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An examination of LSU's 2006 Running Back By Committee approach

Last year, a frustrating thing about the Tigers was what seemed like a maddening inability to get a consistently good running game going. On the surface, perhaps I complain too much: overall we managed to run the ball 445 times for 2162 yards, good for a 4.9 yards per carry average. We were 31st in the country in team rush yards per game with 165.8 (2nd highest in the SEC to Arkansas, who averaged 225.8 yards per game, the 4th highest total in the country).

We could move the ball against the Louisiana-Lafayettes of the world (or, well, Notre Dame), but not in the crunch time situations against Auburn (23 attempts, 42 yards) and Florida (25 attempts, 90 yards). Arkansas, by contrast, managed to run 45 times for 279 yards against those same Auburn Tigers in the same venue just three weeks after we were stuffed. Now, admittedly the Hogs have a far superior running game to just about anyone in the country, with McFadden and Jones back there, and suffered on the flip side from having a truly horrendous passing game (108th in the country), which proved to be their undoing as they couldn't get that going when they needed it the most against us and Florida.

We were fortunate in that our passing game last year was stout: led by Russell, Bowe, Davis, and Doucet, we finished 18th in the nation in passing yards per game, which when combined with the rushing attack put us at 11th in the country in total offense. So why am I uneasy?

Well, with Jacob Hester, Keiland Williams, Richard Murphy, and Charles Scott, we have no shortage of backs this year. I've mentioned before that I'm a bit skeptical about our entering this season with the look and feel of yet another committee year with the running backs.

Going back to the Hogs example, I'll happily concede that a running back by committee approach can work (just look at their box scores and count the number of double-digit-carry games by both McFadden and Jones), but I'm just not sure ours really does. It's one thing to be able to churn out the yards anytime against ULL or Arizona or Tulane, but what about in crunch time? How much of our rushing production was actually due to the simple fact that our passing game was so dangerous? I'm not particularly sure of any statistical proofs of "using the pass to set up the run" or vice versa, so I'll just examine what we really accomplished on the ground last year.

First, a little trivia: how many times last season do you think an individual LSU running back had 20 carries in a game? Three? Four? Try zero. How about 15 carries? Try two. In fact, in the regular season, only eight times did an individual Tiger running back get 10 carries (there were ten occurrences when including the two in the Sugar Bowl):

Player Att Yds Avg Game
KW 17 53 3.1 LSU 28, Tennessee 24
Scott 15 101 6.7 LSU 49, Tulane 7
KW 14 107 7.6 LSU 41, Notre Dame 14
Hester 13 44 3.4 LSU 49, Kentucky 0
KW 13 68 5.2 LSU 31, Arkansas 26
Hester 12 42 3.5 LSU 23, Ole Miss 20
Vincent 12 71 5.9 LSU 41, Notre Dame 14
Scott 11 27 2.5 LSU 48, MSU 17
Broussard 10 16 1.6 Auburn 7, LSU 3
Broussard 10 28 2.8 LSU 48, MSU 17

Meanwhile, there were five games last year in which we averaged less than four yards per carry. Take a look at the following table and think about it for a moment:

Result Rush Att Pass Att YPC Def Rnk
Auburn 7, LSU 3 23 37 1.8 45
LSU 48, MSU 17 38 23 2.8 36
LSU 23, Mississippi 20 30 36 2.9 94
Florida 23, LSU 10 25 41 3.6 5
LSU 31, Arkansas 26 33 22 3.7 33
LSU 45, ULL 3 36 23 4.7
LSU 28, Tennessee 24 45 36 5.1
LSU 49, Tulane 7 32 28 5.4
LSU 38, Fresno St 6 31 19 6.0
LSU 45, Arizona 3 38 23 6.1
LSU 28, Alabama 14 34 31 6.2
LSU 49, Kentucky 0 43 25 6.2
LSU 41, Notre Dame 14 37 34 6.6

In our five lowest-yards-per-carry games of the season, there were our two losses and two extremely close calls. And note that those rush defenses we were facing weren't particularly stout in terms of their yards per game ranking (that's rush defense ranking, not overall). The ENTIRE rest of the season, there was one "close call" game (Tennessee, though one could maybe argue Alabama fits) in which we had a respectable running output. Further, there were three games all season in which we passed more than we ran: the loss vs Auburn, the loss vs Florida, and the near-loss vs Ole Miss.

Of course, as I pointed out above, it's tough to figure causation here. For instance, maybe after early struggles with the run we were forced to pass in order to catch up? But come on, against Auburn we were never down by as much as a touchdown; had we some rhythm in the running game we could certainly have afforded to run the ball late. With Ole Miss, had we a decent running game we wouldn't have found ourselves down by double digits in the fourth quarter, needing to pass just to tie it up.

My personal view is that it was relatively evident that our inability to get a running game going prevented us from winning at Auburn and played a definite role versus the Gators (though our own mistakes and Florida's execution probably trumped that).

Then one could further argue that it's just not our fault that we have so many good running backs that no one stands out. I'll instead make the argument that I think we need to make sure someone - be it Murphy, Williams, or Scott - consistently gets the ball at least 15 times a game and gets a chance to develop a rhythm and become the go-to back for our offense. Sure, it'll mean that a talented back gets fewer carries than he should. Talented players sit on the bench all the time (just ask USC). There's always next year. And it's even fine if we want give the second-best back 8-10 carries a game, and just rotate that second back each week among the other three. The bottom line is I'd care not about pleasing all the running backs. There's no need to have four starters. We need to get consistency and give one of our backs the ability to develop the self confidence that he can come in in the fourth quarter against an Auburn or a Florida or a stunningly motivated Ole Miss and grind out the yards when we need it most.

That's my beef.