Out of the corner of LSU center Ethan Pocic’s eye, as he hunkered over the ball, he could see Alabama safety Eddie Jackson moving closer and closer.
At first glance, Jackson was more than 12 yards away from the ball.
At second glance, Jackson was inside of 10 yards.
Pocic stole a third glance just before snapping the ball, and — bam — there was Jackson, about 7 to 8 yards away and in prime position to stuff LSU’s bread and butter: a handoff or toss to running back Leonard Fournette.
“If they bring a safety in the box,” Pocic said, “we’ve got to execute in the air.”
Pocic and LSU players feel like this year’s team, with Ed Orgeron and Steve Ensminger’s offensive tweaks, is more suited to do just that, more capable of burning the top-ranked Crimson Tide with the long ball. At least through three games, No. 15 LSU (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) has flashed a more explosive downfield passing game than the season’s first month.
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Take, for instance, completions of 20 yards or more. The Tigers hit on five of those over the first four games. They’ve had 11 of them in the past three.
This is more than just pure coincidence, players said. It’s the product of having a new quarterback, Danny Etling, and the changes implemented by Orgeron, the interim coach, and Ensminger, the interim offensive coordinator. Sure, the changes are subtle — passing earlier in downs, using more three-and four-receiver formations, attempting more long throws — but no one expects an offensive overhaul in the middle of a season.
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“Obviously, Coach O has changed up a lot of things, and it’s really working for us,” guard Will Clapp said. “If we can connect on some of those long balls and really spread them out, our game plan will work out for us.”
“You’ve got to loosen up Bama,” Pocic said.
Even Alabama coach Nick Saban sees it.
"LSU is using more multiple looks since Coach O took over," he said, "tying play-action passes with the running game."
It’s the “smarter” scheme against the Tide (8-0, 5-0), LSU fullback J.D. Moore said. Alabama leads the nation in rushing yards allowed per game (70.1), allowing 20 fewer yards per game than any other team in college football.
“I think it’s just smarter because, if they’re going to pack eight, nine guys in the box, we obviously want to spread them out with the pass game,” Moore said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of logical sense to just try to run it against a stacked box with great defenders they have.”
The Tigers pounded away last season, running on 26 of their 45 total plays for 54 yards. That’s a 2.1-yard average.
“I feel like they kind of knew what we were going to hit them with,” Moore said.
Jackson’s last-second creep toward the line of scrimmage was a sign that Bama and Saban knew what was coming and that they didn’t respect quarterback Brandon Harris and the passing attack. They had good reason not to fear it.
Harris in 2015 and Anthony Jennings in 2014 combined to complete 14 passes in eight quarters against Alabama. That's fewer than two completions per quarter.
Last year, it’s no coincidence that Jackson often raced close to the line when Fournette was handed the ball. Fournette’s night in Tuscaloosa last year is well-documented: He ran for 31 yards on 19 carries, a 1.6-yard average and a performance that knocked him from the top rung of Heisman Trophy favorites.
LSU’s exact offensive plan this time around isn’t clear, and don’t expect Orgeron to lift the shroud before the teams meet at 7 p.m. Saturday. But expect a change in philosophy from the one head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron used.
That has been on display in Orgeron’s first three games as the interim coach — 35-point wins over Missouri and Southern Miss and a 17-point victory over Ole Miss. In those games, Etling became the first LSU quarterback since Zach Mettenberger in 2013 to pass for more than 200 yards in three straight games while having a cumulative completion percentage of at least 64.
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“I think we’ve got a lot of confidence in what we’re doing on the offensive side of the ball, the way we’ve been executing these past three weeks,” Moore said. “Going into this game, we feel well-suited and capable to have a really good game against them.”
But did Alabama really stack the box last season against LSU? After a review of the game, no, the Tide did not.
Bama rarely out-manned LSU during 17 of Fournette’s 19 carries (excluding two goal-line snaps). The Tide put seven defenders in the box on Fournette’s first 10 runs, matching LSU’s seven blockers.
Jackson’s last-second crawls into the box, though, often added an extra defender. Coincidentally, Jackson is a guy Alabama won’t have Saturday. He’s out for the season with a broken leg.
Will his replacement creep to the line and give the Tide an extra defender? If he does, Pocic hopes Etling will make Bama pay.
“Sometimes they’d bring him from depth after the play (began),” Pocic said. “He filled (the holes) well. Y’all saw the game. They executed their game plan well.
"They beat us. Now, we’ve just got to learn from it.”
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Managing the game
Even interim coach Ed Orgeron refers to Danny Etling as a “game manager.” Maybe this is what he’s talking about. Etling is the first LSU quarterback since Zach Mettenberger in 2013 to pass for more than 200 yards in three straight games while having a cumulative completion percentage of at least 64 percent:
LSU’s downfield passing game has thrived since Ed Orgeron took over as interim coach and Steve Ensminger replaced Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator:
20 or more yards