BATON ROUGE, La. -- When a reporter asked Les Miles last Saturday why LSU didn't throw the ball more often in its win against Mississippi State, Miles read Leonard Fournette's stat line aloud.
On its face, that seems to say all you need to know about the Tigers' offensive identity -- Why not let one of the game's best running backs carry your offense, especially since Fournette ran for 159 yards and three touchdowns? -- but perhaps it's more complicated than that.
For one thing, Miles said, LSU penalties negated 204 yards of offense and a pair of Tigers touchdowns. For another, quarterback Brandon Harris said LSU's offensive conservatism was not what it seemed. It was more a case of taking what Mississippi State's defense was giving the Tigers.
"We were really aggressive. Coach Cam [Cameron] called a lot of pass plays, but you've got to realize … if we go out there and we call a pass play and they're sending field pressure, they're sending a blitz that the average fan wouldn't know that they're sending, we check to a run play away from that blitz," said Harris, who completed 9 of 14 passes for 71 yards. "That's kind of how it went.
"I don't know, I wouldn't [know the exact] number of how many pass plays we called in the game, but I guarantee you it was well over 25 and the majority of them were checks where I could have just raised up and threw the ball if I wanted to."
No. 13 LSU (1-0, 1-0 SEC) nearly allowed a 21-6 lead to evaporate in the fourth quarter, when Harris attempted just one pass and the Tigers ran the ball 16 times, but Harris doesn't buy into the notion that his coaches hesitated to put the game in his hands. It was just the sophomore's second career start, but Harris insisted the Tigers had put a lot on his shoulders earlier in the game.
Plus, the run checks to Fournette and Darrel Williams frequently worked.
"When they're sending field pressure like that and we check to a run play at the line of scrimmage and Leonard breaks off a 14-yarder or Darrel breaks off a 14-yarder, that's a positive," Harris said. "I think [Miles] has a lot of confidence in me. I don't think he goes into a game saying, ‘We've got to be conservative' because the game plan was really, really aggressive. We called some aggressive play calling. They just got into different looks so we had to check into runs."
And as Miles repeatedly mentioned at his Monday press luncheon, if not for the Tigers' 95 yards in penalties -- including holding infractions that eliminated two Travin Dural touchdowns -- perhaps the 21-19 final score would not have been so close.
"If we had 200 more yards of our offense and a position of 17 more points, nobody would be arguing about the offense at all," Miles said. "So the key to it is to not change the offense, let's make sure we execute what we call and not hold or have an infraction."
Nonetheless, LSU might have to open it up more in Saturday's matchup with No. 18 Auburn (2-0) if it is to keep up with Gus Malzahn's typically potent offense. Maybe LSU's play calling wasn't as conservative against Mississippi State as it appeared at first glance, but Cameron's offense still used only three wide receivers all game and completed passes to just five players.
"As a playmaker you want the ball in your hands," said receiver Malachi Dupre, who caught two passes for 22 yards. "Sometimes the drive may end without you touching it or the other receivers touching it and I would say that part may get frustrating. At the end of the day, we know that we have more games to be played in front of us."
Maybe we'll see the Tigers put the ball in the air more often against an Auburn defense that surrendered 277 passing yards to FCS Jacksonville State last weekend. It's also a safe bet that the shifty Harris will test the edges of Auburn's defensive front with zone-read runs.
Louisville and Jacksonville State have both created major problems for Will Muschamp's defense with such runs in Auburn's first two games, rushing a total of 49 times for 293 yards -- the highest rushing total any Power 5 defense has allowed against the zone-read.
If LSU can use it to similar success, perhaps that will be the key to opening up the offense again, Harris said.
"It's a situation where they crowd down on Leonard and I have to pull the ball and run and get what I can get and take advantage of it," Harris said. "I think that's the thing. It's just going to open up so many other lanes for our receivers down the field and things like that where they stack the box and we get opportunities to throw the football."