Special teams' inconsistency a lingering issue for LSU

In 2014, Colby Delahoussaye kicked a 50-yard field goal with three seconds left to take LSU past Florida. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

BATON ROUGE, La. – Colby Delahoussaye is preparing to return to the site of his greatest college football moment.

Maybe that return to Florida – where he drilled the game-winning, 50-yard field goal with three seconds remaining in 2014 – can spark some good vibes for LSU’s inconsistent special-teams units.

“It was awesome,” Delahoussaye said Tuesday, thinking back on that 30-27 victory. “It was something I’ll never forget because, growing up, I watched games at the Swamp, getting to see all the tradition and all that. And to know that I made a memory for myself, it was unbelievable.”

Delahoussaye is back as the Tigers’ starting kicker after losing the job to Trent Domingue late in the 2014 season. He had barely missed a kick in his college career when that ball sailed through the uprights in the Swamp two years ago, having hit 18 of 19 field goal tries. But since then, he’s 9-for-16, including 3-for-5 this fall. He has also had two extra points blocked in 17 tries – tied for second most in the FBS behind Domingue, now at Texas – although Delahoussaye believes the Tigers have ironed out those issues.

“One of them I hit a little low and the other one the guy came straight through the A-gap," he said. "So we’ve been working on that and the main thing I’ve been working on is get-off time, making sure that ball’s getting up in the air as fast as possible. I feel like we’ve done a lot better job on it these last two weeks. We’re getting better at it.”

Indeed, he went 6-for-6 on PATs last week against Missouri, but Delahoussaye’s highs and lows mirror that of LSU’s special teams in general.

In the Missouri game alone:

  • Cameron Gamble booted the opening kickoff out of bounds, continuing his problems placing kickoffs near the pylon at the front corner of the end zone. That was his third kickoff this season that trickled out of bounds, and it allowed Missouri to start at the 35. “The first one wasn't pretty, was it? Oh boy,” LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron cracked after the game. “Yeah. But Coach [Bradley Dale Peveto, LSU’s special teams coach] made an adjustment on his landmark and that was good to see, I promise you.” Gamble kicked down the middle after that and Missouri started inside its own 25 each time, extending another general trend. LSU opponents have started inside their own 25 after 52 percent of LSU’s kickoffs, with the Tigers owning the 12th-best percentage in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

  • Delahoussaye missed his only field goal try of the night, from 47 yards, but freshman punter Josh Growden had one of his better games by averaging 47.7 yards per punt.

  • LSU forced a Missouri punt on the game’s opening possession but got hit with a block-in-the-back penalty on the return.

  • Later in the first quarter, Tre'Davious White’s punt return that would have started an LSU drive at its 34 was negated by a targeting penalty against Xavier Lewis that resulted in Lewis’ ejection. LSU instead started at its own 12.

Those errors did not cost LSU, as the Tigers easily cruised past Missouri. However, the kicking game has been a problem for much of the season.

LSU ranks ninth overall in ESPN’s Football Power Index, a metric that gauges how teams would fare against an average opponent on a neutral field. Included in the FPI are offensive, defensive and special-teams efficiency ratings, a 1-100 score for how each unit contributes to the scoring margin on a per-play basis.

LSU’s special-teams efficiency rating is 34.0, which ranks 113th in the FBS and worse than all but one team (Colorado, 30.6) ranked in the FPI's overall top 30. The 15 FBS teams that rank worse than LSU – including Power 5 programs Colorado, Kansas (33.9), West Virginia (26.7) and Georgia (15.4) – are a combined 33-37 this season.

In other words, poor special-teams play frequently accompanies losing outcomes.

For instance, Growden’s poor punting against Wisconsin consistently gave the Badgers good field position that they turned into just enough points to win 16-14. Two weeks later, Growden’s 65-yarder late in the fourth quarter helped LSU stave off a Mississippi State comeback and allowed Growden to share SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

Delahoussaye said Growden has gotten past the early nerves that plagued him and “now he’s relaxed and he’s going to do what he’s capable of doing. I have all the confidence in Josh of being a really, really good punter here.”

If Growden and Gamble boot it well, their teammates haven't surrendered much in coverage. LSU's longest kickoff return allowed this season is 25 yards and the longest punt return is 5 yards.

As is the case with each of the Tigers’ special-teams units, the goal is to get such positive results consistently. It hasn't happened yet, but you never know when it might make the difference in the outcome of a game.