BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles vehemently denied that his LSU players were suffering from an Alabama hangover when they lost to Arkansas on Saturday night, but he might not have said the same about his coaching staff.
Doubt is a dangerous thing. It was clear that the drubbing LSU’s offensive front took a week earlier against Alabama -- plus the prospect of facing an Arkansas team that had given up more passing yards than any SEC defense -- caused the Tigers to scrap their typical modus operandi against the Razorbacks.
After losing 31-14 to Arkansas, Miles made it clear that had been a horrible strategic error.
“We [ran] two-minute [offense] really from about eight minutes on,” Miles said. “Did you enjoy it? I didn’t enjoy it at all. I’d much rather be up 10 points.”
Miles has caught criticism for years over his refusal to overhaul his grind-it-out offensive philosophy. The howls were louder than ever last week on sports talk shows across Louisiana after Alabama suffocated the Tigers’ running game two Saturdays ago.
Surely the widespread criticism had nothing to do with it, but the LSU offense that we saw early against Arkansas looked different than it had against Alabama. The underwhelming production was similar, but the strategy did not resemble the run-heavy style that critics assailed through the years.
The I-formation running game with Leonard Fournette slamming into the line behind a fullback was nowhere to be found. The Tigers lined up in the shotgun 11 times in the first quarter compared to just once under center. They ran 16 shotgun plays in the second quarter compared to three under center. Quarterback Brandon Harris was shaky, and the blocking on shotgun runs and passes left plenty to be desired.
The Tigers went into halftime with minus-3 rushing yards thanks to four first-half sacks. And they trailed 21-0 just minutes before intermission, prior to a 92-yard touchdown drive where Harris passed from the shotgun on all nine plays.
“Starting early in this game, I feel like the coaches felt like we could attack their secondary and we did spread it out a little bit. We had a lot more receivers in the game than we usually do,” receiver Malachi Dupre said. “I don’t want to say that was us totally changing up our game plan at all. It was just some things that we wanted to do on early downs that we do on third downs some. Whatever the call may be, whatever formation we may be in, we have to execute and do a better job than we did [on Saturday].”
Maybe offensive coordinator Cam Cameron believed LSU’s best course of action was to spread the field against an Arkansas secondary that had just surrendered 368 passing yards to Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly. Then again, perhaps doubt seeped into Cameron’s playcalling after the Alabama loss. Maybe it was a combination of the two.
If Cameron had his doubts, it would be understandable. LSU is without tight end Dillon Gordon and fullback John David Moore. Left tackle Jerald Hawkins played briefly on a gimpy left foot before giving way to backup K.J. Malone. Those injured players were among the most vital blocking personnel on LSU’s roster.
But it’s also evident that Miles believes he has one of the nation’s biggest difference-makers in his backfield, and using Fournette largely as a decoy -- by the time LSU was down 14-0, Fournette had touched the ball five times (once from the I-formation) in three possessions--– helped put the Tigers in an early hole they could have avoided.
“To me, offensively, we have to have a better plan,” Miles said. “It’s simple.”
Where will LSU go from here? Judging by the tone in Miles’ comments after the Arkansas game, those who dislike his old-school brand of football will probably be unhappy when the Tigers take the field Saturday against Ole Miss.
Like every LSU opponent, the Rebels will make stopping Fournette their first priority, but don’t be surprised if the Tigers dare Ole Miss to succeed. LSU’s first seven opponents failed miserably in that regard before Alabama’s fearsome defensive front overwhelmed the Tigers’ offensive line and didn't give Fournette any room to run. The Rebels will have to do the same.
If his refusal to change much through the years didn’t give it away, Miles is a stubborn man. Maybe Ole Miss can still force LSU to put the ball in the air on Saturday, but count on the Tigers to first revert to what they usually do best.
Miles allowed his team to change its identity to open its most recent game, and he didn’t like what he saw, nor did he approve of the result.