LSU’s loss to Arkansas last week featured a bumbling offense – an offensive line that struggled to protect a young quarterback, a running back who found little daylight and a scheme executed poorly.
Thing is, there were much bigger issues.
Pass coverage and kick returns – the real bugaboos of the 2015 season – showed their ugly faces in a 6-minute, game-changing span against the Razorbacks.
It made watching a replay of the game not-so-great, said defensive back Jalen Mills.
“Us doing things that we don’t normally do, not letting guys get that many big plays on us,” said Mills, a senior, “it’s frustrating.”
Big kickoff returns and baffling coverage busts have been the norm – not the exception – this season.
It’s partly why No. 17 LSU meets No. 25 Ole Miss on Saturday having lost two straight games and slipped 13 spots in the rankings in two weeks. The Tigers’ championship hopes are dashed, and the possibility of a highly touted bowl game hangs in the balance.
Coach Les Miles calls it a “crisis” situation, and players say they’re in must-win mode.
The offense has garnered much of the criticism, but two other units – normally so solid – continue to struggle.
The woes came rushing back midway through the third quarter of LSU’s 31-14 loss to Arkansas. LSU pulled to within 21-14, scoring on its first possession of the second half.
The momentum didn’t last long.
Dominque Reed returned the ensuing kickoff 40 yards – a special teams snafu that had those lingering in Tiger Stadium seeing déjà vu.
It even left Miles shaking his head.
“The special teams, we are improved there, but we still gave up a return that came out to the 44 (yard line) at a time where we really needed them not to,” he said Monday.
And what happened next?
Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen threw an 11-yard completion to receiver Jared Cornelius on third-and-11 to extend a drive that ended with a field goal and used nearly 6 minutes of the clock. Was it a coverage bust? No. Was it another 10-plus yard completion from the opponent? Yep.
The two plays are indicative of season-long miseries for a squad once at No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
LSU has allowed 80 completions of 10 yards or more through nine games this season. The Tigers allowed 80 such plays through 13 games last year.
Opponents have scored six touchdowns on obvious coverage busts and four of those were passes of more than 35 yards.
They’ll face one of the nation’s most explosive offenses Saturday in Oxford, Mississippi. Ole Miss (7-3, 4-2) and quarterback Chad Kelly have completed 136 passes of more than 10 yards – sixth nationally. Eight of those were at least 50 yards in length.
“We have to execute better,” Mills said. “It’s not anything they did. It’s all on us. Just us guys having to play better.”
Against Arkansas, a defense that’s allowed very few long running plays gave up touchdown runs of 69 and 80 yards. Safety Jamal Adams was fooled on the 69-yard end-around, and linebacker Deion Jones and safety Rickey Jefferson seemed at fault on running back Alex Collins’ 80-yard dash.
They’re tough to swallow right?
“For me, yeah,” Jones said earlier this week. “We take pride in our defense. We don’t want anybody running all the way down the field and hitting their heads on the goal post. We want to be there so they could hit their heads on us.”
The passing numbers pale in comparison to what’s unfolded on special teams.
Opposing return men have rolled up nine kickoff returns of more than 30 yards and four punt returns of more than 20 yards. Combined, that’s 13 long returns – a number that far exceeds coverage units in the past.
In fact, LSU allowed 17 such returns in 39 games from 2012-14.
No one has a real explanation for the special teams issues. Special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto, in his second year on the job, is like many assistants – unavailable for interviews most of the time.
Miles doesn’t get specific on the woes. Coaches have shuffled personnel on the kick coverage unit. For example, freshman defensive end Isaiah Washington was added to the group for the game against Arkansas.
Personnel shuffling is common for this LSU squad - everywhere. Against Arkansas, the Tigers rotated three players at the cornerback spot opposite Tre’Davious White – something that Miles suggested Monday won’t change.
Freshmen Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson and junior Dwanye Thomas split reps at the position.
“I’m good with those guys,” Miles said.
Meanwhile, players refuse to get accustomed to the big plays on the returns, on the ground or through the air. Jones was on the sideline during Arkansas’ 69-yard touchdown run on that end-around.
Donnie Alexander, his replacement, middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith and Adams, the closest to the play-side, darted toward the inside as Allen faked a middle run.
The quarterback then handed to Cornelius.
“You watch film and it’s like, ‘Aaaaaah,’” Jones said. “You wouldn’t expect them to be coming around (the end) like that.”
Long scrimmage plays (10+)
12.6 per game
Long rushing plays (10+)
3.7 per game
Long passing plays (10+)
8.8 per game
Long punt returns (20+)
Long kickoff returns (30+)
*thru nine games
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.