Well, we talked about it on Friday. Tricky timing, long road trip, against a jacked up opponent. And kind of a similar result: a sloppy, yet still comfortable victory. Get your on the plane, fly back home and get to work on correcting things. LSU has a get-right game against Eastern Michigan on Saturday and then its back into SEC play.
And sloppy was the best way to describe this, certainly more than BAD. Little mistakes and penalties negated big plays and allowed the Orange to hang around. Mistakes that I would describe as largely mental and caused by a lack of focus. Players were either late in doing something or using poor technique to overcome said lateness. That isn't to absolve it -- an effort like this will cost LSU a game against a team like South Carolina or Florida, to say nothing of the November gauntlet.
But at the same time, give Syracuse a lot of credit -- including the folks at Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, who were great sports last week. They were extremely well-coached on defense and disciplined. Really flew around to the ball and gang-tackled extremely well.
But perspective should apply: some half-dozen plus Top 25 (and a couple unranked but notable) teams spent yesterday derping around against weak opponents themselves. Some lost to them out right, and others were absolutely embarrassed. To the point that in the national roundup shows LSU's issues were glossed over in light of Leonard Fournette's greatness.
So just keep that in mind as we break things down:
- Box Score Report: LSU averaged 7.3 yards per play, just a tenth of a yard off last week's pace. Meanwhile Syracuse had a 4.0 average, the lowest number the LSU defense has allowed this season. But 14 penalties for 120 yards is the kind of equalizer that evens things out (and we'll get into those specifics later). If one thing was particularly frustrating for the offense, it was a 3/10 third down rate, largely set up by the aforementioned mistakes.
- Formation count: one-back/three-wide led the day, as LSU lined up in 11 personnel 25 times. The Tigers 21 personnel 16 times, including a couple of "open" I-formation looks with tight end DeSean Smith flexed out in the slot. There were 10 plays with 22 personnel and another six out of the 12 grouping.
- I have to admit, I was somewhat surprised to see that Brandon Harris's final statline was just 8-or-16, although the 157 yards was a season high and the 9.8 yards per attempt was nearly double what he's averaged in the first two games. And that's with four drops, three really bad ones, and a fifth very catchable pass that John Diarse didn't lay out for. All three plays came on third down as well. Harris took some shots early on, but did a good job of keeping his head and displayed nice pocket presence, climbing through the pocket to make some big throws late.
- Oh yeah, that Fournette guy. There's a long season to go, so I'm going to try and savey as much flowery prose for the big guy for the big games. Just know this -- we're watching something special. Just like Patrick Peterson in 2010 and Tyrann Mathieu in 2011, Fournette is just doing some things at a different level than other people, and the rest of the team is feeding off of that. There is a real sense of the moment that makes him special as a person, and opponents are going to start developing a sense of "he's going to break something eventually." That sets a running back apart, especially a 230-pound one.
- This week Fournette did a lot more on his own, running through arm tackles on the line as the offensive line gave him much less daylight to work with. Still, No. 7 found ways to take what the defense and that offensive line gave him and take some very well-timed cutbacks where either the defense made a mistake or a blocker created some extra room. On two separate Power Toss plays, Fournette took the pitch and immediately broke left away from the design of the play and picked up the first. That's NOT how that play goes, and I've never seen any other Les Miles tailback make that play.
- Speaking of which, LSU's first big play of the day, the broken-play flip from Harris that Founette took 48 yards. LSU ran a play-fake off the jet-sweep motion (which Syracuse was not honoring at all). The defensive end doesn't bite on the fake at all, and Colin Jeter just completely whiffs on his block. Harris was dead to rights but made a nice move to avoid the rush (and the defender did a nice job of grabbing Harris' ankle and holding on). From there, it was all heads-up football by No. 7. He peeled back from his block, came right behind Harris into his line of site, took a pitch and made the corner. From there, DeSean Smith peeled back for a nice block and gave him the sideline for a long gain.
I found myself remembering something similar years ago in a Tampa Bay Bucs/St. Louis Rams Monday Night Football game. Warrick Dunn took a sweep right, was hemmed in and tried to cut back. The defense bottled him up but quarterback Shaun King called for Dunn to toss him the ball and was able to pick up a first down running the opposite way. When you see something like that work you almost wonder why teams don't try and plan something like it.
- Of course the reaction to that play on twitter was "lol LSU craziness" and my immediate thought was "if Trevone Boykin makes that play it's OMG GREAT PLAY BY A SMART QB," because the narrative is that LSU can't have a good offense, so now that's basically become the default reaction whenever something happens. If a Fournette run doesn't get much, it's "see, can't give it to him on every play, LSU has to be able to pass," and if a pass is incomplete it's "why aren't you giving it to Fournette." A number of national writers are guilty of this, including some that work for SB Nation and it's sad to see the lack of critical thought from people that are paid to do just that about this game. And with just three games under its belt, there's still a lot we don't know about this LSU team.
