Malachi Dupre answered the questions in his usual calm and thoughtful manner, but every word sounded like a sigh of relief.
After four weeks of struggles — and seven days removed from one of its most miserable outings in recent memory — LSU’s passing attack finally took flight. The Tigers racked up 228 yards and two touchdowns to complement their 396 rushing yards in a dominant win against South Carolina on Oct. 10.
More importantly, the offense found a hint of what it had spent a month looking for: balance.
“It’s gonna be pick your poison,” Dupre said after the game.
The sophomore receiver’s vision for LSU’s offense is now a reality. In terms of yards per game, the Tigers have been almost evenly balanced between rushing and passing during their past three contests.
“A balanced offense makes the defense have to play the whole field, and it really helps out in being able to move the ball,” junior tight end Colin Jeter said. “One-dimensional offenses can do good for only so long. When it comes to scenarios like third-and-long when you can’t run the ball and (defenses) won’t let you run the ball, you’ve got nothing to fall back on.”
A balanced approach will be especially important against No. 7 Alabama and its sixth-ranked defense, which No. 4 LSU (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern) will face Nov. 7 in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1) is No. 4 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 78.5 yards per game. If the Tigers revert to their run-heavy ways, they’ll be playing to Alabama’s strength.
In the first four games this season, 77.8 percent of LSU’s yardage came on the ground. Coach Les Miles stuck with his ground-and-pound approach behind sophomore running back Leonard Fournette, who launched his Heisman Trophy campaign with a high volume of carries.
Meanwhile, the passing game was out of sync and mildly effective as sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris topped 80 passing yards only once during those first four games. But, starting against South Carolina, the offense quickly changed its dynamic. Since then, the passing game has accounted for 46.4 percent of the Tigers’ yards.
Alabama coach Nick Saban knows the threat such an offense poses.
“We talked about Leonard and what a great back he is, but I think they’ve made more explosive plays in the passing game,” Saban said. “That’s given them a lot more balance, makes them a lot more difficult to defend.”
Players credit Harris, who has thrown for more than 200 yards and at least two touchdowns in the past three games, for the offense’s rapid transformation. Though LSU’s offense is getting almost equal production from both phases, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s play-calling has largely remained the same.
The Tigers are actually averaging only one fewer rushing play per game in the past three weeks than in the first four, while Harris is throwing 7.5 more passes per outing. But Cameron has still called about two runs for every pass in the past three games.
Harris’ production has spiked because he’s picking up significantly more yardage per throw. As opponents focus on stopping Fournette, Harris has more room to work against defenses lurking close to the line of scrimmage.
“If they want to stop us with nine in the box, so be it,” Harris said following LSU’s win against Florida on Oct. 17, his most recent meeting with the media. “Thank you, Leonard.”
Western Kentucky paid the price for using that strategy last Saturday. The Hilltoppers had eight or nine men playing the run on almost every snap, allowing Harris to torch them for a career-high 286 yards and three touchdowns. The Tigers showcased their most potent tactic aside from simply handing the ball to Fournette: faking the handoff to Fournette.
“When Brandon gives the ball to any of our running backs, defenses just play to their instincts. It’s gonna draw them in to try and make a play,” Dupre said. “So when Brandon play-actions, the defense and safeties come down. It gives us one-on-one on the outside a lot of times.”
A prime example from LSU’s first drive against the Hilltoppers: Harris executed a play-action fake and lofted a perfect ball to Dupre, who took advantage of single coverage for a 55-yard score.
Harris may need to continue his progression against Alabama, and the opportunity is there against its 41st-ranked passing defense. The SEC showdown will pit the nation’s No. 4 rushing offense and rushing defense against each other, but the winning edge could be Harris’ arm and his receivers’ hands.
“Brandon Harris and the wide receivers, they’re going to open the running game up for us more,” Fournette said. “I feel like they’re going to play their part.”
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