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LSU’s radical new approach on offense: do what works

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For years, the Tigers sought to make defenses worry about power running and deep passes. Now they want defenses to worry about everything.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Louisiana State
Leonard Fournette and interim coach Ed Orgeron
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 1 criticism of Les Miles’ LSU Tigers was always the nature of their offense. They’d routinely stock up on massive OL, ultra-athletic WRs, thundering power backs, and big QBs. These various components would arrive in Baton Rouge and be plugged into a classic I-formation offense that often failed to generate much.

They never really evolved, even as Nick Saban’s Alabama did, adjusting only to hire deposed NFL offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

Defenses have evolved, mostly to address the spread-option and up-tempo practices, but defenses have a tendency to only evolve to a point that’s necessary. However, defenses that are designed out of the need to stop one style of offense often include principles that make them darn effective against other styles as well.

The old Miami 4-3 over was designed to stop the option, but it turned out to be pretty effective against everything else as well and is still in use. The same is true of Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5.

Today’s defenses weren’t finding LSU’s plodding I-formation offense to be any more difficult than previous defenses.

Miles’ offensive results over his tenure weren’t horrible, but the trend lines weren’t encouraging, based on his advanced-stats rankings and raw points totals. (He was fired after two low-scoring losses in 2016 to teams that are now in the top 10.)

As you’ll notice from the lack of explosive 40 point-per-game offenses, Miles’ teams were rarely about blowing opponents away. Early blowouts tended to occur if and when the special teams or defense led to early advantages. Otherwise LSU operated like a python, slowly choking opponents out.

The run game was everything to the offense.

And there wasn’t much nuance, other than to bang their heads against the wall and take deep shots now and then to capitalize on defenders coming downhill.

This play to open a drive against Wisconsin in the season opener is the perfect microcosm of the Miles era:

They’re in an unbalanced front with both tackles on the right side and the TE on the left. For whatever reason, they run one of their standard lead zone plays to the weak side of the formation.

Wisconsin is in man coverage and easily gets numbers to the point of attack. If not for a good lead block by the fullback and Leonard Fournette’s speed, this play would be a disaster. Instead, it’s a solid gain.

The problem isn’t that these Tigers were doing something unsound or something that only worked because of their talent. Their style never allowed them to maximize their advantages with crushing plays. At least not before the defense had been sufficiently softened up from repeated attempts to beat lead blocks and tackle players like Fournette.

Miles’ Tigers were determined to “do what they do” rather than attack weak spots with precision.

The Tigers could’ve sought to punish an approach like the one above by attacking the man coverage and landing passes until the Badgers relented and eased off the run game.

They rarely sought to force defenses to account for all of the talent on the field at the same time, save for the occasional play-action deep lob.

But then the Tigers sacked both Miles and Cameron, and interim chief Ed Orgeron took over the direction of the offense.

On their first snap under Coach O’s new offensive coordinator, promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, LSU lined up in a four-WR set and threw a traditional y-stick route combo:

Nothing fancy or shocking from that formation, but it was such a tendency-beater that it made for an easy 10-yard pitch-and-catch. The Tigers aren’t even luring the middle linebacker in with run blocking. It’s a normal drop-back concept, but Missouri can scarcely believe LSU is opening a game by simply throwing the ball.

QB Danny Etling ended up throwing 30 passes in that game for a modest 219 yards (7.3 yards per pass). Thanks to the freed-up run game, the Tigers set a school record for yards in an SEC game, with 634, and did it with Fournette on the sideline due to injury.

They started mixing in more run/pass options than before:

You didn’t see a ton of RPOs in the Miles era, but here, you have one of their sweep plays paired with a backside slant route. It’s meant to exploit the backside LB’s hard pursuit of the run fake. That leaves the slot receiver facing man coverage.

You can see No. 34 step to his left to pursue the run action, then try to make it back in time to defend this pass. He can’t.

Next, they’d set what’s believed to be a second school record, for yards per play, against Southern Miss.

By the time LSU faced Ole Miss, they were starting to become downright cruel in the ways they were opening up the offense.

Now you’ve got a sweep to Fournette from a “nub trips” set (a tight end on the side close to the sideline and three wide receivers to the wide side of the field).

It’s a stressful formation to deal with because the defense has to determine if it wants strength on the TE side to stop the run or speed to the three-WR side to account for the pass.

Both before and after the snap, LSU makes them worry about both.

The innermost slot WR is actually RB Derrius Guice, and the QB has a simple read on the middle linebacker to determine whether to hand off to Fournette to the TE’s side or to flip it out to Guice in space. Wherever Ole Miss doesn’t send numbers, that’s where the ball goes.

In this instance, the result is the same as it was for the Tigers’ when they were just pounding the ball behind waves of big bodies: an easy 5 yards.

However, LSU also kept its bigger sets involved while mixing in quick perimeter screens ...

... and frequent play-action shots down the field:

"LSU is using more multiple looks since Coach O took over," Saban said this week, "tying play-action passes with the running game."

In other words, LSU is now looking to make defenses account for every possibility in every setting.

They aren’t letting opponents gang up on the run on standard downs and only worry about the pass on third-and-long.

It’s also good for morale. As Ensminger told SB Nation:

“In two of our three games [since the coaching change], we’ve had nine different players catch a pass. We’ve had every position possible involved in the passing game. Tight ends catching the football, fullbacks. Our players are excited, because on any given play they could catch a pass,” Ensminger said.

“[Before], I would sit with our tight ends in position meetings, and look, they’re a great bunch of guys and they want that team win, but when you think you’re never going to catch a pass, that affects a player.”

When you have to account for NFL WRs and NFL RBs at the same time while navigating NFL OL, these kinds of things tend to happen:

The nickel is worried about protecting the field safety and isn’t aggressive in setting the edge, the LBs are blocked because they aren’t very good this year, and the safeties are both sitting deep and can’t arrive in time to clean up the mess. Once you allow Fournette some momentum into space, you’re putting your life into his hands.

Fournette finished the day with LSU’s third new school offensive record in three games under Orgeron: the most rushing yards by a single player in one game, 284 on only 16 carries.

With Orgeron at the helm, the Tigers seem more willing to be creative about how they use talent rather than simply seeking to bludgeon everyone.

They’re actually looking a lot like the USC offenses that Orgeron was around before he came to Baton Rouge. With this new approach, opponents can’t gang up on the Tigers’ top players anymore. Good things are happening as a result.

Even Miles has come around to the idea, saying he’s studying wide-open Baylor and Western Michigan offenses while trying to land another job.