LSU had one of the most productive running games in the Southeastern Conference during the first two months of the season.
The Tigers’ passing game suddenly became much more productive during the final month of the regular season, but that coincided with a drop-off in rushing productivity.
So as LSU prepares for its game against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve, one of its primary tasks is to find a way to blend the running game of September and October with the passing game of November and finish 2012 with a bang.
“That’s our goal,” tackle Josh Dworaczyk said. “We’ve been watching film and trying to get back in the swing of things. We’ve talked about the last few games. We have not run the ball the way we want to.”
And few things if any are a bigger priority for coach Les Miles than running the football effectively. Like all teams, LSU tries to demonstrate to opponents that it’s capable of running and passing the ball equally effectively in any situation.
But the Tigers’ nature is to prove their ability to rush the ball first, thereby creating an opportunity to have credible play-action as part of their passing game.
In the last four games, however, the Tigers have averaged 3.0 yards per rush after averaging 4.9 in the first eight games.
Although the yards-per-rush average is the best indicator of the drop-off in rushing execution in November, the statistics also demonstrate that LSU was more pass-happy down the stretch.
The Tigers ran the ball on 62.9 percent of their plays during the first eight games and 55.1 percent in their last four games. That represented two different means to similar ends as LSU started 7-1 while averaging 386 total yards and finished 4-1 while averaging 390 yards.
The especially run-heavy play-calling in the first eight games wasn’t surprising.
LSU not only has traditionally been an effective running team during Miles’ eight seasons, it also was breaking in a new starting quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, featured a relatively inexperienced group of wide receivers and played three opponents — North Texas, Idaho and Towson — that physically were less capable of matching LSU up front as well as SEC opponents were.
Even though starting halfback Alfred Blue was lost for the season to a knee injury in September, freshman Jeremy Hill of Redemptorist took over the run game at midseason and scored eight of his team-leading 10 touchdowns during the second half of the season.
He had a breakout performance against South Carolina in the seventh game, starting a two-game stretch in which he averaged 8.4 yards per carry and 126 yards per game. The last four games he averaged 3.8 and 77.3.
LSU’s breakout passing game came in a 21-17 loss to Alabama on Nov. 3. The Tigers had their worst passing game of the season in their previous game, a 23-19 victory at Texas A&M on Oct. 20. In that game, they threw a season-high 29 times but matched a season-low with 11 completions for a season-low 97 yards.
But with an open date between the game against A&M and the game against Alabama, LSU focused on improving its passing game and did just that. The receivers took it upon themselves to put in extra work, catching a collective 200 passes off of a JUGS machine before practice — an exercise that has become routine.
Against the Crimson Tide’s top-ranked defense, Mettenberger completed 25-of-36 passes for a season-high 296 yards. Mettenberger and the passing game continued the momentum the next two weeks as the Tigers threw for more than 250 yards against Mississippi State (273) and Ole Miss (282).
Though the passing game wasn’t as productive in the regular-season finale against Arkansas (16-for-29, 217 yards), the numbers from the final month were significantly different from what they were for the first eight — 62 percent completions and 267 yards per game compared to 56 percent and 177 yards the first eight games.
Sophomore Jarvis Landry, who had 23 catches during the first eight games, had 29 during the last four, in which he had three of his four touchdown catches.
Guard Trai Turner said finding the optimal blend of rushing and passing success is in LSU’s hands, regardless of what Clemson does.
“It’s just our execution,” Turner said. “We have to come out and execute and not let the defense dictate what we’re able to do.”
Defense has not been Clemson’s strength. It ranks seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total defense (411.0 yards per game), eighth in rushing defense (160.7) and passing defense (250.3) and ninth in pass defense efficiency (132.4). Its 22 passing touchdowns allowed are tied for the fourth-most in the ACC.
“At the end of the day, if you get the running game going big, sometimes the passing game might be lacking. And if you get the passing game going big, the running game might be lacking,” running back Michael Ford said.
“But when you get them both going big together, it can be amazing.”