LSU-Wisconsin analysis: Another season, more offensive dysfunction for Tigers
On LSU’s first series in Saturday’s 16-14 loss to Wisconsin, the Tigers ran the ball three times, twice with Leonard Fournette, but could not get a first down. On the second series, quarterback Brandon Harris passed three straight plays, all incomplete.
And with that, the message was sent not even midway through the first quarter of the first game of the season: The dysfunction that is the Tigers’ offense had not been fixed. It had, instead, picked up where it left off during the crisis that was Les Miles’ job status at the end of last year.
And it manifested itself in the Tigers’ first regular-season, nonconference loss of the Miles era, one that will surely have his detractors howling.
Here’s an analysis of the loss at Lambeau:
- Ball control? Move the chains!: If you are a team that is going to use the power running game as the basis of your offense, you have to consistently be able to move the chains and string together first downs, even if you don’t necessarily drive for points because playing field position is an important part of that strategy. LSU failed to move the chains on the first possession of each half and on five of its 12 possessions. For a power team, that’s unacceptable.
- Harris looks the same: For all the talk in the offseason of Brandon Harris improving, he looked like the same guy Saturday in going 12-for-21 for 131 yards. At times, he looked confused by Wisconsin’s defensive looks. He misfired on the short- and medium-range passes one needs to make to keep drives alive. And, of course, he threw the crucial interception with the Tigers on the edge of range for a game-winning field goal in the final minute. How much of the responsibility does the quarterback have for finding a way to move the chains? LSU hasn’t done it consistently well with Harris at quarterback.
- O-line flaws: It doesn’t help that the offensive line looked suspect. Blitzes weren’t picked up (because of blown assignments or a check Harris did not catch? That’s a legitimate question), and the Tigers struggled to block the edges with their new pair of tackles (Toby Weathersby, K.J. Malone and alternating sub Maea Teuhema). Granted, Wisconsin may have the best front LSU will see outside of Alabama. But these are the games that define how good you are and, on Saturday, this unit was not very good.
- Not very special: Another area where LSU is frustratingly stuck in neutral is on special teams. Freshman punter Josh Growden averaged just 32.4 yards per punt. Kickoff specialist Cameron Gamble booted one out of bounds. As important as moving the chains is to playing the field position game, so is flipping the field with special teams. Right now, the Tigers look bad in that aspect of the game, an issue that has carried over from last season.
- The defense looks fine: LSU’s defense gave up 339 yards on 73 plays and just one touchdown. Given how long the unit was on the field, that’s a pretty good performance. Plus, the Tigers created three turnovers — two leading to scores, including one scored by the defense — and two of the three field goals the Badgers managed were long attempts (hats off to Wisconsin’s Rafael Gaglianone for nailing attempts from 48 and 47 yards in clutch situations and going 3-for-3 overall). Dave Aranda had his unit looking better than it did last year under Kevin Steele.
Offense: D — Harris struggled and the Tigers could not sustain drives, scoring only on a single, two-play drive. The offensive line appears to have regressed and Harris looks the same. For a team that will hang its hat on controlling the ball, it needs a quarterback more consistent than what Harris has been. The question is, will he ever be better at delivering the high-percentage play, or is he simply a strong arm that’s going to drop the occasional bomb?
Defense: B+ — Corey Clement, lost most of last year because of injury, looked like the running back of old for Wisconsin, running with power and determination. Yet, despite the defense getting stuck on the field all day, the Tigers held him to 86 yards on 21 carries. The defense created three turnovers. If the offense can stay on the field more, this has a chance to be a dominant defense.
Special Teams: D — Poor punting and poor kickoffs with nothing special from the return teams sum up the day for the Tigers. The special teams did nothing remarkable and, between poor punts and a kickoff out of bounds, often hurt the effort.
Coaching: C- — Aranda carried the staff on this day with the defense’s effort. The offense didn’t have answers, and Harris wasted two timeouts in the second half because play calls did not come in efficiently from the sideline, an issue that came to play in the Tigers’ failed attempt at a last-minute drive. Does all this sound familiar to Miles’ detractors?
Overall: D — Look, Wisconsin is better than many gave the Badgers credit for, but LSU has too much talent to lose that game. But if it weren’t for two turnovers the Badgers certainly think they should not have committed — Bart Houston’s interception thrown to Tre’Davious White for a pick-six was ill-advised and George Rushing’s fumble was due, in part, to careless handling of the ball — this could have been a completely one-sided affair in the the favor of a team that, in any reasonable scout’s eye, was seen as generally undermanned.
The Tigers were their usual selves, looking to bully the Wisconsin front with Fournette, who was effective in the second half after a slow start, finishing with 138 rushing yards on 23 carries and adding 38 yards in receiving, including a 31-yard catch that set up a touchdown. Defensively, LSU did not allow big plays and created turnovers, two things that, in Aranda’s scheme, the Tigers were set up to do.
- CB Tre’Davious White: Is he the “Shack Badger?” Starting at cornerback but moving to nickel in five-DB packages, White was in on two turnovers that accounted for both LSU scores, returning an interception thrown by Bart Houston 21 yards for a touchdown and picking up a fumble created when teammate Donte Jackson stripped the ball from Rushing, leading to a Harris touchdown pass to Travin Dural two plays later. White, nicknamed “Shack,” had a day that reminded one of when Tyrann Mathieu played the same role for the Tigers.
- OLB Arden Key: Key had the stated goal of finishing with 20 sacks. He’s on pace after taking Houston down twice for LSU’s only sacks.
- RB Leonard Fournette: He didn’t score, but once LSU made some adjustments up front, he was consistently effective in the second half. Add it up and he accounted for 176 of the Tigers’ 257 offensive yards.