Offensive line's struggles an unexpected factor in LSU's recent slide

LSU's Brandon Harris was sacked a season-high five times against Arkansas. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Vadal Alexander knew it would be an unpleasant experience when he and his fellow LSU offensive linemen sat down with position coach Jeff Grimes on Monday to review film of their most recent game.

Following last Saturday's 31-14 loss to Arkansas -- a game in which the Tigers (7-2, 4-2 SEC) surrendered a season-high five sacks -- Alexander predicted there would be some harsh truths expressed in that meeting room.

"No egos, humbling. You know you're going to see mistakes and you know you're going to see things you've got to fix," Alexander said. "The thing is what are you going to do about it? Are you going to let it happen again next week? Are you going to let it make you tuck your tail between your legs and not get better? I know what we'll do, we'll get better."

No. 15 LSU's offensive line has come up on the short end of each of its last two matchups, and it's no coincidence that the Tigers lost those games against Alabama and Arkansas. While Saturday's opponent, Ole Miss (7-3, 4-2) does not have an explosive pass rush, LSU's line improving this week seems like a dubious proposition in light of recent results.

Through their first seven games, the Tigers had surrendered just 13 sacks, a total that tied for 13th in the nation. That statistic is somewhat deceptive, however, as LSU was also one of the most run-heavy offenses in the FBS. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Tigers surrendered a sack on 6.2 percent of pass attempts in those games, which tied for 62nd nationally and better illustrates the situation that was exposed in the last two games.

LSU was forced to throw more in the last two games as the running game was completely ineffective against Alabama and because the Tigers fell into a 21-0 hole in the second quarter against Arkansas. They surrendered seven sacks in those two games, with quarterback Brandon Harris getting sacked on 13 percent of his dropbacks -- a percentage that ranked 109th nationally in that two-week stretch.

"It wasn't really a night where we really pass protected very well," offensive guard Will Clapp said. "We all gave up some pressures and a few sacks, so that's something that we weren't happy about and it's something that we're going to be focusing on all week."

Clapp has no reason to apologize. He is LSU's only starting offensive lineman who has not surrendered a sack this season. Veteran tackles Jerald Hawkins (1.5) and Alexander (one) both gave up sacks against Arkansas, and Hawkins might not be available against Ole Miss after leaving the Arkansas game with a left foot injury.

Tigers coach Les Miles hasn't committed to keeping K.J. Malone in Hawkins' spot after using him at left tackle for the final 46 offensive plays against Arkansas, but multiple teammates said Malone held his own in his most extensive college playing time.

"[Grimes] said he was proud of the way I stepped up, just being ready," Malone said. "But I still have room to improve."

That goes for LSU's line across the board after experiencing a variety of problems in the last two games.

There were times where the LSU lineman simply got whipped against Arkansas, but sometimes Harris didn't do his protectors any favors. He occasionally holds onto the ball too long -- a common issue among first-year starters -- allowing opposing pass-rushers to track him down behind the line. And on occasion he is slow to step up into the pocket as rushers fan to the outside.

It also hurts LSU's blocking efforts that tight end Dillon Gordon and fullback John David Moore are out for the season with injuries. Neither player piled up many stats, but they were important figures in LSU running back Leonard Fournette's early-season success.

Gordon and Moore's replacements, Colin Jeter and freshman Bry'Kiethon Mouton, are useful players, but they aren't as effective at blocking as their predecessors.

"We're doing what we can," Jeter said. "Obviously we miss [Gordon], but at the end of the day, he's gone and we have to do what we can to help our team win."

That's the name of the game for LSU's blockers as an important showdown at Ole Miss approaches. LSU hasn't lost three straight games since 1999, and the offensive front's production has been an issue in the two previous losses.

Their performance will once again rank among the key factors in whether the Tigers snap the losing streak.

"I don't have the magic answer, I don't have the secret to success," Alexander said. "The only thing I know about success is it doesn't come easy. It's an everyday habit, it's an everyday workman's mentality, it's an everyday push because great things don't come easy. Great things won't happen when you hit adversity and just give up."