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Let's Talk: LSU's Offense Has a Problem, But People Keep Talking About the Wrong One

We all know the “what,” but we need to talk about the “why.”

Kevin C. Cox

LSU has problems on offense. I know, groundbreaking analysis, right? It isn't a secret. Everybody seems to know it. But almost nobody seems to understand why.

Take Michael Cauble's editorial from Wednesday evening.

Michael's a smart guy, and a pretty fair-minded guy. And he's right, in that it is time for LSU to make some changes. But he's off on just what they are and why they're needed. And so is Charles Hannagriff, and so is Jimmy Ott, and so is everybody who chalks the problems with this offense up to anything regarding "creativity" or "balance" or "conservatism." Anybody who talks about passing more on first down, or mixing things up, or "three yards and a cloud of dust" has a problem called confirmation bias. It's what happens when you fit what you saw in a given situation to whatever pre-conceived opinion you already had. Members of the Baton Rouge media, and by extension, the fan-base, have always thought these things about Les Miles, so it's become the default response whenever the offense struggles. It was the default reasoning with Jimbo Fisher and with Gary Crowton, even as the offense struggled to do much of anything, whether it was run OR pass. And so it gets trotted back out pretty much regularly. Les Miles is a former offensive lineman for a coach that favored the run, therefore he must favor the run, and therefore if the offense is struggling it must be because it's running too much and being too conservative.

And yes, the last few seasons, as quarterback play has struggled, the offense has skewed more towards the run. That was supposed to change this season with Zach Mettenberger, but because the offense continued to struggle, people fell back onto their old clichés.

But here's the thing. LSU's pass-run ratio was right at the 60/40 mark this season. That's the most balanced figure this program has had since the 2007 Matt Flynn/Jacob Hester-led attack, which was the most prolific in school history. It's also pretty damn close to this year's SEC divisional winners, Alabama (63/37 run/pass) and Georgia (57/43), who were, obviously, dramatically better at moving the ball compared to LSU. They also happen to be the most similar to LSU schematically as well.

So why were they able to pull off this style much more efficiently? Are these offenses you would call especially creative? Not really. Much like LSU they rely on zone-running and concept passing with a healthy dose of play-action. Same plays I identified from the LSU offense this spring.

So how about some of the other top offenses. West Virginia? Takes three days to install. Oregon? Simple concepts, repeated faster than you can keep up. The Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid -- perhaps the most influential passing attack in college football today, employed by top-level offensive teams like Texas AM, Baylor, Oklahoma State and Troy? Built around nine plays. These offenses don't work by coming up with the cleverest play-call that no defense will ever see coming. They work by focusing on themselves, and what they do best, doing that in games and adjusting to how the defense defends it. It looks creative and flashy because it works, and we tell ourselves that if a play works, a defense must not have known what was coming, regardless of whether or not that is the case.

If these examples don't demonstrate my point, how about Bill Walsh, perhaps the single most-influential offensive mind at any level in the last 50 years of football. Walsh was a subscriber to what is known as the "Nash Equilibrium." Technically, this idea has nothing to do with football, but with math. It's an extension of game theory, drawn from the mind of legendary mathematician John Nash (think Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind). It's built upon the idea that in any game with two players both will press their individual advantages until their opponent has no choice but to present weaknesses in other areas.

That's a fancy way of saying, if you do something well, make the other guy stop it.

If you're a good running team that struggles throwing the ball, the best way to get better at throwing it is to run it more and use that to create advantageous passing situations. Conversely, if you have a great passing quarterback but struggle to get push in the running game, throw the ball until the defense is so focused on dropping into coverage that they surrender easier yardage on the ground. If you want to play smart football, you treat run/pass balance is an end unto itself, not a means to an end. Throwing or running the ball, whatever isn't your strength, in a quest to "keep the defenses guessing," will help out neither. LSU's offense was at its best in 2011 when they spent so much time pounding a defense that the opponent had no choice but to give the passing game layup opportunities. That led to an attack, that while not very productive, was in the top 50 in completion percentage and top 25 in efficiency. There was no reason to change that.

In Cauble's editorial -- and I cannot stress enough that I'm only using him as an example here, I am NOT trying to pick on the guy -- he mentions that if the defense knows what is coming, one missed assignment or block can ruin a play. When is that not the case in football? Situational example: its third and one, I line up in the I-formation with two wide receivers. My opponent knows from film study that in this situation, in this alignment, I run my All-Conference tailback behind my All-Conference right guard 90 percent of the time, so he attacks that gap. If said right guard gets destroyed at the point of attack and the blitz enters the backfield, does it really matter whether I followed my tendency towards the run or broke it with a play-action pass call? Either way, that one missed block results in a bad play, regardless of how much "creativity" I show.

A good offense is a football teams' identity. What they do. The bedrock plays that you will run in almost any situation and the constraints to those plays. Game-planning, creativity, "vanilla-ness," these aren't LSU's problems, and they weren't against Clemson. LSU rightfully assumed that Clemson would load the box to stuff the Tiger running game, and attempted to use play-action passing to exploit that, back the defense off and open the running game back up. Attempting to constrain to your advantage, especially when your quarterback just came off one of the most productive months in the history of your football program, is not a bad game-plan. The problems came when Clemson's pass-rush consistently put Zach Mettenberger on the ground in the first half, and what LSU's staff did next. They focused so much on trying to get the passing game back on track, to fix the protection issues so that they could exploit Clemson's secondary; they ignored the fact that Clemson couldn't have stopped Jeremy Hill with 13 men in the box. That's been the problem far too often. Ignoring easy and simple counters over the course of the game. Panicking when the game goes off-script. There's nothing wrong with using the running game as a leveling tool when things get knocked out of balance.

