LSU’s passing game does not get a passing grade.
Not by the standards of today’s modern college football.
And by the looks of the numbers of the teams contending for the Southeastern Conference and College Football Playoff championships, the Tigers won’t be among their number until they find a way to earn more sky miles.
A lot more.
Though LSU came within a heartbeat of upsetting No. 4-ranked Alabama on Saturday before losing 20-13 in overtime, the Tigers’ hopes didn’t fly through the air with the greatest of ease.
LSU’s passing game doesn’t soar like an eagle. Or an Oregon Duck. It clangs to the ground like lead. Or a wounded duck.
Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings completed just 8 of 26 passes Saturday for a meager 76 yards. The CBS sky cam suspended over the field covered more Tiger Stadium airspace than that in the first quarter.
That 15-yard personal foul penalty on Vadal Alexander at the Alabama 6 late in regulation? It was like a death sentence for LSU’s chances to score a touchdown. Backed up to the 21, the Tigers ran on second and third down and eventually settled for a go-ahead field goal. They didn’t even think about trying to consider the possibility of maybe throwing the ball. It was a big, tangible vote of no-confidence in LSU’s passing game from the men who run the passing game themselves, Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
The Tigers rank 13th in the Southeastern Conference, averaging a paltry 177.3 yards per game.
That’s 107th in the nation, 107 also happening to be the number of completions LSU has had which ranks last in the SEC by 18 catches (Florida has 125 in eight games). The past five games, albeit with a run that includes two of the nation’s better defenses in Ole Miss and Alabama, LSU has thrown for a combined 590 yards with four touchdowns, four interceptions and a completion rate of 41 percent.
That’s not flying. More like the opposite. I wish I knew the aeronautical term for bumping along the ground.
I asked Miles on Wednesday if LSU’s passing offense is able to allow the Tigers to play at an acceptably championship-challenging level.
“If you look back through the years, it sort of fits our personnel,” Miles said. I assume he meant the amount LSU throws the ball. “We need some young receivers to come of age and be better in the execution of our (passing) game.”
This is not to say LSU’s passing offense can not improve with Anthony Jennings as its pilot as compared to Brandon Harris, or that Harris can’t eventually get the passing game going. Or that LSU’s young receiver corps can’t stop dropping the passes that are delivered in reasonable proximity to their high tech-gloved hands.
But what’s keeping the Tigers tied to the ground isn’t just talent or experience or a lack of it. It is a philosophical approach to throwing the ball.
Last year, with a senior quarterback and two veteran wide receivers, LSU did what you want if you want to strike an offensive balance. The Tigers threw for a little more than 250 yards per game and rushed for a little more than 200.
But beneath those numbers lies LSU’s offensive philosophy. The Tigers threw the ball only 326 times out of 849 total offensive plays in 2013. That’s 38.3 percent of the time. This year. LSU has thrown 219 passes out of 713 offensive snaps. That’s 30.7 percent.
There’s been a clear demarcation during the Miles regime when it comes to passing. His first five seasons (2005-09), LSU never threw it less than 41.4 percent of the time. Since 2010, LSU has never attempted a higher percentage of passes than it did in 2013.
Before your eyes glaze over in algebra class fashion, just a few more numbers, please.
Of the top 10 teams in this week’s CFP standings, eight of them throw more than 41 percent of the time. The exceptions are No. 8 Ohio State (36.4 percent) and No. 9 Auburn (33.2 percent).
Auburn and Ohio State are the only teams in the CFP top 10 which rush for more yards than they pass. And of the other eight teams, they all rank in the top 38 (roughly the top 30 percent) of FCS teams when it comes to yards per game passing.
Conversely, LSU ranks in the bottom 15 percent of FCS teams when it comes to passing yards per game.
Is Miles realistically ever going to bound up the stairs of the LSU football complex two at a time, throw open the door to Cam Cam’s office and say, “Here’s an interesting piece: let’s throw, throw, throw the stinking ball.”
But LSU can be more inventive about how it moves the ball, be much closer to 50 percent in its run-pass ratio, and even run the ball out of the spread formation a few times just to make the opposition think The Hat has really flipped.
All that said, LSU is about to go play Arkansas on Saturday on frozen tundra amid what may be some of the most adverse weather conditions the Tigers have ever faced on the football field.
As Dan Borne might say, “Chance of throwing more than 50 percent Saturday: zero.”
But with an eye to the future, if you want to play for championships in this game, you’ve got to be willing to pass your way there.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.