Better/Worse in 2016: LSU running game
When we discussed whether LSU’s passing game was going to be better or worse in 2016, the theory was simple: It couldn’t get much worse, so it almost has to get better.
One could almost take the opposite approach when discussing the Tigers’ vaunted running attack. Led by the nation’s leader in rushing yards per game, Leonard Fournette, LSU finished seventh in the nation in team rushing at 256.8 yards per game, third-best among teams in the Power 5 conferences.
Given that everybody is going to be doing their best to stack the deck against Fournette, whose 1,953 yards was third in the nation in one fewer game (the Tigers’ season opener against FCS member McNeese State didn’t happen because of a lightning storm), it would seem to be that much harder for Fournette, one of the early Heisman Trophy frontrunners, to duplicate the feat.
Or will it be? With both Fournette and impressive backup Derrius Guice back, maybe the extra year means they’ll be even better. And with fullback John David Moore healthy, perhaps Fournette can be that much more effective.
One thing is for sure. After leading the SEC in rushing last year, LSU can’t rank any higher in the league than it did a year ago.
Rushing yards per game (SEC rank): 256.8 (1st)
Rushing TDs: 36 (1st)
Yards/carry: 6.1 (1st)
There’s no doubt that Fournette is the man.
With an average of 25 carries per game last year, Fournette was the epitome of a feature back in an era of running back “stables.”
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But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case this year. Behind Fournette, LSU had one of the SEC’s most impressive freshmen runners in Guice, who rushed for 436 yards on 51 carries, an impressive 8.6 yards per carry, better than even Fournette.
Between Guice, junior Darrel Williams and sophomore Nick Brossette, the Tigers have a deep stable of backs behind the nation’s rushing leader. So it might behoove head coach Les Miles to call on Fournette less and use the stable more, both to keep Fournette fresh and to wear opponents out.
Another key factor is the fullback position where John David Moore returns after missing the second half of 2015 with a knee injury. The Tigers’ three best rushing games — 411 yards against Auburn, 396 against South Carolina and 391 against Eastern Michigan — came in the first five games of the season when the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Moore was delivering crushing blocks ahead of Fournette.
It’s a given that, barring injury, Fournette should give LSU its third straight 1,000-yard rusher and its seventh in the last 10 seasons.
One could safely bet that even if something happened to Fournette, LSU would probably have a 1,000-yard rusher as Guice would be a quality feature back for most college teams. An injury to Fournette would simply mean more carries for another potentially dominant back.
The conspiracy theory around LSU is always that Miles squashes any attempt at making the LSU offense anything more than a 1970s-era, Big Ten-style, smash-mouth running attack.
And while history tells us that’s not entirely true — Miles’ early LSU teams threw the ball just fine, and he seemed more than willing to have Zach Mettenberger chuck it around to Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry back in 2013 — it’s also highly unlikely that LSU will sway far from its run-first approach from a year ago.
The Tigers ran the ball 505 times last year to 278 passes. Will it be the same breakdown this year? Maybe not. As mentioned above, defenses will be keyed in to stop Fournette, and with quarterback Brandon Harris and leading receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural back, the Tigers should be more willing to try to exploit defenses committed to stopping the run.
The bottom line: LSU will be a run-first team, but will it be almost two runs for every pass? Probably not this time.
On the surface, one might say it would be LSU’s lack of efficiency in the passing game. When Alabama dared LSU to try to throw it last year, Harris managed to complete just 6 of 19 passes.
But that’s probably going to be obsolete this year as a an older and more experienced Harris should be good enough to beat defenses selling out to stop the run.
The bigger concern may be on the offensive line, where LSU is trying to replace starters at both tackle positions and exited spring with an iffy pair of starters. At left tackle, Maea Teuhema looked shaky in the spring game and it might be tempting to move him back to guard, where he showed great promise last year. And at right tackle, Toby Weathersby and K.J. Malone seem headed for August competition.
The issue might not be whether LSU has players good enough to play the five positions, but whether a definitive lineup gets settled on quickly enough for that group to develop the chemistry needed to open the holes for Fournette and company.
One stat that must improve
Try this number: 94 carries for 297 yards. That was what LSU managed during its three-game losing streak in November, a stretch that started with a 26-carry, 54-yard nightmare in the 30-16 loss that started the streak.
What led to the disastrous slump? Was it the ineffective passing game? The loss of Moore? Defenses figuring LSU’s offense out?
It was probably a combination of all of it. Whatever it was, if defenses start to figure LSU out this season, it needs to take the rushing game less than the better part of a month to figure out how to break out of the doldrums.
Better or worse in 2016?
Clearly, LSU can’t be much better statistically than it was in 2016.
But can it be more consistent? Sure. A three-game slump like last year can be avoided with the help of a more consistent, more potent passing game, plus some general improvements from the running game itself.
Can it be more explosive? It’s hard to be more explosive than Fournette was in a season that had him in the Heisman Trophy race well into November.
Can it be more sustainable? Yes. With the trust Guice has earned, he could get more early carries, keeping Fournette fresher and taking a greater toll on defenses. This might not only pay dividends late in games but also late in the season when opponents are wearing the scars of a season’s worth of plays. A fresher Fournette to go with a more experienced Guice could wear down the best defenses.
So can the LSU run game be better? You bet it can, even if it isn’t statistically better. If the rushing game is so good that defenses are still selling out to stop it even if Harris is beating them in the passing game, it could be more effective even if it’s gaining less yards.