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ATVS Roundtable: LSU's Season at the One-Third Mark

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We all got together to totally not shout about LSU's next move after last week's loss.

What's that glow in the distance?
What's that glow in the distance?
Well guys, we're through one-third of the 2014 LSU football season and the Tigers took a serious body blow in the loss to Mississippi State. The team's staggering and we're not even to the meat of the schedule yet. So where does LSU go from here?

ATVS Fresh Prince

If we don't have a threat of a passing attack we are screwed. Teams are going to load the box against us and they have much more talent than Miss St. so they will destroy us.

Crabshire

I'll start by echoing some of the main Twitter discussion I've seen and ultimately agree with: Start blowing things up.

LSU has played about six poor-to-mediocre quarters of football out of eight against solid competition. Jennings' accuracy problems aren't an isolated incident. Incumbent starters are struggling at almost every unit. There's little play-calling diversity or consistency, even and especially on the lines.

So blow the thing up. Harris at QB. Feature Fournette more and play 3-4 WRs. The tight ends have barely shown they can block, so make their roles optional. Make Malachi Dupre option No. 2 out wide. Adjust the O-line's blocking schemes and assignments to run outside the tackles. Stop running the FB dive every other series.

Start keying heavily on the run and trusting the secondary in man more frequently.

Those might not all need to happen, but especially on defense, if State can gash you like that, there's about five more offenses on LSU's schedule that are frightening. Just don't stay still.

dr.awesome

One of the easiest things they can do on offense is start mixing in more short passes to get the QB, Harris or Jennings, into a rhythm. One thing that has been consistent across all four games this season is a lack of rhythm in the passing game. Yeah, we've mixed in a screen or two, but nothing consistent enough to open up the offense and give our QB some confidence. If you start mixing in the short passing game (wide receiver bubbles screens, short crossing routes, etc.) and giving the QB some easy throws, it might open up things a bit for the run.  This team can't power it's way through opponents like it used to, so it's going to have to rely on using the pass to set up the run.

That may be the most terrifying thing I've ever written about LSU football. Using the pass to set up the run.  Ugh.

Poseur

I don't think they need to blow things up. It's one game, albeit one terrible, horrible, no-good game. But I think the coaching staff needs to look at the things which aren't working and change those things now before we get into SEC play. You can't wipe the slate clean, but you also can't stand pat. As much as everyone is going on about the I-formation, LSU had 40 pass plays to 32 run plays, and completely forgot Leonard Fournette was on the team in the second half. The running backs only had 20 carries total... TWENTY. If anything, LSU needs to run the ball more, not less (at least with the running backs). I've harped on Jennings a lot already, but I'll do it again: his only advantage over Harris is that he's supposed to be able to be a game manager. But given that he can't game manage, we might as well just go all in on Harris. I know there will be more growing pains with Harris, but Jennings' decision making is just too slow. He only has one weapon in his arsenal, the deep ball to Dural, and we need a QB who can hit those short and intermediate routes. Those 2nd and 7 situations turning into 3rd and 7 is not just play-calling, it's the fact that when LSU calls a pass play, Jennings looks deep, not for the 5 yard gain to get a more manageable third down. It's not the coaches getting him behind the chains, it's Jennings.

As for the defense, I'm flummoxed. The defense wasn't getting beat routinely, it was instead getting beat by big plays. when the defensive line didn't hold, which is bound to happen, the back seven fell apart. Some of it is scheme, but ultimately, it's time to just put the best guys on the field. Martin has been a disaster, put Robinson and Adams in his slot. I like the idea of letting Beckwith loose along with Kwon. Debo and Welter can make some appearances, but let's stick with the Mustang and leave Dwayne Thomas on the field as often as possible.

The biggest issue is one that has no fix: the offensive line. It's been terrible. A unit that should be among the SEC's best is arguably its worst. It is clearly the worst unit on LSU. Being unable to get two yards in four plays in the red zone is entirely on the line. That cannot happen. The best we can hope for is running more screen passes to take advantage of so many defenders flooding our backfield. I'd hate to lose the fullback because our backs need a lead blocker right now, but we can still go 3-wide to spread defenses out a tad. But really, for the line, all we have is hope. This is what we have. They have to play better. There's not much you can do to transform a line midseason.

cdub71323

It was definitely a tough blow to take, and one you would expect from a youthful team, just maybe not this soon.  What was impressive about this team was they never gave up and even had a chance at the end to win surprisingly.  There's obviously some glaring holes that I don't know how quickly they can be resolved.