- The first touchdown was a fantastic play call by Cam Cameron: the delayed counter out of the shot gun. Harris and Fournette both took steps to their right and came back left while William Clapp and Colin Jeter pulled. It's a play that I've seen a few other teams run, but never LSU. Perfect for an aggressive defense like the Orange. Clapp and Jeter both hit their marks and set the edge and 7 turned on the jets for 6.
- Playcalling: much better than the execution early on I think. Cameron tried to take advantage of Syracuse's pursuit with a lot of "split zone" runs, detailed here by James Light Football. The Split involves a lead blocker, like a fullback or H-back tight end, blocking against the grain of an inside zone offensive line step. Here's an example:
The backside block can help create not just a natural cutback if the defense over-pursues to the play, but even provides a lead blocker on it.
In the passing game, we definitely saw LSU attack down field more and even trot out the Four Verticals passing concept. It was the call on both Harris' long incompletion/drop to Dural, in which he laid out a beautiful throw down the sidelines off of his back foot, and the scary play to Malachi Dupre in which he took a rough landing and lost the ball. On that play, Dupre breaks open on the seam quickly, but Harris was a little late coming to him and as a result, had to throw something of a jump ball in traffic. If he'd spotted Dupre a beat sooner that's an easy completion with an RAC opportunity. But as a result he tried to get it high so Dupre could get over defenders and the tumble was a result. Can't really blame Dupre for losing it because he hit the turf HARD. Kind of surprised he wasn't concussed.
- If there's one complaint, it's that they maybe should have called a few more jet sweeps to take advantage Syracuse practically ignoring the action. Although Cameron did call one very early on that went nowhere because Jeter and Foster Moreau completely whiffed on their blocks.
- LSU's offensive line had a really bi-polar day, with pockets of dominance kind of surrounded by problems...slow pulls, late off the ball, a couple of missed checks and assignments. Pick a lineman, and he had a couple of pancakes and a couple of "hide your face in the film room" plays.
- But when it was all in synch? Perfection on the 62-yard touchdown run. Call was zone right. Ethan Pocic and Vadal Alexander turned their men outside. Will Clapp pancaked a linebacker. John David Moore torpedoed another. A nice, big hole and about seven yards of green turf. From there, No. 7 just turned on the speed and ran straight through the Syracuse secondary.
- Syracuse hits a big play to get within seven and LSU responded with another scoring drive. Harris' long pass to Dural was fantastic. Dropped back, climbed the pocket as he drew the safety up to a crossing route underneath and just uncorked it.
- The follow up fade route touchdown to Dupre was great design as well, with the receiver lined up inside the numbers. Harris read blitz and man-to-man and had a nice big area of turf to put the ball into for Dupre to run to. Fade routes aren't the most popular play-calls, but this one was set up well in terms of the spacing on the field.
- One more note on receivers: Diarse had better get his in gear after three very bad plays. Trey Quinn will be nipping on those heels soon. Ditto Tyron Johnson.
- On defense, the sloppiness jumps out because again, you still held a team just 281 yards and four yards a play. LSU could have probably shut this team out with a four-quarter effort. Halftime kind of saw a switch flip, with the offense and special teams ratcheting up some mistakes while the defense kind of went backwards a little.
- Early on, you saw Kevin Steele kind of try to defend the Orange with the base defense and all three linebackers out there. But as Syracuse stuck with a wide-running, option style of attack he moved to the nickel and dime more with some success. For the most part LSU closed quickly and bottled up the run and was annoyingly loose in pass coverage.
- Tashawn Bower's injury wasn't so serious as to keep him out of the game too long, but he didn't last long when he came back in. Depth at end is still dicey. Arden Key makes some plays but also makes some freshmen mistakes. Oddly enough I feel a little bit better at tackle after watching Frank Herron get off the ball well and Greg Gilmore make a nice sack on a spin move.
- Key and Lewis Neal were left unblocked on a lot of option plays and finished with a combined 12 tackles so...don't do that, I guess? Key in particular had a fantastic play on a zone-read: stepped wide to make the QB give it off, then collapsed hard down the line and tackled the running back for a short gain.
- The fake field goal: MENTAL ERRORS. Somebody should have recognized that Syracuse had some different personnel out there and called timeout. LSU actually had the safe defense on and wasn't all that fooled, but Jamal Adams takes a false step inside and gets tied up with Duke Riley instead of getting wide. Kevin Toliver stayed with his responsibility and came off at the right time to make the play, but credit Syracuse's Riley Dixon for making a really athletic play to get over him.
