The numbers and the team results say two different things. In his first three games of 2018, new LSU QB Joe Burrow completed just 36 of 78 passes for 540 yards at 6.9 yards per throw, with three TDs and no interceptions. Adjusted for sacks, he chipped in 17 carries for 71 rushing yards and another score. Burrow didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes in any of the three games, and LSU’s offense finished them ranked 76th in S&P+.
On the other hand, the Tigers reached 3-0 with wins over Miami and at Auburn, the latter of which snapped a 13-game home winning streak. The LSU defense is playing at a high level (predictably), and thus far the Tigers have been able to get the offense they need.
LSU still has a bunch of difficult dates on its schedule. Whether or not Burrow is good figures to have a substantial impact on whether the Tigers keep finding wins. Is he?
LSU has a diverse offense that demands a lot of Burrow.
The Tigers are much more spread-oriented now than they ever were under Les Miles, or even last year under Matt Canada, who geared the offense around running the jet sweep from under center. The 2018 Tigers spend a lot of time in the shotgun with three receivers, stretching the defense to the hash marks and beyond.
They’re fairly deep at receiver, with Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles, big targets Dee Anderson (6’5, 220 pounds) and Stephen Sullivan (6’6, 235), and emerging star Justin Jefferson. Heading into the season, the perception was that LSU’s talent was really clustered here, rather than at RB, where the program has been absurdly loaded the last few years.
It’s still a run-centric team, though. LSU spends some time under center and often employs spread sets to create space for the run game. The passing game Burrow leads is heavy on play action and RPOs designed to help or benefit from the threat of the run game, although it also has some other drop-back plays mixed in to offer options on passing downs.
Take this third-and-12 conversion against Auburn:
It’s a typical drop-back menu, with the receivers running a stick route and slot fade to the three-WR side and then a whip/dig combination to the boundary. Auburn plays a safety deep over the three-WR side, so Burrow works the whip-dig combination, throwing the dig for a first down.
Like many spread systems, this LSU offense asks a number of different things from Burrow. It has to, so it can make the most of the spacing and stress created by its formations and talent distribution across the field.
Defenses seem at least a little worried about Burrow’s arm, and LSU’s running game has benefitted.
Imagine Leonard Fournette operating in space like this:
The Hurricanes are playing with a deep-half safety to one side and then a robber safety to the other. The robber is sitting in the window for the slant route by the slot receiver before trying to close on the run. The Miami nickel is also staying wide to help defend any quick passes to the flats. The result is six-on-six for the LSU OL and TE against the Miami front and an open cutback lane for RB Nick Brosette to blast through before the safeties can arrive.
It’s a similar story here against Auburn:
Much like Miami, which played “three over two” against the threat of an RPO toss to the twin receivers, War Eagle is playing “four over three,” and the middle LB is taking a pass drop to prevent a quick toss to the slot. The LSU OL and TE are against seven defenders, but one is a CB, and another is a safety 9 yards off the ball. Brosette is about 9 yards down the field before he encounters an Auburn defender, the late-coming middle linebacker.
The Tigers are getting the ideal spread compromise from opponents who are playing to stop the pass first at the expense of yielding some space and favorable matchups for the run game.
LSU has also leaned on Burrow’s mobility some in the run game, utilizing a few “Bash” and single-wing-style QB runs for him.
The Tigers got mixed results from this concept against Auburn. In this instance, it set up a TD dive on their opening drive. Later, it nearly got Burrow killed.
The idea is to give the offense a plus-one numbers advantage at the point of attack in obvious run situations. Burrow has the mobility and toughness to evade pressures, scramble, and run some of these types of schemes, although no one will confuse with Johnny Manziel or Cam Newton on any of it. It’s a useful changeup for the Tigers and one more thing for opponents to worry about in key situations.
Burrow has brought a lot out of LSU’s skilled athletes, even when it hasn’t shown up in his numbers.
Over in Stillwater, former LSU transfer Tyron Johnson has caught eight balls for 185 yards this season in an Oklahoma State uniform. The former five-star recruit transferred to play for Mike Gundy in order to be in a spread offensive scheme where he could finally count on being involved. LSU has regularly had amazing receivers and seldom made much of it.
Maybe that’s changing in 2018. The two final scoring drives that put LSU over the top in Auburn both included “dig-go” combinations designed to make the most of the Tiger wideouts when isolated down the field. First came a TD to Derrick Dillon:
The Auburn field safety dropped deep to take away the go or post route outside and left the linebackers isolated on the dig route over the middle. Burrow barely cleared the second level, but then Dillon was running full speed across the boundary safety’s face, and it was six points. Then on the game-winning drive, a pass interference call helped LSU get home:
Auburn brings a blitz, so the dig route runs shallow as a hot read, but Burrow instead targets Jefferson deep down the sideline, where he’s won outside. It’s a good ball and only incomplete because Jefferson has but one hand available to try to bring it in. An official throws a flag, and after some clock runout, LSU can kick a field goal to win.
You don’t see defensive pass interference calls on the stat sheet.
You don’t see the longer runs enabled by conservative coverages designed to stop the pass. A few short runs by the QB on third down don’t add up to much on the box score.
All of them matter a lot, though, when it comes to making the most of offensive talent and playing winning football. Whatever the numbers say, Burrow’s given LSU that much.