The first thing that needs to happen is Harris needs to get about 80% of the snaps this coming week against New Mexico State.  He needs to be seeing the field.  We are going to take our lumps this year and it's understandable.  An 8-4 record would be very impressive, especially after everything we lost on offense and the leaders on defense.  Yes, it happens to every team, but when you lose what this team did, there's going to be a significant drop-off.  If we already know this is not a national title contender (sorry to burst the bubble), then we need to get ready for the future. The only thing that Jennings has going over Harris at this point is he's a better game manager. Harris has the livelier and more accurate arm and, he's faster. The only issue is whether he can consistently lead this team, and that needs to start this weekend. At Auburn and at Florida aren't fun games afterwards, but if you're not going to do it now, then it's not going to happen. It all comes down to whether the coaches want to use this year as a learning experience, and I think they should.

On defense, the issues start and end on the line, and even then, it's not the players themselves.  They lack a lot of depth at all 4 spots, you have some hardheads like Trey L. who hurt this team more than he realizes.  You have some asshole of an SEC coach that flagged Valentine, who could be a huge factor had he come in even just in August like Rashard did the previous year. Don't get me wrong, there is talent on the line, but they are being too heavily relied upon when they should be subbed in and out more often. With the multiple non-sustainable drives from the offense, the defense grows weary, and like we have seen for years with our own offense, that defense takes a toll. When the line hurts, then the linebackers hurt. When they both hurt, the secondary has to play the run more and give up more passes. It's all about getting the defense off the field and keeping them off.  There's NFL-caliber talent throughout this defense, but even the best can get worn down the longer they stay out there.

Billy

I'm with Awesome, in that the passing game is the easiest way to help the offense out right now, particularly the quick game. I think the question is about formations -- the I-formation is fine. Just don't be predictable out of that set. There's no law that says LSU can't throw a quick-hitter like a slant or a hitch out of that set, or a play-action pass to a back or something like that -- there were a couple of times that State was all begging the offense to try something like that. Just don't be running the same things over and over again like a basic run or a play-action deep ball.

The spread sets are important too, and LSU definitely does need to use those as well. But I don't know that the changes need to be as whole sale as others think. Just start with using some high-percentage throws on first down. Get some yardage and stay on schedule.

More than anything, you have to use all these things to put whomever plays quarterback in some better spots. Whether that's Jennings, Harris, or a combination of the two. If they're consistently facing third and long, they're going to be set up to struggle.

Is it safe to assume everybody is in favor of some form of quarterback change?

ATVS Fresh Prince

I feel like we need to at least give Harris a fair chance. Jennings go one half and Harris the other so you can actually compare their performances.

Jake

I think it starts on offense. As Billy's pointed out, there's nothing wrong with the I formation. It ain't the formation that's the big problem here. The problem here is the playcalling. We line up in the I, and teams KNOW we are going to run it. They know where, and they line up for it. And we get 2 yards. The OL needs to play better. It's been awful. But....our calls are so telegraphed. And as we all said in the preseason, this offense's success was going to be predicated on what its 3rd Downs looked like. Right now it's third & 7. Third & 8. Playcalling has to keep teams honest and on its heels. Run a bubble screen  with Quinn. Get a quick slant and get some yards. It puts this team in more fortuitous situations, instead of down and distance.

I think something's gotta change at QB because I think this team needs something to galvanize them. I think some sort of message needs to be sent to sort of get them going and give them a second life. It's not great that we're saying that in September, but I think we need to do it. Jennings had the fact he didn't make mistakes and was more experienced going for him. But the offense is just too stagnant. Harris just seems to bring a spark. And those QB keepers we ran for seemingly no success? Those are more successful with Harris. Designed runs will work a lot better with Harris. Jennings is an effective scrambler, Harris is more effective on QB designed runs.

The defense's issue is the DL. Things have to change, and I'd probably mix it up a little there. But the thing is.....we're just so thin right now. and young. As Corey said, Trey L getting hurt stupidly and whatever the hell is going on with Valentine don't help. At all. I think this is the big issue. LB's aren't great, but again just not much support from the DL.

