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LSU's offensive regression reached its nadir (we think) with a 200-yard, six-point output versus Florida in Gainesville. Can the Tiger attack either rebound against South Carolina or win despite its offense?
Often, the veneer simply disappears with little warning. Sure, defending champion Alabama had needed a late rally to take out Arkansas on the road in 2010, but the week before the Tide were thumped by Alshon Jeffery and South Carolina, they crushed Florida, 31-6. They headed to Columbia with the third-ranked pass efficiency defense in the country. And then Stephen Garcia completed 17 of 20 passes for three touchdowns and a 208.9 passer rating, and Alabama returned to Tuscaloosa with a 14-point loss. It's safe to say at this point that, if the 2012 Tide also lose, the tumble won't have been preceded by many warning signs either -- Nick Saban's squad has been nearly perfect so far this year.
LSU, on the other hand, showed you its flaws weeks in advance. After a total decimation of Washington in Week 2, Les Miles' machine showed a few creaks and groans. The Bayou Bengals only led Idaho, 21-14, at halftime before pulling away. They never pulled away from a pretty poor Auburn team on the road. They led Towson by only a 17-9 margin at halftime and, thanks to an increasingly sloppy offense, only won by 16. LSU was winning, sure, and for all we knew they were holding something in reserve for the bigger games. But "holding something in reserve" usually means vanilla play-calling, few risks, et cetera. It doesn't mean failing to protect your quarterback (Zach Mettenberger was sacked four times in 30 pass attempts against Towson), and it doesn't mean dropping passes. LSU's offense was either lacking sharpness or ability when it headed to Gainesville the past Saturday.
Against Florida, the Tigers proved that their offense's diminishing returns had nothing to do with "holding back" or pacing itself; LSU allowed just 237 yards and 14 points against Florida, and they sacked Gator quarterback Jeff Driskel five times in just 17 pass attempts, but the Tigers lost, 14-6. They gained 64 yards on their initial drive of the game, then gained just 136 (3.4 per play) the rest of the way. The drops did not magically disappear, nor did the sacks (Mettenberger went down four times in 29 attempts). And against an excellent Florida defense, LSU running backs couldn't find holes either -- Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard combined to gain 37 yards in 13 carries.
Through six games last season, embattled LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee was completing 60 percent of his passes for 8.0 yards per pass, eight touchdowns and one interception. Mettenberger, an assumed savior heading into 2012, has thus far completed 62 percent of his passes for 8.2 yards per pass, six touchdowns and three picks. It was rather unfair to think that Mettenberger was going to give LSU a significant upgrade at the quarterback position this season; he was, after all, eligible to play last year and didn't overtake either Lee or Jordan Jefferson. But as our friends at And The Valley Shook wrote this week, Mettenberger is neither the problem nor the solution.
The offensive line has the injury excuse, as well as players constantly being shifted around. The running backs also have the injury excuse, as well as a sudden shift in the needs of the offense. No one player is to blame for that, and the players and staff are obviously working as hard as they can to rectify the problems. But what the hell is wrong with the receivers? They have no such excuse. They've just been terrible.
There just isn't a single reliable receiver on the roster right now. When Mettenberger is in trouble and just needs to unload the ball, he has no single guy he can trust. Odell Beckham is the closest thing we have to a go-to receiver, and he's been plagued by lapses in concentration. He's dropped big passes and turned the ball over as well. And he's far and away our best receiver. The passing game can't get any rhythm if the receivers drop every other ball thrown their way.
[E]verything else has started to fall apart. The running game has suddenly stopped working, we're not getting huge plays on defense (though the defense has been great), and our special teams advantage has evaporated. In fact, if there's one unit to blame, it is the special teams. LSU has dominated special teams for years, and now we're fighting to a draw at best. LSU is now losing the field position battle, and that is what is costing the team points and wins.
The special teams complaint is a bit relevant. LSU does not by any means have a poor special teams unit -- punter Brad Wing is still outstanding, and kicker Drew Alleman is solid. But the return game is no longer elite. While LSU doesn't necessarily miss Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne in its pass defense -- in 2011, the Tigers either broke up or intercepted passes on 37 percent of opponents' incompletions; in 2012, they are doing it on 35 percent of incompletions and still rank third in Passing S&P+ -- they miss the pair tremendously in the return game. Claiborne averaged 25.1 yards per kickoff return and scored a touchdown, while Mathieu averaged 15.6 yards per punt return and scored twice. In 2012, LSU kick returners Michael Ford, Odell Beckham, Jr., and Jarvis Landry are averaging a still-competent 22.9 yards per return, and Beckham is averaging 9.3 yards per punt return with one touchdown. Good? Yes. Best special teams unit in the country? No.
