It was one of the major questions of the offseason: How will LSU's offense adapt or improve in 2012? For almost all of 2011, it was good enough to stay out of the way of LSU's elite defensive and special teams units, but in the national title game, when the Tigers absolutely had to move the ball, they could not do it. In 2012, quarterback Zach Mettenberger has taken the reins, and the results of have been … decent. Mettenberger averaged 7.1 yards per pass attempt versus North Texas and Idaho, and he raised his game during LSU's 41-3 massacre of Washington (12-for-18 for 195 yards and a touchdown).
LSU is undefeated, and that's the most important thing. But at Auburn on Sep. 22, Mettenberger struggled. He completed 15 of 27 passes, was sacked twice, and averaged just 5.3 yards per pass attempt. Against a defense that allowed 5.9 yards per play to Mississippi State and 6.1 to Clemson, LSU averaged just 4.9 and barely won, 12-10. It took a spectacular defensive performance to keep LSU undefeated -- and wow, was it spectacular: 183 yards allowed, 15 tackles for loss, three takeaways and a safety -- but with quite a few better opponents on the horizon (Florida in Gainesville on October 6, South Carolina in Baton Rouge on October 13, Texas A&M in College Station on October 20, Alabama in Baton Rouge on November 3), it is probably worth it to take a look at how Auburn attacked LSU and why it worked as well as it did.
The first thing to mention is that Auburn's special teams assisted the defense significantly. Auburn is one of the few teams that can compete with LSU in this regard; AU averaged 41.7 net yards per punt (of the seven Auburn punts, two were downed inside the 20, two went for 50+ yards and two resulted in fair catches), booted touchbacks on (rare) kickoffs, and outplayed LSU in the return game. While this didn't do major damage on the scoreboard, it helped Auburn to either win or break even in the field position battle. Nine of LSU's 13 drives started no deeper than the LSU 27, and only one began in Auburn field position. While LSU may lack in dynamic offense, Les Miles' squad leverages the field incredibly well. Auburn held its own in this regard, and the special teams kept the 2010 national champions in the game until the end.
That said, the Auburn defense also held its own. For the most part, the Tigers avoided both overthinking and overpursuit, and it paid off. LSU doesn't exactly hide its intentions -- they ran 67 percent of the time on standard downs (80 percent with just one player lined up wide, 69 percent with two). Aside from a couple of successful swing passes to Spencer Ware, Auburn was well-prepared for what LSU was trying to do.
On standard downs, Auburn loaded up the box to stop the run and trusted its corners to hold down LSU's athletic but raw receiving corps. Auburn sacked Mettenberger twice in 14 standard downs pass attempts (neither time rushing more than four defenders) and didn't allow a completion on a pass thrown more than 10 yards (0-for-3); at the same time, the LSU running game struggled for big gains. Ware gained 58 yards on two carries, but 31 other standard downs rush attempts gained just 99 yards. On 12 second- or third-and-short carries, LSU never gained more than five yards. Really, Auburn lost its discipline just twice on standard downs, both on short passes to Ware. In the first quarter, Auburn blitzed on third-and-3, and Mettenberger found Ware for 11 yards on a swing pass; and in the fourth quarter, Ware broke a tackle on a short pass and gobbled up 33 yards on third-and-4. LSU averaged just 4.2 yards per play on its other 47 standard downs snaps. That is a fantastic effort from an Auburn team that was undisciplined and often over-aggressive against Clemson a few weeks ago.
LSU is not known for a dynamic, explosive passing downs offense, and on these downs Auburn did a good job of avoiding breakdowns. The Bayou Bengals were not allowed to steal yardage on the ground in passing situations (of nine passing downs carries, only one went for more than five yards), and Mettenberger faced solid pressure on five of 13 passing downs passes. Mettenberger attempted eight passes longer than 10 yards on passing downs, and he completed just three for 49 yards, all to Kadron Boone. Joshua Holsey defended a deep ball to Russell Shepard well, and for the most part, when LSU fell into a passing down, the drive ended soon after.
There was no magic here. Auburn didn't blitz much, even on passing downs, choosing instead to read and react, tackling well. Aside from those two swing passes, they remained disciplined. Auburn forced Mettenberger and the LSU offense to remain error-free and score on longer drives, and for the most part the Bayou Bengals couldn't do it.
Make no mistake: this game was a lot closer to becoming an easy LSU win than an Auburn upset. Auburn's only touchdown drive began at the LSU 26, and only twice did Auburn advance from their own territory into LSU's. Auburn's offense moved sideways or backwards almost as much as it moved forward, and LSU lineman Sam Montgomery was a wrecking ball, logging 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack. But Auburn proved that LSU's offense is not necessarily in better shape than it was last year; if you tackle well and force LSU to make one more play to score, the Tigers may eventually stall out, botch a snap, miss a field goal or come up with other ways to avoid scoring. The LSU running game is still mostly devastating, but if you can keep the game close and prevent the Tigers from simply running out the clock, you can give yourself a chance.
LSU faces Towson this weekend for a well-paid blood-letting, but the going gets much rougher in October. The Tiger defense is as good as ever, but at this point the offense still has some questions left to answer. Auburn did not use any fancy tactics or use magic to slow down LSU's offense -- they just pursued well, tackled well, and defended the ball in the air well. Plenty of other opponents on LSU's schedule are capable of equally sound -- more sound, really -- defense; LSU now has to prove it can show more consistency than it did on the Plains last Saturday night.
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