BATON ROUGE, La. -- Just like that, LSU has a quarterback question on its hands once again.
This was bound to happen eventually, once talented true freshman Brandon Harris gained full command of the Tigers’ offensive scheme. It’s happening now, sooner than Les Miles’ coaching staff might have anticipated, after what happened on the field in Saturday night’s 34-29 loss to Mississippi State.
Sophomore starter Anthony Jennings struggled to do much of anything with the offense for three-plus quarters. Then he left the game with what appeared to be a shoulder injury after taking a huge hit at the LSU goal line. Then Harris came on and breathed some life into the Tigers’ offense, nearly sparking a miraculous comeback win.
“He played real great when he came in,” LSU receiver Travin Dural said. “He came in off the sideline without warming up and threw three, four great passes, made a great run and put us back in this game.”
To be clear, Jennings does not deserve all (or maybe even most) of the blame for LSU’s stagnant offense on Saturday. The Tigers had been a run-heavy team that took occasional shots downfield through the first three games, but Mississippi State’s stout defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage on Saturday.
Outside of a 20-yard Leonard Fournette run early in the second quarter, the Tigers had just one run that covered at least 10 yards and that was on a Harris scramble on the game’s final drive. They averaged just 2.5 yards per carry, which simply wouldn’t cut it when Mississippi State’s offense was carving up LSU’s defense so efficiently. And for the most part, the Bulldogs also took away the downfield throws that had made LSU’s passing game dangerous at times.
Miles said ineffective offensive line play contributed to both issues.
“The protection is something that makes every quarterback struggle,” Miles said. “If you’ve got somebody running in your face, it’s an issue. So for me to say that [playing Harris earlier would] have been any different at that point, I’m not ready to say that.”
This was the kind of game where LSU needed a quarterback who could stretch the field in order to take some pressure off the run, and it was evident that Jennings’ passing skills did not scare Mississippi State’s defense enough to back them out of the box. Harris, however ...
That’s the dilemma here, and let’s do our best not to overreact to what LSU’s offense did late against a Bulldogs team that obviously took its foot off the gas pedal too early. Harris was phenomenal in three possessions, finishing 6-for-9 for 140 yards and two touchdowns, but the pressure was largely off once he entered the game. Playing against State’s starters would have made life tough for Harris, too.
We also can’t overlook that LSU’s offense looked potent for the first time once Harris entered the lineup.
“His performance certainly, in the limited pieces that we asked him to perform, was very positive,” Miles said. “We’re not going to also downplay what was really great throws, the ability to move his feet and those things. That we see. We’re going to make the correct decision, and he made a case for himself today. And we enjoyed the productivity that he gave us.”
Nonetheless, maybe Saturday’s game against New Mexico State is the perfect time to see what the freshman is made of. It remains to be seen how serious Jennings' injury was -- Miles said Jennings was "nicked up" and not available to re-enter the game late once LSU closed the gap -- so the freshman might play more on Saturday out of necessity. But either way, maybe it’s time to start getting Harris valuable game reps.
Playing Jennings makes sense if LSU's coaches believe that their strategy in the first several games -- playing it close to the vest on offense and letting the defense control the game -- will help the Tigers remain in contention in the SEC West. Jennings probably suits that philosophy better than Harris. But Saturday night’s results revealed that might not be an effective strategy against the caliber of opponents that remain on LSU’s schedule.
The Tigers are going to need to score. A lot. As a raw talent, Harris might be more prone to mistakes, but he’s also more likely to make a defensive coordinator think twice about crowding the line of scrimmage. And if he’s LSU’s quarterback of the future (since nearly everyone seems to agree that he is) LSU might as well let Harris start proving whether he can handle the job.
Miles' coaching staff probably wouldn’t publicly admit to thinking beyond this season, especially since the Tigers have played only four games. That’s understandable. The question they must consider this week, and each week moving forward, is whether making Harris their starting quarterback would better prepare the Tigers to win right now as well as in the future.