With key departures at quarterback, running back and wide receiver after a 10-3 campaign in 2013, there was little debate through the spring and summer about what the strength of LSU’s offense would be this season.
An offensive line that returned four starters — including a likely first-round NFL draft pick and a member of the Rimington Award preseason watch list — and three veteran backups was by far the area of least concern on that side of the ball.
But with one-third of the 2014 season already in the books, the offensive line is still a work in progress — particularly in the wake of Saturday night’s stunning 34-29 loss to Mississippi State in LSU’s Southeastern Conference opener.
The Tigers struggled to move the ball for the better part of three quarters, which, LSU coach Les Miles pointed out Monday, wasn’t entirely the fault of an offensive line that has nonetheless been a target for much of the criticism.
Miles, an offensive lineman at Michigan, didn’t completely excuse the group’s latest performance. Instead, he spread the blame around among an offensive unit that produced just 10 points and 211 total yards on 50 snaps through three quarters against an aggressive Mississippi State front seven.
“I just have to be real honest with you, I still cannot say it’s the offensive line,” Miles said. “It’s the offensive line, it’s the running backs, it’s the quarterback, it’s the wide receivers. We need to make a collective adjustment, and I believe that will certainly be done.”
Settling on a starting five could be part of a solution that LSU must find in a hurry with one nonconference foe remaining — New Mexico State on Saturday night — before it closes the season with seven SEC games.
Partly because of a suspension of center Elliott Porter for the first two games over summer job pay issues, Miles and first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes have used three different starting combinations in the Tigers’ four games.
Six players have started at least one game although left tackle La’el Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins have been in the lineup for the first snap of each game.
Ethan Pocic started the first two games at center, then, after missing a game with a sprained ankle following Porter’s return, started at right guard against Mississippi State. Hoko Fanaika started the first three games at right guard.
“It’s been kind of frustrating because we haven’t been able to really play at our best ability as a unit,” said Collins, a senior who passed on the NFL draft last spring and is a projected first-rounder. “That’s something as a unit we’ve got to continue to practice on every day to get it done.
“There’s always room for us to grow as an offensive line. I think guys are really starting to understand how big of a challenge it is to really focus on the things we need to continue to focus on each and every day.”
Through four games, LSU ranks 11th in the SEC in total offense with 437.8 yards a game. The Tigers are eighth in both rushing (192.0) and passing (245.8) and are 12th in scoring (36.0).
Collins said the Mississippi State loss can serve as a rallying point for the Tigers, who play at Auburn and Florida after facing New Mexico State.
“We reviewed the film and looked at everything we did and could have done better as an offense and as a team,” he said. “We just have to look adversity in its face and take it from there. Adversity really challenges a man personally, and it makes you realize who you really are.”
Porter said the offensive line has the talent and experience to get back on track despite opposing defenses stacking the box and daring the Tigers, who are known for their power running game, to throw the ball.
“Everybody has times where they go through stuff,” he said. “We’re going through it (now), but we’re going to get through it. We have to find our identity and once we do it’s going to be a good thing for this team. We have to execute — just stay on your blocks and finish your blocks.”
Despite the outcome against State and the accompanying disappointment, Miles hinted Monday no changes are forthcoming — barring something happening in practice.
Specifically, he wants to see Pocic make a second straight start at right guard.
“You’re hard-pressed to say basically it was inconsistent,” Miles said. “It wasn’t great execution, but you can’t say it’s one guy or two guys, or the offensive line … or it’s just the entire offense.”
Several miscommunications by the offensive line didn’t help, Hawkins said.
“We know what we’re capable of and we know our assignments,” he said. “But not being on the same page as an offensive line can cause problems for the running back and quarterback. I don’t know the number we had (against State), but it was way too many. One is too many.
“We know last week was unacceptable. We take that very seriously … we know what we’re capable of and we know we can’t let that happen again.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.