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Is the Offense Improving?

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By just about any measure, the LSU offense has been pretty poor this season.  Despite some improvement in the last two games, LSU ranks 8th in the SEC in scoring offense, 12th in total offense, 10th in rushing offense, and 9th in passing offense.  But at least we're 3rd in pass offense efficiency.  For the sake of completion, we rank 10th in first downs, 8th in time of possession, 7th in red zone offense, and a shocking 2nd in third down conversions.  So, we do something well. 

Take your pick of which stat you want to use, the results aren't good.  The offense probably reached its nadir against Florida, where poor play calling, a non-existent running game, and a hesitant QB resulted in a perfect storm of 162 yards of total offense, 3 points, and a miserable 3.45 yards per play average.  The bye week really couldn't have come at a better time.  Since the bye week, LSU's offense has not only performed better, it has actually looked better.  Look at the changes between the prior six games and the last two games:

  

Rushing 

Passing 

Totals

 

no. 

yds 

td 

lg 

comp

att

yds 

int

td 

lg 

Plays

Yds

YPP

First 6

35.5

123.83

0.83

33

15.50

24.50

171.17

0.50

1.33

58

60

295

4.92

Last 2

36.5

194.5

3

69

17.5

27

221

0.5

2

39

63.5

415.5

6.54

 The passing game has improved and the running game has dramatically improved, though most of that is an illusion from gaining so many yards against Tulane.  Which brings us to the real issue: is this actual improvement from the offense or is this just a function of playing two terrible defenses back to back?

I think the passing improvement is definitely real.  LSU only passed for 188 yards versus Tulane, which exceeds the average of the first six games, but not by much.  LSU spent most of the game trying to re-establish the dormant running game.  But what is encouraging is the progression of passing yards by game:

172 - 148 - 166 - 233 - 212 - 96 - 254 - 188

Looked at as a progression, the Florida game is the real outlier here.  In Jordan Jefferson's last five games, he has posted his four best total yardage numbers of the season.  This is most likely not the mirage of Auburn's defense, but real improvement as a sophomore kid gets more comfortable with the job of starting quarterback.

The running game, on the other hand, is still a huge concern.  LSU was able to outmuscle Tulane's smallish front, something that simply will not happen against Alabama.  Or probably anyone else in the SEC.  LSU rushed for 122 yards against Auburn, right in line with the season average up to that point.  In this case, Tulane is the outlier and the radical improvement of the run game is likely a one game mirage.

What does this all mean?  It means that Crowton has done a good job of building off the one thing the offense has done well all season: pass the ball efficiently.  Not only are Jefferson's numbers getting better, it is also verified by observation.  Jefferson looks better and more confident in the pocket over the last few games, Florida excluded.  It is also entirely reasonable to expect young players with little starting experience to get better as the season goes on.  

The offense is not healed.  The offensive line is still an ineffective unit.  They let up lots of sacks and don't open many holes for the running game.  But this offense is not nearly as inept as it was in September, and I have far more confidence in the passing game to gain yards than I did just a month ago.  

The running game may be a lost cause this season, but maybe there is hope now that Russell Shepard is lining up as a running back instead of as a quarterback.  He seems like he can find holes and it doesn't tip our hand when he lines up in the backfield.  We'll see how real the progress has been in the passing game this week.  The way out may be just to sling it.