Need for speed: LSU’s offense works best at a fast pace; How must the defense adjust?

4 months ago The Advocate 0

The LSU offense had a need for speed, and now that it has it, the Tigers coaching staff is trying to figure out a whole other problem.

Yes, those previous limited offensive schemes needed an upgrade. Another shutout loss to Alabama, 29-0 last season, was enough proof of that.

The Tigers needed to score more points, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron sought to better utilize the program’s annual pool of talent at offensive skill positions in a modern spread system that best suited them.

And as LSU entered the 2019 season with the up-tempo, spread offense that was constructed by offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady, the offense started humming like a hyper-efficient robot with artificial intelligence.

But like anyone who’s seen a science-fiction movie knows, sometimes that robot can get a little out of control.

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The overall benefits of LSU’s revamped offense are evident: the Tigers lead the nation in scoring (57.8 points per game). LSU hasn’t cracked the top 20 in that category since 2011, when the Tigers were national runners-up.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow is playing like a Heisman favorite, ranking among the country’s top passers with 1,520 yards (2nd), 17 touchdowns (2nd) and a 225.63 passer rating (2nd).

And back to that speed: LSU’s 28 offensive touchdown drives this season have taken an average of 2 minutes, 5 seconds — according to the team’s statistical archive. That’s nearly a half-minute faster than the team’s pace on touchdown drives in 2018 (2 minutes, 28 seconds).

Even LSU’s total offensive drives — punts, turnovers and half interruptions included — are happening nearly a full minute faster on average (2 minutes, 6 seconds) than the Tigers’ offensive drives in 2018 (2 minutes, 54 seconds).

In LSU’s 66-38 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Tigers scored touchdowns on each of its four drives of the game and each drive took fewer than two minutes and required no more than five plays.

The 28-7 first-quarter lead tied a school record for most points scored against a Southeastern Conference opponent, last matched in LSU’s 62-0 win over then-SEC member Tulane in 1965.

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But remember that out-of-control robot — that Michael Crichton “Butterfly Effect.”

Not all those points in Nashville were the Tigers’ doing.

Vanderbilt’s 38 points were the most scored by an LSU opponent in regulation since the Tigers beat Texas A&M 54-39 in 2016.

Some of the defensive issues had to do with the tall injury pile, which included starting defensive ends Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan, pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson and free safety Todd Harris.

Some of it had to do with the inexperienced depth that replaced those players: junior defensive end Justin Thomas had his first career start against Vanderbilt, and Orgeron said he stepped out of his gap on the first play of the game, which led to a 41-yard run by Commodores running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

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But there’s also some defensive issues because of LSU’s extreme offensive pace.

No, it’s not the amount of plays, Orgeron said. The defense is actually averaging fewer plays through four games in 2019 (68 per game) than it played through four games in 2018 (71.8).

It’s that dizzying rate of scoring. LSU is averaging only 2 minutes, 19 seconds per scoring drive this season (field goals included), which is also nearly a minute faster than 2018 (3 minutes, 12 seconds).

“That’s not a lot of rest on the sideline,” Orgeron said Tuesday.

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Don’t expect the Tigers to change their offensive philosophy now — especially while it’s functioning at a historic level.

“There may be a time where we have to slow the offense down,” Orgeron said. “But when you score 66 points, you’ve got to let them go.”

LSU has also struggled offensively when they’ve slowed the offense down.

In the first three drives of LSU’s 45-38 win over then-No. 9 Texas, the Tigers averaged 3 minutes, 47 seconds per drive.

LSU kicked a field goal, threw an interception and punted in those three drives.

Burrow said after the game that he checked in with Ensminger following those drives, and he received a pretty clear adjustment.

“Coach (Ensminger) just said, ‘Screw it, we’re gonna go fast and make them get lined up to us,'” Burrow said. “We kind of got them on their heels.”

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LSU averaged 2 minutes, 4 seconds on its next nine drives, and the Tigers scored five touchdowns, kicked two field goals and punted twice.

Faster does seem to be better for the LSU offense.

On the four drives that have taken more than four minutes this season, LSU has kicked two field goals and punted twice.

When a drive takes fewer than three minutes, the Tigers score a touchdown 60 percent of the time.

So what’s the solution for the defense?

“When we have a quick scoring drive, we’re going to have to make sure that guys are fresh or we may have substitute guys,” Orgeron said. “We’re just going to have to regulate that.”

The substitution list is light with the injuries on defense.

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The coaching staff had to move tight end TK McLendon to the defensive line due to the injuries to Lawrence and Logan. Orgeron said he is “doubtful” for Lawrence to return by LSU’s game against Utah State on Oct. 5, and he’s said that Logan could return as soon as the Florida game on Oct. 12.

Senior linebacker Michael Divinity also suffered an apparent leg injury while making a tackle in the Vanderbilt game, and Orgeron said on 104.5 ESPN’s “Off the Bench” Tuesday morning that Divinity will be out “a couple weeks” with the injury.

True freshman nose tackle Joseph Evans also recorded his first start against Vanderbilt, and junior Cameron Lewis filled in at free safety at times for Harris, who is out for the season with an apparent knee injury.

“Some guys are going to have to play,” Orgeron said.

“These guys got to step up,” Orgeron said. “I do believe when we get K’Lavon Chaisson back he’s going to help us. When we get Glen Logan and Rashard Lawrence back, now we’re going to be able to go three-deep on the defensive line, which would help.

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