Hill emerged as LSU's most dynamic runner in the second-half of the season. He broke long runs against virtually every team LSU played, and he almost always did so against a stacked defensive front. People talk about how an offense "can't run on eight or nine in the box" as though a back is plunging into a mob of defenders, and that's not the case. Part of the reason why LSU uses zone-blocking -- why it is such a successful scheme -- is because defenses have specific gaps and rushing lanes they must honor, and a smart running back can find a way to take advantage of that. Hill did so with his 47-yarder to clinch LSU's win in College Station. He also did it with a 57-yard touchdown sprint in the third quarter against Clemson. The Peach Bowl's final offensive series is another point. Sure, the play-action pass to Jarvis Landry could've won the game if it connected, but back-to-back handoffs could have as well. The difference is the runs would have been more likely to do the job even if they failed to pick up that final first down. If anything, LSU has been overly afraid to stick to those basics this season, over- and out-thinking themselves in situations where being "boring" or "playing caveman football" would've worked just as well. LSU can't be afraid of this.

Do not, and I repeat (because unless you say this sort of thing in explicit terms, people make assumptions) DO NOT take this column as a defense of Les Miles or Greg Studrawa, because it is not one. Change has to come. As Paul pointed out, offense has been too much of a struggle for this team for too many seasons now, and that has to change. But it's not an issue of whether the offense is too boring, or too old school. It's that there doesn't seem to be a consistent focus. We've seen it at times. The first 12 games of 2011. The Washington, South Carolina and Alabama games this season. But far too often things have meandered too far in too many directions when things began to struggle this season. Too much time spent looking for too many answers, while an obvious one gets ignored. The offensive flow stalls out when simply leaning on the power/zone running game could put things on autopilot while the passing game adjusts. Production and efficiency don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Another problem is quarterback recruiting and evaluation. There was no reason for LSU to be stuck with [QBs redacted] for so long while this program passed on or failed to land players like Robert Griffin III, Johnny Manziel, Tyler Wilson, E.J. Manuel, Teddy Bridgewater or even a stopgap like Russell Wilson when he left NC State two seasons ago. Maybe that's changing with Hayden Rettig and Anthony Jennings arriving this spring. Zach Mettenberger still has the talent to improve in a lot of areas, and he's already shown a lot progress from the beginning of this season, but it's hard to know what kind of a ceiling there is for him in this current environment.

Maybe the staff got so tired of hearing about the lack of a passing game that they decided to overcorrect towards it this season. They certainly traded more production and more diversity for lower efficiency this season. LSU threw nearly twice as many fourth-quarter passes in 2012 as they did in 2011. It was a big reason why five out of the last six teams on the schedule topped LSU in fourth-quarter time of possession, and it was a big reason why they struggled to close those games out (and failed, in the case of Clemson). Maybe in the heat of the game, the staff gets focused on too many plays and playmakers that they can't zero in on the ones having the best game. That might explain why Hill hasn't had more than 20 carries in a single game since Bama. What is clear is that it has to change.

It's anybody's guess as to whether there will be staff changes. You don't see demotions very often anywhere, so that makes it seem unlikely that Stud would simply go back to what he does well -- coaching offensive line. Steve Kragthorpe's illness makes that situation sticky, and on top of that he's served LSU very well on the recruiting trail. Frankly, the change doesn't have to be revolutionary. LSU doesn't have to bring in the offensive coordinator with the biggest brain in the room. They don't have to do anything that any other top-shelf program does on offense. Just keep things simple and put the assembled talent in the best position to be successful. The car doesn't need a supercharged engine, it needs a steady hand on the wheel. The mileage will pile up just the same regardless of how fast the car is moving, it just needs to stay on the road. Maybe Stud can be that hand. I have my doubts, but we've all been wrong before. If it isn't him, it falls on Miles to find one. He has responded to adversity in the past, and he will continue to do so. His tenure at LSU will end one day, but it won't be any time soon. Hell, this isn't even the darkest time we've ever seen under him. We damn sure know how to rally here at ATVS, and we plan on enjoying ourselves in the future under Miles. We will see what his next move is.

You know what won't help? Billboards screaming for a new offensive coordinator. 5,000 message board threads on the subject. It's pointless and counter-productive if anything. Miles isn't going anywhere, and he shouldn't be. Winning is hard. Ten win seasons matter, and as Poseur said, bowl games only have whatever what we attach to them. Hell, Clemson fans aren't talking about this game as some sort of program-defining turning point, because they know that problems don't magically appear or go away based on one game. Look beyond arguing about how long you told all of your friends (or how long all of your friends told you) what the problem is, and look at the problem.

Fixing it starts with Miles and the coaching staff talking about what the real problems are and how to fix them. And we, as fans, need to do the same thing. We don't need to argue about lazy, ESPN-style, drive-by analysis. We don't need to worry about how the results of a game allow us to go tell everybody on a message board "I told you so." Shit, this phenomenon isn't even unique to sports, it's one of the biggest problems in our public policy as a country. We're all too busy focusing on winning the argument that we lose sight of the problem. Confirmation bias leads to attitude polarization, and suddenly we're all too busy trying to play "gotcha!" with the people we disagree with to even think about the issue or problem that's causing the disagreement.

But all of that is beside the point of what is wrong with LSU's offense. And so is "imagination," or "inventiveness" or whatever buzzword you want to attach to a bad play. The offense doesn't need to diversify; it doesn't need to "change with the times." It needs to focus. Fundamental, not fancy.