Perspiration built on Vadal Alexander’s forehead. Microphones, voice recorders, TV cameras, iPhones — they all pointed at LSU’s senior right tackle.
In the wake of the Tigers’ 31-14 loss to Arkansas on Saturday night, Alexander tried to explain the latest struggles from an offensive line that once opened gaping holes for running back Leonard Fournette and protected quarterback Brandon Harris — a unit that The New York Times wrote about, that players rallied behind and coaches praised.
Why have the same group of players struggled so much in the past two games? What happened, how did it happen and will it get fixed?
“Technique things, man. Hand placement. Not identifying different looks,” Alexander said. “It’s not normal for our group to give up sacks like that. It’s things we have to get working on and improve.”
The O-line is far from the only unit in question after an about-face for a program ranked No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings entering last week’s game at Alabama.
LSU ran for a combined 113 yards and allowed 549 rushing yards in consecutive losses to Alabama and Arkansas. It’s the first time an LSU team was held to so few rushing yards and allowed so many in back-to-back games since at least 1994, the last year in which game-by-game stats are available.
The numbers point to struggles on both fronts — offensive and defensive. They’re unsettling figures for a Les Miles-coached LSU team, usually tough squads that win in the trenches.
The double-digit losses to the Crimson Tide and Razorbacks have put a promising season on the edge of becoming a complete disappointment.
LSU has dropped 13 spots in the past two weeks in the Associated Press Top 25, slipping to No. 17 in the poll released Sunday. The Tigers (7-2, 4-2 Southeastern) head to No. 25 Ole Miss (7-3, 4-2) on Saturday in jeopardy of losing three straight games for the first time since 1999, coach Gerry DiNardo’s final season.
A vocal portion of the program’s fan base is pointing fingers at Miles. Others are blaming his coordinators.
Miles accepted the blame Saturday night, pointing the finger squarely at himself.
“This is mine,” he said multiple times. “Absolutely my fault.”
The resounding line from the 11-year coach: “It’s something I’m not getting done.”
Miles is in the third year of a contract that runs through the 2019 season and includes a buyout that doesn’t drop below $12.9 million until after the 2017 season.
Players rallied behind their coach Saturday when told he slapped himself with the blame for the loss.
“We love Coach Miles,” defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said. “He’s a guy that’s very unselfish. He prepares like I’ve never seen anybody before. Very hard-working guy. We have a blue-collar mentality because of guys like that.”
LaCouture and his teammates on the defensive line have had a bumpy past two games, too.
Only once has an LSU team allowed at least 549 rushing yards in back-to-back games since the 1994 season. Arkansas had touchdown runs of 80 and 69 yards — one up the gut on the Tigers defense.
What’s going on? LaCouture said he noticed Arkansas ran similar plays to what Alabama executed in its 30-16 win last week. Most of the runs included pulling guards leading through a hole for the running back, a normal offensive running scheme that LSU’s offense uses often.
“For the most part, they pulled a lot. I think watching (film), we knew that was going to happen,” LaCouture said. “We’ve got to watch the film and see what happened and go from there. You’ve got a little thing in your stomach. It’s very upsetting, very disappointing. We’re going to watch the film and see and improve.”
Same goes for the offensive line, Alexander said. LSU players will watch the game replay Sunday and then again Monday with coaches, he said.
The Tigers offensive line has allowed a combined 10 sacks in back-to-back games for the first since 2009. LSU gave up five sacks in each of the past two games. The unit had done that just once in the previous five seasons.
Alexander was the only offensive lineman to speak with reporters after each of the past two games.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t think they would,” Alexander said of Arkansas. “We always put ourselves in bad situations at times. Got down early.”
Harris felt pressure on nearly half of his dropbacks. Linemen were pushed back into the sophomore, shoved deep behind the line of scrimmage for a second straight week.
“I didn’t expect the problem with protection,” said Miles, a former O-lineman. “Gave up sacks, gave up pressures.”
LSU began the game with the intent to pass more than normal against one of the nation’s worst pass defenses. The Tigers opened their first few drives in a three-receiver, shotgun formation with no fullback.
Harris felt pressure from the start; even receivers, racing downfield, realized that.
“Coach called some passing plays tonight,” receiver Malachi Dupre said. “Got to do better on those. Protection. Receivers have to get open for Brandon. We’ve got to get it blocked. We just have to execute better.”
Running lanes don’t seem as wide as they were early in the season. The absence of 310-pound tight end Dillon Gordon and fullback J.D. Moore could be part of the issue.
That’s not the only reason, said Fournette, who sounded somewhat shocked during postgame interviews.
“Defenses are coming to stop the run,” he said. “Nine, 10 people in the box. They’re ready for the run.”
NO TIME TO PASS
LSU has allowed five sacks in nine games under coach Les Miles, and two of them happened in the past two weeks:
LSU games in which the opponent had five or more sacks under Les Miles:
at Alabama (2015): 5
vs. Arkansas (2015): 5
vs. Clemson (2012): 6
at Ole Miss (2009): 6
vs. Florida (2009): 5
at Georgia (2009): 6
at Tulane (2007): 6
vs. Georgia (2005): 5
vs. Florida (2005): 5
LSU has been kept under 100 rushing yards in two straight games. That’s just the third time they’ve done that since 1999, when they were kept 100 yards in eight consecutive games. The 113 rushing yards in back-to-back games is its fewest since 1999:
Consecutive LSU games with fewer than 100 rushing yards:
Alabama, Arkansas (2015): 54, 59 (113 total)
Arkansas, Clemson (2012): 89, 99 (188)
Arkansas, Georgia Tech (2000): 84, 90 (174)