This wouldn't matter if the offense weren't also struggling. In terms of athleticism, LSU's receiving corps is nearly unmatched. According to Rivals.com, Odell Beckham, Jr., was a high four-star recruit, as were junior Kadron Boone and tight end Chase Clement. Sophomore Jarvis Landry and senior Russell Shepard were each five-star signees, and junior James Wright was a four-star. They are impressive specimens, but as receivers, they have not yet developed. Beckham is doing fine overall -- he is averaging 18.2 yards per catch with a 65 percent catch rate. Boone, Landry, Wright and Shepard have combined to catch 44 of 73 passes (60 percent) for 548 yards (7.5 per target), a perfectly decent average. But a lot of their damage was done early in the season. Landry and Boone combined to catch 10 of 11 passes for 128 yards (11.6 per target) against North Texas; since then, they have caught 18 of 36 for 213 yards (5.9). Beckham caught four of seven passes for 78 yards against Florida, but Mettenberger went just 7-for-18 for 80 yards to everybody else. A receiving corps deep with athletes appears short on actual receivers, and a banged up offensive line can't hold blocks long enough for Mettenberger to find somebody open.
Florida didn't feel the need to blitz much when LSU threw the ball, doing so just eight times in 29 pass attempts. The Gators did just fine with a three- or four-man rush. Facing no extra rushers, Mettenberger was sacked twice in 21 attempts (once on a broken play, once on a missed block by Spencer Ware) and completed just 10 of 19 passes for 93 yards. On passes thrown more than seven yards downfield, Mettenberger was just 1-for-4 for 11 yards. But when Florida did blitz, it was mostly effective. Mettenberger was sacked twice and completed two of his six passes, one to an LSU receiver (Beckham, who gained 56 yards on a long pass downfield, then fumbled) and one to a Florida defender (Jaylen Watkins).
LSU simply wasn't completing blocks for Mettenberger, which has been a season-long trend. LSU's offense currently ranks 116th in sack rate, and while some of that is almost certainly on Mettenberger, line play has not been up to par.
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To say the least, this is a problem with South Carolina coming to town. Florida's defense currently ranks fourth in Def. S&P+, but the Gamecocks rank right next to them in fifth. Offenses are less efficient versus the Gamecocks than the Gators, and while Florida got to Mettenberger four times with only an average pass rush (77th in Sack Rate), South Carolina has one of the best pass rushes in the country (fourth). Opponents have attempted 107 passing downs passes against the Gamecocks in 2012 and been sacked on 16 of them, a ridiculous 15-percent sack rate. It probably goes without saying that Jadeveon Clowney leads the way (he has 6.5 sacks and is on pace for over 25 tackles for loss), but he has recorded only one-fourth of South Carolina's gaudy 25 sacks. Ends Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham have four and 3.5, respectively, while tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau have 2.5 and two. Carolina delivers incredible pressure without having to blitz much, and it has the ability to clog passing lanes with linebackers. Throwing on anybody has been difficult for LSU; throwing on the Gamecocks could be nearly impossible.
At this point in the season, it is probably safe to say that South Carolina's A-game is better than LSU's. As good as LSU looked in destroying Washington, South Carolina took apart an excellent Georgia team with a similar level of domination. And while both teams have tremendous defenses, if both teams deliver their best efforts on Saturday night, the Gamecocks should win.
The problem, however, is that South Carolina has barely brought its C-game in two road trips this year. Sure, the home results have been ridiculous -- S.C. took apart East Carolina, UAB, Missouri and Georgia by an average score of 41-8 -- but the Gamecocks needed help from a late pass interference no-call to hold off Vanderbilt in the season opener, and they actually trailed Kentucky by 10 points at halftime in Lexington two weeks ago before rallying. (It could have been worse, too. Following a fumble, Kentucky had a first-and-goal with one minute left in the first half but failed to score. A 17-7 Kentucky lead could easily have been 20-7 or 24-7.) Without the Sandstorm, South Carolina has failed to find even fourth gear in 2012. And against a wounded Tiger squad, in front of an angry Tiger Stadium crowd, a mediocre effort will get the Gamecocks stomped, even if "stomped" in this case means a not-as-close-as-the-score-suggests 17-7 loss.
Les Miles has been here before. For all of his successes -- and despite his eccentricities, he has been very, very successful in Baton Rouge -- he has rarely fielded a flawless offense. The Tigers' flaws this year have been surprising; while the passing game has not always been reliable, the running game has typically been just fine, and with an iffy line and no Alfred Blue, that is currently not the case.
Still, thanks to defense and special teams alone, LSU is a solid, dangerous team, one that has, after all, lost just one regular season game since October 2010. We may have seen their failure coming from weeks out, but failing on the road is one thing. Failing at Tiger Stadium is another. If South Carolina is to remain undefeated on Sunday morning, it will have to execute at a high level despite the most hostile crowd in America. LSU's offense may not have much juice, and it might be too much to ask for this unit to return to even 2011 levels this season, but the team as a whole can still pull off a win with just a little bit of offensive output. We'll see if "a little bit" is too much to expect.