Before each game, LSU quarterback Brandon Harris said he gathers his receivers for a motivational discussion.
The subject of the rah-rah powwow is the only television show Harris said he watches: ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” What has been a hot topic recently? How the LSU Tigers are undefeated despite a passing game that stinks.
“Everybody was down on our receivers after that one game and down on our passing game after that one game. Everybody keeps looking at ... ‘They can’t do it in a big game.’ I love it. Love the motivation. Love when people doubt us,” Harris said after LSU’s 35-28 win over then-No. 8 Florida on Saturday. “I make sure I make the point of emphasis before games and (tell them) what this guy said or what this guy said about us. You see the production they got today.”
Harris and his receivers represent the good surprise halfway through the season — a productive passing offense that has flashed explosiveness in the past two games.
The Tigers’ defensive backs and linebackers represent the bad surprise — a passing defense that has struggled at times, with coverage busts growing in numbers.
Who would have thought that six games in?
“We have to correct it,” linebacker Deion Jones said.
LSU’s next step on this hot-starting joyride is Western Kentucky, which ranks third nationally in passing offense (407.1 yards per game) and sixth in scoring (44 points per game). Its quarterback, Brandon Doughty, leads the nation in completion percentage (74.1 percent) and is second in passing yards (2,709).
LSU (6-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference), which moved up to No. 5 in the latest AP Top 25, hosts the Hilltopers (6-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday in Tiger Stadium. It’s the last duel before a bye week and then a brutal November stretch: at Alabama, vs. Arkansas, at Ole Miss, vs. Texas A&M.
It’s a sneaky game on the schedule against an offense that former WKU coach and passing game guru Bobby Petrino helped craft.
The Tigers’ final nonconference game is drawing attention around the country. One national columnist Sunday referred to it as a possible game of the week, lumping it in with SEC duels Texas A&M/Ole Miss and Alabama/Tennessee.
For the Tigers, it’s another opportunity to flash a passing unit that has rolled up 200 yards in back-to-back SEC games — a first in more than two years. And it’s a chance for a sometimes-shaky secondary to reclaim its typical dominance after allowing 200 passing yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2013.
Florida quarterback Treon Harris, the backup who played in place of suspended starter Will Grier, completed 17 of 32 attempts for 271 yards and two scores. At least three of his completions were to wide-open receivers, coverage busts that are increasingly becoming an issue for a secondary that touts itself as the best in the nation.
Jones blamed the woes on Treon Harris’ dual-threat ability. Many of his long completions came on the run. Sometimes linebackers darted in after a scrambling Harris before he lofted a pass downfield to an open player.
“That’s just something that comes with playing, and now we know,” Jones said.
It’s not only Florida.
LSU has played the opponent’s second-, third- or fourth-string quarterback the past four weeks. Those players have combined to complete 65 of 124 passes for 795 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions. That doesn’t count the 335 yards Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott put up in the Tigers’ season-opening, 21-19 win in Starkville.
Many of those yards have come in the second half.
“I think the offense makes an adjustment and defense needs to make counter-adjustments,” coach Les Miles said after Saturday’s victory.
It’s not all bad for the Tigers. Their passing game seems to be in its best shape since Zach Mettenberger was flinging footballs two years ago. Harris is 31-of-47 for 430 yards and two scores in the past two games. He hasn’t thrown an interception this season — on 108 attempts — and has been sacked just once in two weeks. Florida went sackless Saturday for the first time this season.
“I didn’t get touched the whole night,” Harris said. “I thought the offensive line did a hell of a job blocking.”
“(Harris) is getting more confident as the games go by,” said receiver Malachi Dupre, who had four catches for 115 yards Saturday. “After a game we just played, I feel like he has all of the confidence in the world now, man. We’ve just got to keep playing and preparing as hard as we have. Sky’s the limit for him.”
For Harris, it’s all about proving the doubters wrong. On a scrambling 50-yard touchdown pass to Dupre late in the second quarter, ESPN cameras caught Harris licking his lips and smiling.
It was a subtle message during arguably his best game at LSU — and a message to the doubters.
“It’s nothing but motivation to me, and I can’t stand it,” Harris said. “That’s one thing I do — I can’t stand it. I play with a chip on my shoulder every single week. I’ve said this over and over again. I say it real humbly: I feel like this team knows how talented we are passing the ball. Everybody knows what I can do throwing the football.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.