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Does LSU Need to Run the Ball?

Let’s dive into what’s been one of the perceived defenses of LSU’s explosive offense.

NCAA Football: Utah State at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

There will be a lot of punditry this week on whether LSU did good by themselves on account of their run heavy approach to the Utah State game. As the meat of the schedule approaches, does finding a running game actually matter?

On first down, open-field plays during the first three quarters, LSU ran the ball 19 times to 12 passes against Utah State. This is in contrast to the game plan they’ve been showing the whole year. Against Texas, for example, in the same time frame, LSU passed a whopping 18 times to seven runs. It resulted in a lot of points against a good team.

The run first approach against an out-manned Utah State team made sense considering the last time LSU stepped on the field against an inferior opponent. The Tigers hammered Vanderbilt but didn’t leave Nashville as healthy as they would have liked. There’s a good chance that the coaching staff wanted to shorten the USU game.

You would hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. LSU reverting back to a run-first approach would be suicidal given how lethal the passing game has been so far. Joe Burrow is top five in almost all major statistical passing categories. When he drops back to pass*, LSU moves the ball on average 11.5 yards.

*this doesn’t include sack yardage lost but LSU as a team has only been sacked 8 times.

Going into the Florida game, LSU sits at a below average 4.2 yards per carry. That puts them 77th in the country. They finished each of the last 4 years in the top 40 of FCS (38th, 40th, 3rd and 2nd).

Does LSU need to run the ball against the Gators?

The answer is an unequivocal no. The run-first approach in SEC play has made the Tigers champions of the league zero times since 2011. They’ve tried to hammer teams into submission with the “body blow” game plan and it hasn’t worked. A lot of the other teams on the schedule have had just as many big bodies to handle LSU’s running attack. It’s time for a new approach.

This isn’t to say LSU should never run against Florida or for the rest of the season, it means they need to find the tipping point where defenses continue to run regular fronts and coverages. They need to fear the threat of a run game. When you watch opposing defenses play against Mike Leach, they’ll often only rush three guys for the whole game and sit back in coverage. LSU should not be letting teams do any sort of stupidity like that. A run/pass ratio of 75/25 would probably do the trick. Running the ball 15-20 times is still more than enough for their dominant play action game to still be in play. At the professional level, the efficiency of a team’s run game has no correlation with their play action efficiency so LSU’s subpar rushing totals shouldn’t matter in fooling Florida’s student-athlete linebackers.

LSU’s gameplan should be to throw the ball early to take the lead and then run the ball late to secure the victory. Any other game plan probably allows the team, Florida, with the inferior quarterback in Kyle Trask, to stay in the game. Showcasing Burrow will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.

Did LSU help themselves by trying to run the ball against Utah State?

There’s a narrative that some folks believe that running ball against the Aggies was good practice for when LSU “will need it.” It’s hard to believe this when, in the most high-leverage play of the season so far, LSU threw a 61-yard touchdown pass. The Brady/Ensminger/Orgeron trifecta already showed us that they will continue to pass the ball to end games because it is their best way to move the ball forward. There’s not many a scenario when relying on a running game ranked 77th in the country would ever be a good idea given the efficient and explosive nature of the passing game. At this point, it would be simply treasonous.

LSU’s Adjustment to Trips Nub

I wrote in the offseason about how Dan Mullen’s three-receiver trips set has caused some grief for Aranda’s defense’s over the years. With Nick Fitzgerald at the helm of Mullen’s offense, the spread trips sets were used to create seams to the wide side of the field by stretching LSU’s defensive man power. Last year, Mullen showed the same spread trips sets but ran the ball to the backside. He likes to put a tight end away from trips (we call this a “nub” formation) so he still has some girth on the field. LSU countered, like they usually did by leaving the cornerback on the backside. Mullen ended up picking on Greedy Williams in the run game.

It will be interesting to see how that works this year. With Kyle Trask playing quarterback, he has a QB that is not Fitzgerald-like, so besides his counter runs to get the ball into the field side space, he could look to work the backside again. LSU comes into the game without Cordale Flott so Kristian Fulton should slide back to the weakside cornerback position. It’s a move that I think could have been made even with a healthy Flott. Fulton gives the Tigers more beef against weakside runs. He’s not afraid to get his nose a little dirty. Of course, the staff did feel like they needed Fulton at nickel on the strong side. I still believe in Kary Vincent Jr. at nickel, though.

Always an interesting battle between Aranda and Mullen.