ATLANTA — Les Miles recently said next year’s LSU offense may be his best yet.
It has about nine months to improve.
Many will blame an LSU defense for failing to stop Clemson at critical times in Monday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl for the 25-24 defeat.
It’s true, LSU surrendered 300-plus yards passing for fourth straight game to end the regular season, including a crucial 26-yard Tajh Boyd-to-DeAndre Hopkins pass on fourth-and-16 on the game’s final drive.
But this one was on the offense.
Coming into this game, Clemson’s defense had allowed 411 yards per game. Its offense was great. One of the best. But defensively, on paper, Clemson looked about as flimsy as a sheet of looseleaf.
LSU got outgained 445-219. LSU got out-first-downed by an astonishing 32-9. LSU got outgained 169-1 in the fourth quarter, managing to run just six offensive plays. Zach Mettenberger was sacked six times, LSU’s patchwork offensive line finally failing to provide him protection in a critical moment.
Such a familiar script for an LSU football game, was it not?
A few big plays by the LSU offense result in a modest amount of scoring, before the gears on that offense grind to a halt.
Many times under Miles, it has been enough for LSU to come away with victory anyway. LSU’s had a lot of games through Miles’ eight years — eight very successful years, let’s remind everyone in meltdown mode out there, with an 85-21 record — when LSU has been outgained and won.
But not this time. Not against an offense this explosive.
It really should not have come down to the final moment for Clemson. Despite trailing until literally the game ended — Chandler Catanzaro’s 37-yard field goal didn’t sail through the uprights until the clock hit zero, or a tick after — but Clemson deserved the victory. It was the orange and purple Tigers who outperformed the purple and gold Tigers for much of the night.
And yet, there was a long time in this game when it appeared LSU would cruise to victory.
Two long touchdown runs by Jeremy Hill at the start of each half helped stake LSU to a 24-13 lead in the third quarter. But when LSU recovered a Clemson fumble at the CU 29 and was forced to settle for a Drew Alleman field goal, it was an ominous note for an LSU offense that would never threaten the end zone again.
LSU didn’t need to score again on its final possession. Up 24-22 with 2:43 left, Mettenberger threw for 8 yards to Kadron Boone. Then he threw one of his few bad passes, missing a wide-open Jarvis Landry in the right flat as he threw on the run, something Mettenberger doesn’t do particularly well. Another incompletion and LSU had to punt back to Clemson, which got the pass it had to have on that fourth-and-16 — maybe the most clutch pass against LSU in a bowl since Drew Tate and Iowa beat LSU on the last play of the 2005 Capital One Bowl.
Ultimately, this game was decided because Clemson forced LSU out of its offensive personality. Twice, Clemson stuffed LSU on short yardage with 10 men in the box. After the first pass to Boone, Miles and offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa didn’t think they could gain 2 yards rushing in two plays. It was like a bluff in poker won by a man holding a pair of 8s.
Win or lose, LSU is still likely to be a top-10 team going into next season. Deservedly so. But Miles, who pulls the strings on this offense, must take a serious look at the direction in which his offense is going, especially in its last three postseason games. He has given over control of his defense to a superb, highly respected coordinator in John Chavis (still superb, despite the late-season inability to stop the pass). All respect to Studrawa, he needs to do the same with the offense, either leaving it all to Studrawa and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe or find someone he trusts as much as Chavis.
It’s the nature of sports, of course. LSU holds on to win by two, or the Clemson kicker misses, and much is forgiven, if not forgotten. One point can make you a bum or a hero.
LSU should have lost this one. But it could have won, if the offense had been just a little better.
LSU could win enough to be a BCS title contender in 2013, but the offense will have to be better.