Bowl game a chance for Brandon Harris to halt late-season passing slump

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris can't win LSU's 2016 starting quarterback job by playing well in the Tigers' upcoming bowl game, but he can remind people why he held the job this season.

For much of the month of November, it was fair to wonder whether the sophomore was the solution to LSU's passing-game woes.

“He's in his first year of starting and really had some great games,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Just has to get his feet settled -- and I'm talking about philosophically, not the actual footwork. He needs to get calmed down and say, ‘OK, this is it,' because when he does, he's just what we want.”

Through the first seven games of the season, Harris seemed to be coming into his own -- with his performance against a stout Florida defense (13-for-19, 202 yards, 2 TDs) representing the high-water mark.

However, Harris struggled mightily down the stretch. His drops were sometimes sloppy and his throws frequently off-target, posting a raw Total Quarterback Rating of 34.8 or worse (on a 0-100 scale where 50 is an average performance) in each of the last four games. He gave arguably his worst performance of the fall in the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, going 7-for-21 for 83 yards and an interception (16.2 raw QBR).

The most telling stat is this one: LSU averaged 16.5 points per game in November, which was one of the main reasons why they had 1-3 record that month.

It would be unfair to lay all of LSU's offensive struggles at Harris' feet, but we grade quarterbacks by how effectively their offenses move the ball and score. Harris did not pass well enough to prevent defenses from keying on Leonard Fournette and the running game, even if teammates insist he remained mentally tough throughout.

“Nobody's perfect. He's going to make mistakes,” left tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “That's what we expect, but he didn't let it take him down. He'd go into slumps like any other person could have. He just took it to rise to the challenge like, ‘OK, we're going to do this and do this and get back on track.' That's what he did and I respect him for that.”

Miles hasn't permitted Harris to participate in media interviews since he mouthed off after the Florida game on Oct. 17, but Miles said Harris realizes he must play better in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl matchup with high-scoring Texas Tech.

“I think he's got a great attitude going into bowl practice,” Miles said. “In other words, his personal necessity to throw better and be more accurate is what he's working on. It looks pretty good from here.”

The good news for Harris is that the Red Raiders are atrocious on defense. Fournette will surely handle a heavy workload against a run defense that ranks 125th nationally (271.8 ypg), but Texas Tech is nearly as bad against the pass (No. 113 in the FBS at 268.3 ypg).

If the Red Raiders follow typical LSU opponent trends and attempt to take away Fournette first, Harris must throw the ball more accurately than he has of late. As bad as Texas Tech is on defense, it is the opposite on offense, ranking second nationally in scoring (46.6 ppg).

Scoring 17 points in the bowl game will probably not be enough for an LSU victory.

“I think it's important for this team,” Miles said of the necessity for Harris to have a good game. “I think it's important for the offense, defense and special teams that we have a very quality quarterback effort and I think we'll get it.”

But what if they don't? Surely we'll revisit this subject several more times between now and next season, but Harris will not be LSU's only option at quarterback next season.

Former starter Anthony Jennings is still around, plus Justin McMillan will be coming off a redshirt season and Purdue transfer Danny Etling will be available. Miles might also add another quarterback in the upcoming recruiting class.

LSU recently lost commit Feleipe Franks to Florida, but Miles said he believes the Tigers can still land a top-tier quarterback this offseason.

“I don't want to necessarily go into that in depth, but I think there's some quality plays there, you bet,” he said.

The Tigers aren't to that point yet, though. They still need to make it through this bowl game before they can take a step back and re-evaluate where things stand. This is Harris' final opportunity for months to make the positive impact at quarterback that was frequently absent in November.

“We want specifically to have a greater efficient passing game, more completions, more yards, more more,” Miles said. “So I think we had a nice start to the game plan and I think Coach [Cam] Cameron's kind of got us heading in the right direction.”