If there are some positives, the fight shown. Dupre looks like a freaking stud. And we had a few plays vs Mississippi State that were momentum swingers. Not scoring on the goal line down 7-0. The Dak run after getting the fumble to cut it to 17-10 (and a 3rd & Long they converted. Crowd was going wild on that play). Those plays, if they go differently, change of the course of the game. And Miss State wasn't exactly always sustaining drives. They were big plays. We got gashed on them, but it's better to fix big plays than just getting systematically dominated.

Things have gotta change. Would I blow it all up? No. But we've gotta tweak stuff. A lot of stuff. Blowout NMSU, and then go in with the mindset that the season starts with Auburn.

Paul Crewe

Six different bloggers, six different opinions. Such is want to happen from a loss that's "surprising." It's hard to temper opinions on this one. We've got everything from "change the scheme" to "change the QB" to "bench everybody" to "ah, we'll be okay, just give it a little time with a couple tweaks."

I took a fair amount of heat for saying this LSU team would be an 8 or 9 game winner in the pre-season, while also stating I didn't think that would be a "disaster." Thus far, the season is playing out a lot like I expected. That doesn't make it any more fun or happy to deal with, but the issues I brought up before are displaying: a defense that's solid but not great (maybe even bad at this point), and a super green offense prone to peaks and valleys.

So how do you solve all the problems? You don't, not in one week. The clear thing here is that there are problems. We can call it "one game" and a "bad performance" if we'd like, but if we're being honest, Wisconsin played pretty similarly. Had Gary Andersen not taken a mental bathroom break, or if they didn't feature arguably the worst QB we've seen thus far, that game likely doesn't end up in our favor. We certainly didn't play all that well in it. Or, at least, we saw again the same exact issues this week.

There's only one clear thing to change right now: Anoint Harris Starter.

Don't think there's any chemistry issues and if Jennings is upset then he should have mitigated this by playing better. No one should expect Harris to walk in and be Johnny Manziel or Jameis Winston, but he needs to not only be the future, but the present. Start building now so that we aren't in the position of doing so much later in the season, or, even worse, next year.

Otherwise, I dunno. We can shuffle up personnel somewhat, but there's really not a ton of wiggle room. I'm not sure any of the back-up OL would be staggering improvements. Maybe someone like Boutte at RG with Pocic at OC, but that's quite a bit of risk too, especially when communication and chemistry have been major issues.

Defensively, bleh. We're marginal on the DL with very little depth. We knew this coming in and it's played out even worse than we imagined. Our LBs are still anywhere from bad to wretched. Our DBs haven't even been as good as advertised, to this point. The thing is, a lot of this is youth, so changing personnel isn't really going to "fix" anything. We've already begun to do that, rotating in Godchaux heavily at DT (even starting him), trying to get Adams on the field at S, etc.

What we really need is some leaps and bounds improvements, the type of thing that will take this season to happen, which likely points to a few more games like this, especially as we hit tougher opponents, but could also mean we spring a late season upset over an un-suspecting Bama or A&M.

Poseur

You didn't take heat for your preidction, you took heat for saying it wouldn't be a disappointment. The mere fact we're doing a Roundtable on "What Do We Do?" after the MSU loss shows that, yes, it would be disappointment. And you're disappointed , too. Or else you wouldn't have spent the Wisconsin game getting drunk and firing of #HOTTAKES on twitter. It's okay to be disappointed. 8 wins would be the worst season of Les Miles' career at LSU. That's pretty much disappointing by definition. No one has their worst season and jumps for joy,

However, I do agree that you can't revamp the team in the week, nor should you try. You can put in a few more 3-wide packages to get Dupre on the field more and more Mustang to get Dwayne Thomas, arguably our best defender this season, out there more (and Welter and Debo out there less). But you're not going to install a new offense or defense. You're not going to change all of the personnel. You could maybe pull Porter for Pocic, opening a hole at left guard that would have to be filled by someone like Will Clapp. Or you could bench Martin in favor of Adams at the safety slot. But I don't think that's waving the magic wand or anything.

The Wisconsin game, you're right, is instructive. Tanner McEvoy has since thrown for 33/44 for 395 yards (and BGSU has a win over Indiana and are the odds on favorite to win the MAC). LSU made him look much worse than that. And while Wisconsin forgot they had a running game against LSU in the second half, the same exact charge can be leveled at LSU against State. 20 carries total by running backs is not going to cut it, particularly with Fournette getting zero in the second half. If play-calling cost Wisconsin the win, then it certainly contributed to State's win as well. Both losing teams abandoned their star back in the second half to their detriment.

