LSU's openers have, by and large, been mixed bags under Les Miles, and this one was no different. Last night's win over North Texas had nice mixture of good, bad and ugly with things to grow on and things to work on (10 penalties, and most of them of the pre-snap variety -- yikes!). In a lot of ways, par for the course for an opener over a cupcake opponent, especially with the week this state and this university has had. So let's get to it.
- Start with the obvious things that everybody will be taking about, the passing game, the playcalling and Zach Mettenberger. On the one hand, it feels like he's suffering a bit from the outsized expectations, because I don't think anybody would've complained about a 19-26 passing night at any point in the last couple of years. That said, the playcalling was obviously vanilla at times. It almost, at times, looked as though the offensive staff collectively decided "okay, let's work on the short passing game tonight." The "quick" concept got a lot of work -- slants, short hitches and curls and a lot of quick one-man bubble screens. Including eight first-down passes.
Some of that had to do with North Texas playing off at the corners in the early going -- and I do have to say, that the thought of an offense that will take a short pass on first-down when the defense gives a 7-10 yard cushion should excite most of us. Some of the calls might have even been "smoke" plays, where the QB and receiver audible individually to a pass while the rest of the offense executes the run-play called. These were exactly the type of throws that neither [QBs redacted] could consistently complete last season. However, it got very monotonous in the second/third quarters, as UNT began to squat down on those routes and swarm the ball-carriers. Eventually, LSU went to the constraints, the "sluggo" or slant-go and other double-move routes, and the results were some very nice plays. But ideally, you'd like to see those a bit earlier on in the course of the game.
Mettenberger himself was fairly emblematic of the team in general. He made some very nice throws, but almost seemed to get a bit lazy near the redzone, where his interception came on a bad decision and a lazy, back-foot throw. Not bad, just sloppy. The touchdown pass to Kadron Boone signified things perfectly -- a beautiful throw, putting an in-cut out in front for the receiver and away from the corner, after climbing the ladder away from pressure in the pocket. But he also missed Jarvis Landry on a post that would've been an easier six just a beat sooner. Still, remember, this was his first start.
- More troubling were some pass-protection issues that need shoring up. This offensive line had a ridiculous night of run-blocking (more on that later), but there's no two ways about it, they really struggled. Some of it was likely on Mettenberger -- the corner blitz that blew him up in the first half, in particular was the kind of play he has to see coming and throw hot on (Ed. Note: In the postgame, Mettenberger confirmed as much). But they were flat out overwhelmed at times, particularly on the right side. How much of that was mental and how much physical is something that will require further study.
- That said, if LSU had so chosen, all 500 of those offensive yards could've come on the ground, and the score of this one could've been much more lopsided. The Tigers could run the ball at will, the holes were gaping, and when they weren't, J.C. Copeland was plowing the road. Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard just might be developing into one of the country's top rushing tandems. Blue looks bigger and better-built for the tough inside running, and Hilliard has slimmed down and gained even more burst to pop the big plays. The addition of Copeland to the running game adds another wrinkle as well.
- Jarvis Landry was about as physically dominant as any 6-foot wide receiver I've ever seen. Running hard at bigger corners and blocking like a tight end in the run game. His crackdown on a linebacker sprung Hilliard's 38-yard touchdown in the early goings.
- Odell Beckham has rock-star punt returner ability, but he needs to be smart with his fielding decisions as well, taking a few chances in traffic early on. Of course, North Texas' Will Atterbery is legitimately one of the nation's best punters. Funny thing -- I was actually hoping to avoid punt return touchdowns this week, to give the offense some more reps.
- Speaking of punters, very solid day for Jamie Keehn in relief of an injured Brad Wing. His first punt did give me a bit of a Lou Brown moment. Great play kid, but don't ever do it again. If the ball goes over your head on a snap, you dive on it and kill it. Trying to pick it up and punt will, nine out of 10 times, end in disaster.
- On defense, the first thing that stood out to me was the play of the starting linebackers. Kevin Minter, Luke Muncie and Lamin Barrow combined for 17 tackles and a tackle-for-loss. They were aggressive, pressed their gaps and took advantage of the attention the Tiger d-line was drawing from blockers. And when Barrow stepped out briefly, Debo Jones stepped in and immediately sliced into the backfield for a big play. One of the more interesting schematic developments was LSU's frequent use of the A-gap blitz. That's something that, if properly utilized, can wreck absolute hell on an offense's blocking scheme.
- That said, the younger linebackers struggled a bit later on, getting caught in the wash on most of UNT's longer run plays and play-action passes. But that can be chalked up to youth right now.
- Eric Reid took a gamble on Brelan Chancellor's 80-yard touchdown, but given that he still finished with seven tackles and a hell of an interception, that can be forgiven. Plus, you know, he's Eric Reid, so nobody's really worried that he's suddenly going to start giving up huge plays on the regular. But Craig Loston had no excuse for not being able to slow Chancellor down. A fourth-year junior shouldn't struggle with angles when he's playing the deep middle. Those two will need to be on their game next week versus Washington and Keith Price.
- Overall, I can't say I expected anything radically different from this game. It's an opener, and there's always some sloppiness -- and LSU didn't have nearly as much of it as some other SEC squads this weekend. The pass-protection issue is probably my biggest concern, but, like everything else, it's nothing structural that can't be ratcheted up as the weeks go by.