Run threat helping LSU develop better passing game under new coaches

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ed Orgeron and Steve Ensminger didn’t just want LSU to make better use of its play-action passing game when they took over for Les Miles and Cam Cameron three weeks ago, they made it a stated priority.

And it wasn’t just talk from the two Tigers coaches. In two games since that transition of power, LSU has taken regular deep shots after play-action fakes -- and the change is yielding huge dividends.

“That’s not the one emphasis, but that’s definitely something that’s said: ‘Hey we want to have big plays, we want to take shots down the field, and then at the same time, we want to run the ball smashmouth style.’ We want to hit them a bunch of different ways, so yeah it’s definitely verbalized,” fullback J.D. Moore said.

There is an art to an effective play-action fake, where the quarterback, running backs and offensive line all work to trick opposing defenses into stopping the run, only to have the quarterback instead sling the ball downfield. When a defense’s top priority is stopping the run -- and it always is for teams facing LSU backs Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice -- the play-action pass can be lethal.

Take last Saturday’s 45-10 win over Southern Miss, when LSU quarterback Danny Etling completed 6 of 11 passes off of play action for 197 yards and two touchdowns. Etling completed an 80-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Chark and another for 63 yards to a wide-open Malachi Dupre, both off play-action. He had a chance for a third, but Chark tripped and fell just before leaping near the goal line and USM defensive back Tarvarius Moore instead intercepted the pass.

“I think it was a big thing that Coach Ensminger came in and wanted to establish as far as what our offense was going to be and our identity,” Etling said of his new offensive coordinator. “He wanted a nice play-action game and I’ve tried my best to kind of get that done and get good fakes and try and get the defense to come up and stop that, and our receivers have done a good job of getting great separation and our backs have done a great job of getting those good fakes as well. And our O-line obviously does a great job of faking run, so when you get all of those clicking, obviously it’s big for us.”

The Tigers sometimes utilized the play-action pass under Cameron, but the goal now is to do it more effectively. In the first three games this season against FBS opponents, Etling and Brandon Harris posted a combined 17.5 Total Quarterback Rating on play-action passes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Since Ensminger began calling plays after Miles’ and Cameron’s dismissal on Sept. 25, Etling’s QBR off play-action is 75.0 and the Tigers already have completed four passes that covered 20 yards or more.

Furthermore, Ensminger is calling more play-action passes than nearly any offensive coordinator in the country. Only Texas (18.3 attempts) and Ole Miss (17.5) are averaging more play-action passes per game than LSU’s 14.5 under Ensminger.

“That’s something that we had. I’m glad that we’re using it now because it opens it up for receivers,” offensive guard Josh Boutte said. “They’ve got to respect one. They’ve got to respect the pass or the run. We’re going to do both, so they’re going to lose one of them.”

Two games is a tiny sample size, but it’s impossible to argue with the results thus far. LSU totaled 634 yards of offense -- a school record for an SEC game -- in Ensminger’s play-calling debut against Missouri and bounced back from a slow start against Southern Miss to average 10.9 yards per play, a modern-day school record for one game.

In fact, LSU’s having rushed for 418 yards against Mizzou might have directly contributed to Dupre’s wide-open touchdown catch on Saturday. The USM defense left Dupre all alone to catch a bomb from Etling once the quarterback wheeled and fired after faking a handoff to Guice.

“The run set that up because a lot of the [long completions] were play-action plays, so them selling out on the run leaves a bunch of gaps for the receivers downfield,” Guice said. “Danny did a great job getting them the ball and the receivers did a great job looking it in and catching it.”

Ensminger’s goal isn’t to become a pass-first team -- not with Fournette and Guice available -- but anything he can do to back defenders out of the box against his star backs will be useful.

If the Tigers can make the play-action pass work, opponents will at least respect their aerial attack, even if stopping the run remains the top priority. That alone would be a huge change from LSU's offensive struggles dating back to last November.