yard difference in better represented as a percentage – roughly 30% better.
GLASS HALF FULL
LSU has time to recognize and fix these issues/mistakes, and before you panic Tiger fan, clearly LSU's offensive and defensive play calling against Towson was about as generic as it gets. There is also far too much pride and experience across this team not to have heard the fire alarms after Saturday's Towson fiasco.
Even with the fumbles and the injuries to starting tailback Alfred Blue (Idaho game) and now the fullback Copeland (Towson game), the Tigers' run offense is top twenty in the nation.
Also, while he's been sacked 11 times and not yet faced a particularly difficult defense, Mettenberger's quarterback rating is a good 150, he's thrown six touchdowns to just two interceptions, and he's completing passes (albeit short ones) at an impressive 66%. He's also respected by his teammates, and the 6-5, 230 pounder has shown he can take a hit and get back up.
WHAT COMES NEXT
The SEC schedule…including games against a series of tough defenses: @ Florida, South Carolina, @ TAMU, Bama and Mississippi State form the Tigers next five games. In total defense, these teams are ranked 17, 13, 33, 2 and 40.
Of the four FBS teams LSU has already played, only Washington has a total defense that's in the top 40 (21).
It's also not so much penalties, but when and where the penalties are coming. In the SEC's current run of six consecutive BCS titles, several teams have led or nearly led the nation in penalties the year they won the title, including these very same Tigers in 2007. But LSU's penalties this year have been particularly costly coming at key points in the game, stifling momentum and killing (or extending opponents') drives.
LSU will also have to play better in the second quarter of games. So far the Tigers are only outscoring their opponents 40-33 in the second frame. In the other three quarters, the Tigers have a 155-30 edge, including 48-0 after the halftime break.
For LSU to be successful in 2012, its defense will have to continue to perform at its peak, the big offensive line must mature/gel on the job, and Mettenberger must find more consistency. But the common thread to all three of these will be good coaching.
It's like this entire LSU team is sleeping walking through 2012, with the exception of punter Brad Wing. Some have suggested that LSU needs a challenge to rally around; that being three touchdowns plus favorites in all of their game's so far has not provided them the focus/confidence they got from the Oregon games last season.
If this is true, then LSU may not be a championship team in 2012. Championship teams do not need tricks or competition to remain focused on the task at hand.
Will the alarm clock go off in time to save LSU's run at another SEC Championship?
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
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