Starting at 5:15am, I started watching the game again. I didn't watch the defense. I didn't watch the horrid special teams play. OK, that's not entirely true. I watched the goal line stand again, and I watched Chad Jones' punt return. But I really paid attention to our offensive plays, often rewinding them several times to see what was happening on the offensive line, and in particular why Mississippi State defenders kept making plays around or behind the line of scrimmage.
The problem is surprisingly difficult to diagnose. You can't really point to one player or one type of play that gave us problems. I think the problems can, however, be broken down to a couple categories:
1. There's just a pileup at the line of scrimmage. This happened surprisingly often. You can't point to any particular block that wasn't held or any particular player who made (or failed to make) a play. Everyone puts a helmet on someone, but the play blows up simply because the running back runs into a mass of bodies where the line of scrimmage was. I read an suggestion on a message board that LSU's linemen play with too narrow splits, and this contributes to problems finding holes in the middle of the field. After all, to make a hole, there needs to be neither a defensive nor an offensive player there. Unfortunately, I am not knowledgeable enough about offensive line play to evaluate that suggestion, but it works as a hypothesis in that it seems to explain the results we see and is falsifiable (widen the splits and see what happens).
2. Lineman breaks downfield and then the tackle is made in the spot he vacated. This is the one I have a really hard time understanding. I saw Josh Dworaczyk and Lyle Hitt both break downfield to get a block on a safety only to see the runner head right to the spot one or the other of them had left. I know a little bit about zone blocking, and I know that sometimes it is a lineman's duty to not worry so much about the lineman and instead get out to the second level, but it is very difficult for me to believe that this is the case when the runner is supposed to run towards his spot on the line.
In a zone blocking scheme, a lineman does not block a "man". He blocks a "lane", and if there's no one in that lane when you break off the snap, you go to the next level and see if there's a man there. You may chip or help your neighboring lineman for a split second, but your primary job when there is not a man at the line in your zone is to press forward and find a man in your path to block. But to release downfield only to find that someone has filled your gap and made the tackle unblocked right in the spot you started the play? That can't be right. Here, it is hard to say if this is an execution problem or a coaching problem. Was the lineman supposed to stay home and block the guy who ended up in his hole? Or was someone else supposed to get him? Or did we do something that tipped off the play and signaled someone to jump into the lane after the lineman ran past? Whatever it is, this happens way too much, as I've seen it in previous games too.
3. Linebacker or safety comes off the edge unblocked. Here I am talking about a play in which everyone makes a block, but there is a man unaccounted for on the outside who diagnoses the play, and gets into the backfield untouched to make a tackle. This happened on a couple big 3rd down plays, once towards the end of the first half when Jefferson pitched left to Keiland Williams on 3rd and 1, and he had nowhere to go because a linebacker came off of Ciron Black's edge and made the tackle 4 yards in the backfield. It happened on a 3rd down play in the 3rd quarter when Jefferson ran a little bootleg pass to Richard Dickson on 3rd and 2 (after 2nd and 1 lost a yard, btw), and the end or linebacker on the roll side didn't bite and didn't hesitate for even 1/2 second. Instead he went right at the spot where Jefferson was going to end up and got in his face, forcing a bad throw and another punt. Two plays in which the outside defender seemed to know exactly where the play was going and went right to the spot without being touched and made a play. Again, it's hard to diagnose where the problem was. In both cases, there was no attempt to block the man, which means either that he was not supposed to be blocked, or that the lineman in question (Black on the first, Barksdale on the second) mistakenly failed to block him. Or it could mean that Jefferson was supposed to check out of the play because there would be an unblocked man right where the play was going.
4. Lineman simply fails to hold a block. This is the easiest to spot and diagnose. Sometimes, the offensive lineman makes a block, or attempts to make a block, and just can't do it. I saw this happen to T-Bob Hebert, Josh Dworaczyk, and Joseph Barksdale more than one time each. I was also surprised at how often Richard Dickson got beat by a defender. Dickson started out his career at LSU as a blocking tight end, but if yesterday's game was any indication, he may have regressed as a blocker since his freshman season. We saw a good bit of Deangelo Peterson at tight end this game, and he has a ways to go as a blocker too. On one of Russell Shepard's runs, Peterson's spot was attacked by two Bulldog defenders and forced Peterson to make a choice of which to block and which to allow to go free. He hesitated and ended up letting both of them go. No one was immune to it, but Barksdale really seemed to get beat a good bit, and was on one occasion pushed back into Jordan Jefferson, forcing him to rush a throw.
Lyle Hitt gets a lot of criticism on the message boards, but I really did not see him get flat-out beat very much, though on a 3rd and goal option play in the second quarter, it seemed the entire right side of the offense got beat, including Hitt, Dickson, and fullback Charles Scott. Everyone seems to be singling out Hitt as a potential area to make a change, but he may have actually been our best lineman yesterday. I will confess that when I was ruminating on this game last night and early this morning, I was thinking of ways to either replace Hitt or move him to somewhere else, but after watching the game again I have cooled to that plan.
Barksdale was beaten a lot, and both of the new starters were beaten a lot. Josh Dworaczyk gets pushed into the backfield way too often. T-Bob Hebert loses him man at times. Even Ciron Black was not really All-SEC material yesterday.
The problem here is that if you're looking to make a personnel change, it is hard to figure out who to change. No one player seems to be the problem. Maybe Barksdale would benefit from a move to the inside, letting Chris Faulk or Greg Shaw have a chance at right tackle. But do you move Barksdale to right guard or left guard? Right now, I would say move him to left guard and see if that fixes the problems we're having on that side. Maybe Alex Hurst needs a chance to play at a guard spot, as he receives rave reviews from observers (then again, so did Dworaczyk). Could P.J. Lonergan be an improvement at center over T-Bob?
I think right now that a change, any change at all, may be beneficial, in that it could spark greater effort. It could make this a nastier offensive line to face.