As LSU enters SEC play, what kind of team are the Tigers? ‘This is who we are’

3 months ago The Advocate 0

The shock of the new age LSU Tigers ought to have worn off three games into the 2019 season, but there are still quotes that’ll force long-time viewers of the team to read the words again.

Take LSU quarterback Joe Burrow’s answer following the Tigers’ 65-14 win over Northwestern State in Tiger Stadium Saturday night, when he was asked about the offense’s balance between the pass and the run.

“I think this is who we are as an offense,” said Burrow, who was 21 of 24 passing for 373 yards, two touchdowns and an interception before he left the game early in the third quarter. “We’re going to throw the ball to open up the run.”

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That’s a philosophy perhaps no one in Baton Rouge would have ever thought would take hold at LSU — a program that has pinned its success on running the football in the majority of the past decades.

Even Saturday’s score is a subtle point of shock. No. 4 LSU (3-0) now ranks third in the nation in scoring offense (55 points per game), trailing two Big 12 Conference schools in Baylor (59.5 points per game) and No. 5 Oklahoma (55.7).

The Tigers are on pace to shatter its school record in scoring (38.6 points per game, 2007) by more than two touchdowns.

As LSU enters Southeastern Conference play next Saturday at Vanderbilt, the shape of this team is clearly visible as the state capitol on a sunny day: the Tigers possess one of the most potent offenses in the country, and that unit will have to take the lead while the defense catches up.

The no-huddle, spread system created by offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady passed its first test in a 45-38 road win over then-No. 9 Texas, and after an impressive three-game sample size, the Tigers are confident that the success can continue within a conference that is known for its sturdy defenses.

“I have no doubt in our offense,” said wide receiver Justin Jefferson, who ranks second nationally with 374 yards receiving and has caught four touchdowns. “I still feel like we can still throw 400 yards on anybody we play against.”

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The record-setting pace of passing numbers likely won’t slow against Vanderbilt (0-2), which ranks fifth to last in FBS with 332.5 passing yards allowed per game.

Nor when the Tigers return home to Tiger Stadium on Sept. 28 for its final nonconference game against Utah State (1-1), which ranks 107th nationally with 278 passing yards allowed per game.

But then the turbulence arrives for LSU’s air attack, with a string of SEC teams ranked toward the top in passing defense: Florida (59th), Auburn (45th), Alabama (50th), Arkansas (55th) and Texas A&M (39th).

Only Mississippi State (61st) and Ole Miss (96th) rank outside the nation’s top 60 teams in that category.

Last season, Florida forced a pick-six off Burrow in the final minutes of a one-score game; Mississippi State forced four field goals in a 19-3 LSU win; and, perhaps most notably, Alabama shutout the Tigers 29-0.

What is an SEC outlook for an LSU team that now averages more than 50 points a game?

“I think it’s going to be about the same: tough defenses,” Burrow said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us, but I think we’re more prepared for it this year.”

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The LSU run game has not been as potent, and it’s clear that it hasn’t been the focus of the game plan in the team’s first three games.

LSU is averaging 37 pass attempts to 32 rush attempts per game this year.

LSU has only ran the ball fewer times than it’s passed the ball once in program history: in 1999, the Tigers went 3-8 (1-7) in former coach Gerry DiNardo’s last season and passed 405 times and rushed 308 times.

In all other seasons (LSU’s official records date back to 1938), only three other Tigers teams even passed the ball more than 45 percent of the time (2001, 47.6; 2000, 47.3; 1992, 45.2).

The way the game flows can dictate the 2019 LSU offense’s proportion, Jefferson said.

LSU had five rushing touchdowns inside Northwestern State’s red zone. And when it was clear the Tigers would only average 3.5 yards per rush against the Demons, the offense started throwing the football in the open field.

“They were stopping the run a little bit,” Jefferson said. “We were throwing the ball and they weren’t really stopping us.  So, we just kept throwing the ball and kept working around their defense.”

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As for the LSU defense, inside linebacker Jacob Phillips said the Tigers still  have “a lot to learn.”

The defense ranks 39th nationally with 18.3 points allowed per game, but LSU surrendered 38 points to Texas and had to switch from zone coverage to man when Northwestern State trailed just 24-14 at halftime.

The Tigers were missing four starters on defense against the Demons — inside linebacker Michael Divinity (coach’s decision), outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson (injury) and defensive ends Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan (injuries) — and starting free safety Todd Harris left the game in the second quarter with an apparent knee injury.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron said he had no updates on Harris’ status as of Saturday night, Divinity and Chaisson should return by the Vanderbilt game, and that he wasn’t sure whether Lawrence and Logan would be ready to play next week.

Lawrence suffered an apparent ankle injury against Texas and was on the sidelines Saturday in sweats, while Logan had his left leg propped on a scooter and his left foot wrapped up.

With the absences, LSU did not record a sack against Northwestern State until the fourth quarter, when safety Cameron Lewis and outside linebacker Travez Moore sacked Demons backup Bryce Rivers in what was then a 51-14 game.

“We still haven’t really had a game this year where the defense is leaving the game happy, proud of what we put on tape and what we did,” inside linebacker Jacob Phillips said. “Still a lot of mistakes this week. Still beginning of the season. We’ve got a lot to learn and a lot to adjust to.”

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