- Linebackers and underneath defenders were just consistently a step or two slow. Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley would take some false steps into the wrong gaps at times, especially when Syracuse went to Wildcat-type looks.
- The 40-yard touchdown seemed like a case of the Orange really catching the defense in the right alignment. Adams was lined up closer to the line, then bailed deep only to fly back up on a very late motion of a back into the flat. Dwayne Thomas bit on a head fake to the middle by Steve Ishmael and that was all she wrote. Was Adams supposed to maybe check something off but was thrown off by the late motion? Not sure, as both he and Thomas seemed to think they had the right idea.
- Syracuse's last scoring drive, in the final minutes with the game well decided was a great example of the poor effort. The defense just got eaten up on basic stick routes, where the receiver just turns away from the defender. Allowing too much room, and kind of looking annoyed to have to make the tackle.
- Special teams: you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and that was really clear here. LSU was awful on their first couple of plays, but slowly started to improve before a strong second half. Jamie Keehn was basically the emblematic player, with two very bad punts to start off. His next two were better, but coverage let him down. But a 28.8 net punting average is just plain bad, no matter how you slice it.
- Little things add up -- on both of Syracuse's big punt returns in the first half all it really took was one gunner out of his lane, and Devin Voorhies was the culprit both times. A couple yards out of place and there's a big lane.
- Returns: Tre'davious White has become much more solid on catching the ball but he has GOT to get better on his decision making. HE FIELDED A PUNT ON THE ONE YARD LINE. The second punt was a little closer -- I know everybody likes to say never field one inside the 10 but if the coverage is close sometimes you have to take the fair catch to preserve field position. The touchdown, however, was pure speed. Kevin Toliver made a couple hits to slow the first man, and from there White just turned on the jets and nobody on coverage could get the angle.
- Note on coverage in the second half: Sione Teuhema was absolutely flying down the field and really disrupting the blocking on kickoff returns. D.J. Chark also made a very nice catch on the onside kick. Although DeSean Smith needs to make sure that if he's going to go for a high ball he is 100-percent sure he can get it. Because his job is to block first, unless the ball is there to get.
- Finally, on to the penalties. The broke down as follows: 5 false starts/procedure fouls (!!!!), 3 personal fouls, 2 defensive pass interference calls, 3 holds and 1 blocking foul on a return.
We'll start with the good calls -- false starts are what they are, and Kevin Toliver's DPI in the fourth quarter was close enough. Some corners get away with that, and the ball was thrown far enough inside that Rickey Jefferson might have picked it off regardless, but Toliver was clearly hand-fighting with the receiver. The first-half call, however, was bunk. Yes, Jefferson jammed the receiver down the field a little, but the ball was 20 yards down the field and out of bounds. That's uncatchable.
On the holds, the first one was a legit -- Colin Jeter (he really was just awful in the game) was late off the ball and hooked his man because he was beat. Didn't get a good look at the other one, but Ethan Pocic drew one for just putting his guy on the ground cleanly.
The bigger issue is the one-sided nature of LSU games under Tom Ritter. Syracuse blockers were VERY handsy, getting jersey outside and getting into facemasks. How do you think Lewis Neal even LOST his helmet to draw the foul for playing without it? Meanwhile, Deion Jones draws a flag for a shove as a player is going out of bounds but still in (and that will follow him on a lot of close plays on the sidelines, just watch). Brandon Harris is tackled clearly out of bounds. Fournette is piled up well after the whistle, loses his helmet AND takes a low blow that took him off the field.
This isn't about fairness, or excuses, it's a question of safety. And it's one that these officials should have to answer after games. Every other person involved in this game was made available to media after the game. Tom Ritter should be as well. Not even to pick on the guy -- Texas, for all the calls they've gotten from Big 12 refs over the years, has a case here as well. There are a lot of reforms that need to be made (if the goal is to change the behavior, looking for players who do things that remove helmets should be heavily reviewed), but it's not hard to start with a little accountability.
For another example, the formation call that eliminated Fournette's 87-yard touchdown. The way these things work is that receivers always check their position with the side judge as they line up, and he points out who needs to scoot up to the line of scrimmage or back off. Dupre and Dural both check with the side judge, with Dupre backing up a step. The ESPN digital line represents the ball, but it's not technically the line -- notice that the offensive line isn't on it perfectly either. Dural appears to have his front foot on the 12-yard line, and his helmet is out over that lead foot. So if he's not on the line, he's damn close. So why did he get the go-ahead? If the judge shouted for him to step up, did he not hear it? I'd love an explanation.