BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU fans probably couldn’t believe their eyes when the Tigers' offense took the field for the first time against Missouri. Who were these guys lined up with four wide receivers on the field, and why were they wearing LSU’s traditional purple and gold?
We quickly learned they were the first examples of much-discussed changes brought about by new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and interim coach Ed Orgeron after taking over for Cam Cameron and Les Miles six days earlier.
"We spread it out more early," said Malachi Dupre, one of those four receivers on the field for the first possession. "We started the game in four-wides. Since I’ve been here, we haven’t put four wides on the field in a long time. So just little things like that [were changes]. It’s different. It definitely is different, but not much has changed. We just did things tonight that we’ve been having in our pocket and just didn’t use it much."
Ensminger made a series of useful adjustments while calling plays for the first time since 2008 at Auburn.
He sent the Tigers out in formations that Cameron hadn’t deployed much, or at all. He split tight ends and fullbacks out wide at receiver, creating confusion for a Missouri defense that could not have known what to expect from a new play-caller. His coaches turned to new personnel -- particularly little-used receivers Jazz Ferguson and Russell Gage, who played key blocking roles on multiple long runs.
LSU believes those adjustments set up Missouri perfectly, creating more space for running backs Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams to operate in a 42-7 win, as LSU generated 634 yards of total offense -- 418 on the ground.
"[We were] obviously trying to spread the ball out, passing more early and allowing Danny [Etling, LSU’s quarterback] to make a real simple read and just dump it to the open guy," fullback J.D. Moore said. "Doing that early really opened up the run game for us later."
Of course it helped that LSU's offensive line consistently controlled the line of scrimmage and that Guice used his combination of cutback moves and tackle-breaking power to blow gigantic holes in Missouri’s defense. That allowed the Tigers set a new school record for yards in an SEC game on a night when All-American running back Leonard Fournette didn’t even suit up.
There was nothing new about LSU’s reliance on solid line play and dynamic running. Those were staples of the Tigers’ offensive system under Miles and Cameron, and will remain the centerpiece of the offense under the new regime.
"I was really thinking about going to the Run-and-Shoot, but I didn’t think we could get it in," Ensminger joked on the "LSU Sixty" radio show on Sunday night. "Nothing changed. It’s the same running plays, the same passing plays, a little tweak here and there. But I just felt like we run the ball so well and everything else, that we had to be more of a play-action pass team, and it gave us a chance to isolate our fullbacks and our tight ends."
Ensminger believes he will be able to use a quick-pass game to keep opposing defenses honest, and that approach worked well against Missouri. Etling completed passes to nine different Tigers -- a group that includes two tight ends and two fullbacks -- effectively luring defenders away from the line of scrimmage and opening running lanes for the backs.
"The success of the running game [came from] our ability to play-action pass, our ability to throw the quick game and everything else, and try to get more of them out of the box," Ensminger said. "We got more six-man box last night than we usually get or anticipated, but I think we did that because of our play-action pass and the ability to spread the ball around."
For the most part, Etling had a strong night completing short and intermediate passes that extended drives. However, the Tigers’ offense still struggles to complete downfield throws -- a shortcoming that Ensminger said cost LSU three touchdowns against Missouri.
That could become problematic for Saturday’s trip to Florida (noon ET, ESPN), as the Gators’ secondary is as talented as any the Tigers (3-2, 2-1 SEC) will face this season. Etling needs to take advantage of his opportunities for long completions when they arrive, because there probably will not be so many against a stingy Florida (4-2, 2-1) defense.
LSU didn’t need the long ball to win handily against Missouri, though. The running game dominated, but it had help. By sprinkling in some wide-open offensive looks from the very beginning, the Tigers wanted to prove a point about being capable of more than ex-coach Miles' trademark ground-and-pound approach.
"I think I’d be lying if I said [we weren’t], but it’s just one of those things we’re capable of doing, and our coaches have faith in us and believed in us to go out there and make it work, and we did," Dupre said.