The Johnny Manziel Circus came to Baton Rouge in late November 2013 promising all sorts of offensive fireworks. And, if LSU fans were lucky, perhaps the notorious Texas A&M quarterback would pull some kind of reality TV stunt, like trying to paint Mike the Tiger maroon.
Instead of Johnny Football fun, those assembled were treated to an old-style game of ball control by the home team. LSU dumped the Aggies, 34–10, running up a 40:19–19:41 time of possession advantage en route to 517 total yards. In an attempt to slow down the A&M spread scheme, Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron instructed QB Zach Mettenberger to be as deliberate as possible when triggering the LSU attack.
“I said to Zach, ‘Run the offense, but don’t snap the ball until there is one second left on the play clock,’” Cameron says. “Johnny Manziel didn’t really get to play that much.”
A&M averaged 73.4 plays per game during the ’13 season but ran just 59 in the loss to the Tigers. It’s possible LSU could have still beaten the Aggies by trying to match the visitors on their fastbreak terms, but that’s not how things are done in Baton Rouge. LSU is committed to defense first, and its offense is designed to work with the other side of the ball to make sure the Tigers minimize the advantages opposing attacks can gain.
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When personnel questions at key offensive positions arise, as they did in 2014 when LSU had to replace its primary quarterback, top rusher and two best receivers, the team can’t rely on its tricky scheme to keep the cascade of points going. The 2013 Tigers finished 10–3 and had a 3,000-yard passer (Mettenberger), a 1,400-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.). None of those players could be found on the ’14 roster, and LSU dropped to 8–5 behind an attack that fell from tied for 23rd in the country in scoring to a deadlock for 73rd place and an offense that fell from 35th to 77th in total yards per game. Cameron admits that “every year can be different,” but the one constant is LSU’s overriding commitment to being a strong defensive team, first and foremost.
“We play complementary offense,” he says. “Our defense plays lights out, and we recruit great punters. (Head coach Les Miles’) philosophy is that we play team offense and team football.”
Critics of the 2014 Tigers said that they were more like half a team, thanks to their offensive travails. Heading into 2015, the question is whether the Tigers will be able to contend in the ultra-competitive SEC West, or if their offense will once again sputter, as it did last year, when LSU tied for fourth in the division. The one thing we can count on is that there will be no dramatic changes in scheme as a result of last year’s slump. The Tigers will try to run a two-back offense, provided they have a suitable fullback. If that doesn’t work out, Cameron will look at his crop of tight ends, in the hopes of finding a group that allows him to be versatile at that position. But he isn’t going to spread ’em out, let it rip and try to score 60 a game.
“Our plan offensively is to win the game,” he says. “When we’re three touchdowns up, we’re not looking to make it seven touchdowns. We‘re looking to hammer you and control the clock. The mindset we want to have is that we don’t always have to have the pedal to the floor.”
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Like just about every offensive coach in college football, Cameron would like to have the kind of quarterback depth Ohio State enjoyed during its national title run. He doesn’t just want to declare a winner in the competition for the starting job under center; he wants to have two starters, the better to foster daily competition and protect against injury. Two years ago, Mettenberger tore his ACL in the Tigers’ season finale against Arkansas. Anthony Jennings, a freshman at the time, relieved him and rallied the Tigers to a win and then played wire to wire in a bowl win over Iowa.
But Jennings was erratic last year. The Tigers couldn’t throw the ball reliably and had to rely too much on Leonard Fournette and the ground attack. LSU ran it more than twice as often as it threw last year, an imbalance that must improve.
“It comes down to more accuracy and ball security,” Jennings says. “Elite quarterbacks win championships at the NFL level and the college level. If I get to that level, I think our offense can get to that level.”
Jennings had a tough 2014 season, completing 48.9 percent of his attempts and giving opponents little concern about the Tigers passing attack. When his backup, true freshman Brandon Harris, took his turn as a regular, LSU was hammered, 41–7, at Auburn. For the year, LSU averaged 162.9 passing yards per game, good for 114th in the nation. Given the team’s inability to throw, it is a borderline miracle Fournette was able to average 5.5 yards per carry against defenses that had everybody but the mascot in the box. If Jennings can produce more this year, Fournette might go for 2,000 yards and blast his way into Heisman consideration.
“Anthony can control the game, and he knows where everybody belongs,” Fournette says. “He’s a great quarterback and a better person.”
Fournette’s endorsement of Jennings is nice, but fans aren’t interested in whether the quarterback is an Eagle Scout. They want him to put pressure on opponents through the air. Cameron has said that he needs to do a better job tailoring the offense to Jennings’ talents, which sometimes is a coach’s code for the fact that the player in question isn’t able to run the complete scheme.
It didn’t help last year that the receiving corps was younger than the average boy band. This year, the wideouts will be more experienced, Fournette is five pounds lighter and much more confident — “I understand the game better,” he says. “I know where my cuts are and what the blocking scheme is.” — but the key to LSU’s success is whether Jennings can be more efficient.
He threw only seven interceptions last year, but he was sacked 22 times and was often indecisive. Even though the Tigers scored 51 points combined in their final two games — after managing a total of 23 in their previous three — there is a lot of work to do.
“Last year, I wasn’t completing enough passes for Coach Cameron to put me in position to throw a lot,” Jennings says.
Both Jennings and Harris were highly regarded dual-threat quarterbacks in high school, but neither was seen as a pure pocket passer. Without an air-raid style offense, it will always be difficult for LSU to land a top-shelf thrower. The Tigers will use four- and five-wide formations on occasion, but with a stated goal of controlling the ball on the ground in order to support a stout defense, it’s tough to attract top quarterback talent.
Miles can sell Mettenberger’s development — he started six games for the Titans last year as a rookie — but the roster of LSU quarterbacks over the years isn’t all that overwhelming, and 18-year olds aren’t likely to be swayed by Bert Jones’ exploits during the early ’70s.
So, it’s up to Cameron to find a way to make Jennings and Harris into productive passers within an LSU scheme that wants to score points but is more interested in stifling opponents. The Tigers will mix tempo, vary formations and feature the run. “We are a smash-mouth football team,” Jennings says. Even in 2013, when Mettenberger had a strong year, the Tigers still ran it 197 more times than they threw it.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Oregon had 170 more rushing attempts than throws last year. Alabama ran it 116 more times than it tossed the ball. And national champ Ohio State had a whopping 281 more plays on the ground than through the air. The difference is that each of those teams was far more accurate and efficient than Tigers through the air, creating a balance that made them difficult to defend. In a division that keeps getting better — and is devoting more money than ever to defensive coordinators — LSU simply must improve its offense or find itself continuing to win eight or nine games a year, something that isn’t good enough in Baton Rouge.
“We’re rebuilding some things,” Cameron says. “We’re looking at what Anthony and Brandon can do, and we’re reshaping our offensive line (which loses two starters). The bottom line is that we want to run the football, and we still believe in the play-action pass.”
That may not be enough to keep ’em cheering in Eugene, but for LSU, it’s just fine.
Provided the quarterbacks can do their share.
–by Michael Bradley