LSU desperately tried to get its passing game off the ground against Eastern Michigan.
The No. 9 Tigers, however, soon found their wings were clipped.
Despite holding off the pesky Eagles for a 44-22 win Saturday night, LSU struggled to get sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris in rhythm with his receivers all night. A mixture of poor protection, drops and misfired throws resulted in a 4-of-15, 80-yard performance from Harris.
LSU coach Les Miles didn’t blame his quarterback for the miscues in the passing game.
“There’s nothing we can do to correct when you hit a guy in the hands,” Miles said. “(Harris) did exactly we needed him to. I’d like for him to take care of the ball and have a pocket presence that allows him to take a sack and not take a turnover.”
Harris and LSU’s receivers were not made available to the media after the game.
The Tigers (4-0) went to the air on their first offensive play. With Eastern Michigan’s (1-4) FBS-worst run defense loading the box against sophomore running back and Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette, a play-action pass allowed Harris to hit sophomore receiver Malachi Dupre for a 19-yard gain.
Later in the drive, the quarterback tossed a short pass to junior receiver Travin Dural, who took the ball all the way down to the Eagles’ 3-yard line. LSU seemed poised to light up the scoreboard after Fournette scored on the next play, but its passing attack quickly faltered.
Play-action passes yielded little more than three defensive pass-interference penalties. Dural dropped a touchdown while being interfered with on a post route, but a more costly drop came later in the contest.
The Tigers continually took shots down the field, only for Harris to miss his targets several times. Perhaps his best throw of the night came about midway through the second quarter on a 28-yard strike down the seam to junior tight end Colin Jeter.
But the drive ended with a field goal after Harris couldn’t connect with Dupre on a fade route. Fournette was uncovered in the end zone on the play.
From there, things got worse.
After an Eastern Michigan scoring drive with less than three minutes in the first half, Harris got nailed trying to throw a pass downfield. The ball shot straight up in the air, and junior defensive end Luke MacLean came down with it for Harris’ first interception of the season.
Both senior right tackle Vadal Alexander and freshman right guard Will Clapp said they were unsure what went wrong on the play.
“The pass protection was the real issue,” Miles said.
The Eagles scored two plays later, but another pass interference on the ensuing drive put the Tigers in position to answer before the end of the half.
Facing third-and-10 from Eastern Michigan’s 28-yard line, Dural found a soft spot in the Eagles’ secondary well beyond the first-down marker. Harris’ throw was accurate, but Dural dropped the ball and forced LSU to settle for a field goal yet again.
“I wish we had not dropped passes, but we’ll work on that,” Miles said. “We’ll reaffirm that desire to throw and catch. ... I think (the receivers) take for granted their snaps. My message to them is ‘Don’t do that.’”
Harris went into halftime 4-of-13, and his final five passes of the first half fell incomplete. He was also sacked twice.
The Tigers sported a much different game plan in the second half. Fournette, who finished with 233 yards, shouldered most of the work as Harris threw only two passes, neither of which were completed.
But Harris had a chance to rectify LSU’s woes through the air late in the third quarter. On third and goal from the 5-yard line, he threw a bit behind an open Dupre, who got his hands on it but couldn’t make the catch.
Once again, the Tigers turned to junior kicker Trent Domingue for a 22-yard field goal.
“It was a lot of poor execution, honestly,” Jeter said. “We knew what we needed to do, we just didn’t necessarily execute all the plays that we had.”
With Fournette putting up gaudy numbers through the first three weeks of the season, LSU’s passing game took a backseat. Harris entered Saturday night’s contest 29-of-47 for 302 yards and two scores.
Harris finished the game with a 58.1 passer rating, his lowest of the season by far. He was mildly effective on the ground, rushing for 26 yards and one touchdown on five carries.
Miles estimated the Tigers would have thrown for “200 or maybe 150” yards without the drops. LSU has yet to show significant improvement in its passing game, and players know they have plenty to fix before that can happen.
“We have to watch the film, so what protection looked like, see how the routes looked, what coverages they were giving us,” Clapp said. “I’m sure when we get in Monday, the coaches will have a good correction period for us at practice.”