It's pretty obvious we're all thinking the same thing the morning after a triumphant and yet terribly frustrating night of watching our Tigers play dominant football in 2 of the 3 phases of the game only to almost have the 3rd phase (and the decisions of what to have that 3rd phase try to do) blow the game for us.
I thought the color announcer last night (who was generally colorless and whose name I never caught) had an accidently profound statement towards the end of the game when the crowd was getting, shall we say, restless. He said, "These fans know ball." Meaning, the LSU fans know when things aren't right. Meaning, redux, the LSU fans are right to think this offense is being terribly managed by the coaches, and we know that while it hasn't cost us a game yet, it will if it doesn't get better.
I am not a reactionary fan. I never have been. I have never led the chorus of fans calling for a coach's head or for major changes to be made. I am always more cautious than that, and I usually propose more subtle tweaks to strategy. At this point, however, there are several things that are clear to me and these things lead me to believe major changes need to be made.
First, it is obvious that we do not run the option well with Jordan Jefferson at quarterback. He is too hesitant in his running style and not comfortable with the decision-making involved. West Virginia's strategy in stopping our option was the opposite of what you usually see. Most teams try to force the QB to pitch the ball, preferably as early as possible. WVU seemed to try to prioritize taking away the pitch man, forcing Jefferson to keep it. They saw what we all have seen for the past year-plus, which is that Jefferson is not good at running the ball from the option.
While I wish we ran the option better, we simply don't do that, which brings up the second thing that is clear to me: someone responsible for game-planning and play-calling on offense is so stubbornly devoted to these plays that it is hurting the team. I do not like that whole, "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results," line. That's not true. Insanity is something else entirely. What that describes is not insanity but mere stubbornness. It's like someone says, "the option is a fine play and we should run it," nevermind that we don't have the personnel to run it. At least, we don't have the personnel to run it the way we run it.
While that is a game-planning problem, we have a separate problem with simple playcalling. With just over 10 minutes to go, we got possession of the ball with a 6 point lead. We had just before gone on a 7 minute drive running the football down the throat of the West Virginia defense, resulting in a disappointing yet helpful 3 points. On that drive, we ran the ball 9 times and passed it 4 times (and the drive stalled when we tried 2 straight passes). Another drive like that, and we would go up by 9 or 13 points and run the clock down to 3 minutes in the process. After running the ball 3 straight times and getting a 1st down, we abandoned the run in favor of passing with Jefferson, who promptly threw 3 straight incompletions, stopping the clock and forcing a punt. Everyone, including the announcers for the game, questioned why we stopped running the ball there, and they were right. Thankfully the defense held and got the ball back for the offense (who again promptly returned it back to WVU by punt, failing to kill the game). At this point, Jordan Jefferson was 4 of his last 15, looked completely uncomfortable both running and passing, and was generally having a terrible game, but Stevan Ridley was playing well and had been underused.
I agree with Poseur that it is time for Jordan Jefferson to watch for a bit. He is less effective now than he was at this time last year. I'll say this also, if Jarrett Lee isn't going to get his chance now, he probably should have transferred to another school this past spring for his own sake. If he can't get a chance with our QB situation looking this bad, what chance does he have of ever getting a chance short of injury to Jefferson? He got in for a series last night, and got to throw one pass, which was completed for a short gain (too short, alas, forcing a punt). Then he was promptly removed from the game and Jefferson returned to it for our last possession.
He has that same look that Jarrett Lee had towards the end of 2008. That look that says, "I have no confidence in myself." We did nothing to help Lee then, and we're doing nothing to help Jefferson now. In fact, the parallels are striking to me. In both cases, our QB lost confidence, actually got worse as the season progressed, and the playcalling steadfastly refused to help him out by abandoning the things he did the least effectively.
Les Miles stuck his neck out to keep Gary Crowton this offseason when the majority of the fan base said he should go. It makes sense right? If you're the offensive coordinator and the offense is one of the worst in the country despite having NFL calibre talent at a number of positions, you should probably be fired, right? Well, he wasn't, and the gamble to keep him has not paid off at all.
In fairness though, this offense is better than last year's offense, which couldn't do anything at all. At least now we have a power running game, and we aren't burning timeouts due to failure to get lined up properly. I suppose our playcaller/gameplanner (and I am being deliberate unspecific on who that is, because it is very unclear exactly how the power over offensive gameplanning is divided between Miles, Crowton, and Billy Gonzales) deserves credit at least for that, but now that we're doing something well, why does our playcalling abandon that something at the times it would be the most useful, i.e. late in the game when we have the lead and the ball?
I am not a fan of running the ball 40 times per game because good offenses are built on balance, but it's clear that this is our best chance to have a solid offensive output. We may not be a "good" offense, but anything better than "disaster waiting to happen" would be an improvement at this point. To do that, we would have to figure out how to give Ridley some help. No running back in this league can carry the ball that frequently and not break down. I actually thought of a way to give Ridley some help and keep the option in the playbook while at the same time minimize Jefferson's role in running it.
We should install an option package with different personnel. It's this newfangled and incredibly innovative offense I call the "wildcat." You have a specialized personnel package that comes on the field, perhaps taking the traditional quarterback off the field entirely, or perhaps leaving him in but lining him up somewhere else so that the defense can't bring in its own specialized package. You then snap the ball directly to a runner who has a number of choices of what to do with it. He can hand the ball perhaps to a wide receiver coming across the formation. He can keep the ball and run it himself. He can also run a traditional option. You may even be able to change it up by having him pass occasionally. The defense would pretty much know what's coming, but if you execute it well and keep options on the field, it can be effective. Ideally, you would want a runner who has experience taking the snap and running the option, perhaps from high school or something like that. You would also want a wide receiver with speed who is comfortable with the ball in his hands and has the ability to break big runs and make people miss. I'm open to suggestions on how to fill these roles with the personnel we have.
(I realize that some blog readers have their satire-o-meter permanently set to the 'off' posiiton. If you're confused by that previous paragraph, go turn it back on and re-read it.)
The good news is that we get Tennessee next, and they are probably the third worst team we play this season, ahead of only McNeese St. and ULM, and I'm not completely confident about them being the best of those three either. We can beat Tennessee by 2 touchdowns without throwing a pass or running the option, but I'm afraid we'll try those things anyway.