A quarter of the way through the season, LSU’s offensive identity is becoming clear: 4 yards and a cloud of you-know-what.
Averaging 4.3 yards per carry, the Tigers have run the ball more times (157) than all but six other teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They’re running almost three times more often than they’re passing — a 73/27 split that, for now, is the biggest differential in coach Les Miles’ 10 years at the school.
Balance? Who needs that?
With a passing game going through growing pains, balance might not be the goal.
“LSU wants to run the ball and be physical. That is what we do,” quarterback Anthony Jennings said after the Tigers’ 31-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday in Tiger Stadium.
LSU, 3-0 and up to No. 8 in The Associated Press Top 25, hosts Mississippi State (3-0) on Saturday for a Southeastern Conference opener in which its offensive imbalance could be a problem. Mississippi State is 11th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 80 yards per game on the ground.
Crowd the box and stop the Tigers, right? Maybe.
LSU’s passing game — which lost a 3,000-yard quarterback and a pair of 1,000-yard receivers — is working out some early-season kinks.
When the Tigers do pass, they’re focusing mostly on one guy: receiver Travin Dural. Jennings has targeted Dural on 21 of his 57 attempts, and Dural has 11 of Jennings’ 27 completions.
The connection between the pair played out early in the win over ULM. Jennings’ first three attempts were drops by Trey Quinn, Connor Neighbors and John Diarse.
On his fourth attempt, he hit Dural on a 14-yard out route to put LSU in field-goal range.
The connection is good, yes, but spotlighting one guy when facing a stiff defense is a recipe for interceptions. Dural has twice as many catches and more than 250 yards than the next receiver (Diarse).
“There are things we need to improve upon,” coach Les Miles said after Saturday’s game. “We still need to improve and take strides, but I like where we’re at.”
The growing pains for LSU’s passing game are obvious.
Jennings has completed consecutive passes on just three of the 31 drives that he has started this season. He has had more than one completion on just six of the 31 drives.
Jennings even used the title “game manager” Saturday night to describe his role in the offense. LSU is averaging 19.6 pass attempts per game, 13th of 14 SEC teams.
“That is the game plan we have going into every game,” Jennings said.
The Tigers have the backs to do it, and they’re using them in an assortment of ways.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has found a way to get half of LSU’s four running backs on the field simultaneously: Put freshman Darrel Williams or Kenny Hilliard at fullback with Leonard Fournette or Terrence Magee at running back.
In the past two games, three running backs had at least 10 carries and 45 yards.
“It’s tradition,” Hilliard said of playing a host of running backs. “Keep fresh legs.”
A run-heavy attack is nothing new under Miles, but LSU is on pace to do something it hasn’t done under him: run at least 70 percent of the time.
In the run to the BCS title game during the 2011 season, Miles’ team ran on 68 percent of its snaps, the high in his 10 years at the school. The Tigers ran 62 and 60 percent of the time the past two seasons.
In his final season at Oklahoma State, 2004, Miles’ team had a 75-25 split, similar to the one we’re seeing this season.
Still, it’s early, and those numbers are inflated because of the back-to-back blowout wins over Sam Houston State and ULM.
One thing is certain, though: LSU is bent on leaning on a stiff defense and rushing attack, at least early on. That’s fine with at least one receiver.
“As long as we’re winning, everything is good,” Dural said. “As long we’re putting points on the board and I get to celebrate with my teammates, it’s never frustrating.”
Ground and pound
LSU is 13th in the SEC in pass attempts per game:
Team, average attempts
Texas A&M, 45
Ole Miss, 36.6
South Carolina, 36
Mississippi State, 29.6
Miles makes ’em run
LSU has run the football more than it has passed it in each season under Les Miles, and that’s not changing this season. Currently, the Tigers are running more than they ever have under him:
Season: Run/pass ratio, record
Miles at LSU
2014: 73/27, 3-0
2013: 62/38, 10-3
2012: 60/40, 10-3
2011: 68/32, 13-1
2010: 64/36, 11-2
2009: 56/44, 9-4
2008: 56/44, 8-5
2007: 58/42, 12-2
2006: 55/45, 11-2
2005: 59/41, 11-2
Miles at Oklahoma State
2004: 75/25, 7-5
2003: 60/40, 9-4
2002: 49/51, 8-5
2001: 51/49, 4-7