BATON ROUGE, La. – Veteran LSU fans know that when a sentence starts, “For the first time since Gerry DiNardo was LSU’s coach,” the conclusion probably won’t be pleasant. LSU went 7-15 in the final two seasons of DiNardo’s previously successful tenure, and his exit paved the way for glory years that would follow under Nick Saban and Les Miles.
Things haven’t been so glorious at LSU lately when it comes to special-teams play, however. Saturday’s 35-28 win over Florida provided further evidence of that reality, as Gators return man Antonio Callaway’s 72-yard punt return for a touchdown made this the first season since 1999, DiNardo’s last on the LSU sideline, that the Tigers have surrendered both a kickoff return and a punt return for a touchdown in the same year. Just over a week ago, South Carolina’s Rashad Fenton took a kickoff back 96 yards for a score against LSU.
“We certainly can’t do that anymore,” Miles said of Callaway’s return. “We showed flashes in all three phases – offense, defense and special teams – of being a very, very talented team. We just need to play consistently.”
That hasn’t happened for the Tigers so far on special teams. Half of Florida’s touchdowns on Saturday came as a direct result of LSU special-teams mishaps. Not only was there Callaway’s punt return, but Tre’Davious White’s botched attempt at a first-quarter punt return ended with a fumble that gave Florida the ball at the LSU 13-yard line. The Gators scored a few plays later.
LSU kicker Trent Domingue’s fake-field-goal run off a lateral went for the game-winning touchdown against Florida, but that stands as one of the few bright spots for Bradley Dale Peveto’s special-teams units. They have otherwise been LSU’s weakest link for much of the season.
Take a look at each unit’s performance, with help from the ESPN Stats & Information database:
After Callaway’s touchdown, LSU became one of only seven FBS programs to have surrendered a punt return and kickoff return for a score this season. But just for fun, let’s not even include Callaway’s 72-yard return in LSU opponents’ punt return average against the Tigers. LSU would still rank last in the FBS.
Including Callaway’s return, LSU is surrendering 32.8 yards per punt return (five returns for 164 yards). Granted, we’re examining a tiny sample size, but four of LSU opponents’ five returns went for 20-plus yards. That’s nothing short of incredible.
Overall, LSU punter Jamie Keehn is averaging 39.6 yards per punt, with LSU’s team average in that statistic ranking 95th nationally. The Tigers are 121st nationally, better than only two Power 5 programs in net punting at 32.3 yards per punt.
We took a longer look at LSU’s problems in this department last week, and the Florida game represented a noticeable turnaround. Of Cameron Gamble’s six kickoffs against the Gators, three went for touchbacks and the other three produced a total of 35 return yards.
That’s a striking difference from LSU’s struggles covering kicks in previous games, as the Tigers still rank toward the bottom in numerous kickoff coverage statistics.
They are 103rd in opponent kickoff return average (23.6 yards), tied for 107th in percentage of returns that went for 30-plus yards (22.2) and 119th in average opponent starting field position following a kickoff (70.7 yards from the goal line). Domingue and Gamble have combined to average 58.9 yards per kickoff, a team average that ranks 102nd in the FBS.
This is the sunniest category of them all for LSU.
Domingue is a perfect 7 for 7 on field goals and 29 for 29 on extra-point tries. LSU is one of seven FBS programs yet to miss a field-goal try this season.
Primary return man Donte Jackson (20.5 yards per return) hadn’t done much this season, so Peveto gave Derrius Guice a chance against Florida. In his lone opportunity against the Gators, Guice returned a kickoff 32 yards.
Overall, LSU is 99th in the FBS in kickoff return average (18.9) and 65th in average starting position after a kickoff return (73.9 yards from the goal line).
White’s fumbled punt versus Florida was a horrible miscue, and he has had other unsightly moments as the punt return man, but he also made one of the biggest plays in a win against Syracuse, streaking 69 yards for a touchdown on a third-quarter return.
Thanks largely to that return, LSU’s punt return average (12.0) ranks 38th nationally. The Tigers are tied for 27th with two punt returns of at least 20 yards this season.