Which leaves us with the only real change you can make: anoint Harris the starter. Jennings just seems too slow out there, and the game is only going to get faster. He now has five starts under his belt, and he still only has one play in his arsenal: chuck it deep. While I like the Sexy Rexy Grossman Offense of "Screw It, I'm Chucking It Deep" as much as the next guy, it's not a functional offense. We need a QB who can make responsible decisions and hit those short passes, particularly the screens. LSU is getting behind the downs not because of play-calling, but because almost every pass play, Jennings chooses the deep route. He doesn't take what the defense gives him, and MSU was giving him a lot.

This also isn't a magic pill which solves everything. Harris is almost certainly going to struggle. He walked out on the field against Wisconsin and looked like he simply didn't know the offense. He's going to blow reads, and he's going to burn timeouts, which kills me. But he's the more talented quarterback, and if Jennings can't be a game manager, there's no point to delaying the inevitable. But if Miles is going to do it, he can't half ass it. We can't go back to a two QB system or alternate drives or whatever. Give Harris the job, and let's see what he can do. We know what Jennings can do, and it's not enough.

Billy

I think we're still finding out a lot about most of the teams in teams in this league. Although I'm not sure what Paul is describing is even an 8- or 9-win team. More like a 5- or 6-one. And I don't know that I'm ready to go that far yet. Nobody in this conference has looked so unstoppable as to say LSU has no shot. Especially with games against Ole Miss and Alabama at home.

There's some sort of midpoint between what we saw in the other games and what we saw on Saturday for this defense. Bad defense simply do not shut people out. They don't. I don't care how over-matched they are in the talent department. The Maleveto defense in 2008 never gave up less than 150 yards, not close to 93. Certainly not in this age of spread offenses.

On offense, we've seen offenses and passing games come together before. Hell, we all watched an Auburn team that LSU housed in Tiger Stadium do it. I'm fine with giving Harris a chance to take this job, but I'm wary of going all the way now unless you're willing to ride that wave. And I'm not sure the coaches will be ready for that. Give him more time this week, build out from there. If he builds on what he did last week, that'll put him starting sooner rather than later. But this is also still the same kid that couldn't spit out his playcalls in the huddle in the opener. Push him too hard, too soon and it'll backfire for everybody.

Paul

I think the real reason you go to Harris has less to do with Jennings so much as how talented Harris is. After re-watching every offensive play, he wasn't abysmal. He made some poor decisions, yes. He made some poor throws and missed wide open targets, yes. But I see a lot more promise from him than, say, Jordan Jefferson.

You referenced that he's made 5 starts now, and I think we're all treating that like it's five seasons. Easy to forget this is also a young QB ushering in a nearly entirely new set of skill players behind an offensive line that's not playing well.

But the reality is, Harris is just more talented. He's a better runner with a better arm. So my argument for turning to Harris isn't so much, "OH JENNINGS IS A WASTELAND" so much as "Harris is the present and after 4 games next year, I don't want to be saying, 'Well, he's made 5 starts, maybe we should look at Justin McMillan."

As for what I predicted and the word "disappointment," to me it depends on the context. I don't find comparing 2014 LSU to 2005/2006 and other 10 win teams nearly as relevant as looking at the composition of the current team's roster and acknowledging there would be growing pains. I think that was the nexus of our entire disagreement in the first place. Of course it's "disappointing" when you are trying to compare it to teams that featured upperclass NFL talent like Russell, Flynn, Mett, Bowe, Beckham, Landry, Hill, Addai and so forth. But for a team ushering in a mostly new offense with a young QB, 8-9 wins seems about par for the course.

Poseur

Well, clearly. The reason you go to Harris is that he's more talented. I'm not advocating benching Jennings just to bench Jennings, and I still think he has value as a backup, but because you might as well go to the more talented guy. You play the less talented player if he gives you more experience and better decision making: the classic game-manager. But Jennings is showing he's not a game manager. At all. He doesn't make good decisions (more accurately, he makes slow decisions, which is the same thing, effectively) and his default instinct is to keep throwing deep, which is the last thing his offense needs to be doing. It's that instinct which is creating so many 3rd and longs.

It's also not like I need Jennings to be Tommy Hodson after five games. But I do need him to look at least like Marcus Randall. I need to see improvement, or at least that he's recognized his mistakes and he's working on them. I don't see any of that. He's still the same guy he was against Iowa. You need to see that potential of what he can be, and I just don't see it. Someone brought up how much Jason Campbell improved in the comments. And that's true, he did improve. He also had over a 60% completion rate in his sophomore year. There was something to build on. What does Jennings do well, other than throw it deep? And do we really want an offense predicated on Travin Dural just running and going to get it?

Most importantly, it's the timing. This is the last tune up. If you're going to make the call to go to Harris, you have to do it now. If we had Auburn this week, I'd think we should just stick with Jennings instead of installing a new QB for his first start on the road in one of the most hostile environments in football. This is the chance to play Harris, and get his feet wet as the starter. If he doesn't get a majority of the reps against NMSU, you might as well stick with Jennings unless he gets hurt. This is the chance to make the decision: and indecision is, in effect, a decision.

Billy

I still think you can keep building him up, because bringing a guy in off the bench will always be easier than starting him and ripping the band-aid all the way off. Plus, if you just toss him in the deep end you're going to make everything worse trying to keep the quarterback afloat.

It's going to be more important to start helping whomever is playing the position more. Putting quarterbacks in third-and-long consistently is going to be bad for either guy. They've got to start mixing up their first-down playcalling and making sure that, no matter what, this offense is staying on schedule.

cdub71323

If the staff is fine with an 8 or 9 win season, then I say you make the change to Harris because I don't really think there is a win differential between the two at the helm.  After looking at that, I think it becomes clear Harris needs to be the starter. Like I previously said, the only thing Jennings has over Harris at this point is experience. You can bring Harris along as slowly as you want but you're not going to get anywhere doing that, subbing him in at spot times throughout the game or when it's already out of hand.  You have to allow him to take his lumps and use it as a learning experience. I think most realize he is the future at the spot, or at least until Franks possibly comes in and we are likely back discussing who should be starting.

Like you said, this is not trashing Jennings at all, throwing him under the bus, etc. because it's not all his fault.  The high point of this offense that was supposed to help the newcomers get comfortable, the line, has underperformed. I understand the skill players were better last year, but this line comes in more experienced and shouldn't be seeing the deficiencies that they are. A solid offensive line in college usually means prolonged success and the work needs to be fixed starting there.

I thought the same thing in the win column coming into this season just because of everything we lost. You have a fanbase though (and they aren't the only one), that expects double-digit win seasons every year. Sometimes you just have to go through a learning experience.  It's a tough pill to swallow, but the sooner you do, the more you can appreciate the youth that is performing this season.

Jake

Yeah, I agree with Paul, it has to do with Harris' talent. I don't see Jordan Jefferson in Jennings. I see more. And he's young. But he's just too slow, as mentioned above. He doesn't seem confident. It's all too tense. Harris brings more running the ball, and he does seem more confident. More loose. We'll take our lumps with Harris. We've seen them. But the ceiling with Harris is higher.

And we have a fanbase that expects a National Championship every season and thinks that we lost the greatest coach in the history of modern sports and now has Bill Callahan

Billy

And another angle to consider re: Harris/Jennings is the depth situation. If you roll with Harris now, Jennings checks out and transfers, you're going to be stuck with another sophomore/freshman situation in 2015 again. Keeping both guys around for another year is incredibly important.

Hell, you have to keep both guys viable for this year for in-case-of-injury purposes alone.

Jake

You're hoping by that point though that Harris develops and is THE GUY. It was different with Jennings. He was the sophomore who hardly featured, and was following a freaking beast in Zach Mettenberger. If Harris becomes the starter we'll he'll have 5-6, 7 SEC games under his belt.

Crabshire

Well, this basically became a QB discussion real quick.

Poseur

It's the only feasible thing to change. It's not like we can suddenly install the spread.

Billy

But that's just it -- using more three- or four-wide looks isn't "installing the spread." There are plenty of offenses that blend pro-style and spread sets fine. LSU was one of them last year, and they were one of those teams even back when Jimbo Fisher was around.

You just have to adjust to your talent. THAT is what seems to be the struggle at the moment.

Paul

Yeah, we're already running spread looks. I'm in favor of doing it more, but mostly because our QBs seem (not sure what the numbers bear out) more comfortable there.

dr.awesome

Ah screw it.  Let's become the Baylor of the SEC.  Chuck the ball all around the field, play no defense, and go to the Fiesta Bowl.

Jake

Already picturing the fans complaining about the I formation complaining about that.