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Young Tigers' drops hurt against Alabama

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Inexperience often reveals itself at the most inopportune times.

Such was the case last Saturday for LSU, when young Tigers dropped multiple catchable passes that could have extended drives -- and in the case of sophomore fullback Melvin Jones, given LSU a key first down during its unsuccessful overtime possession.

"We had some of our best receivers, I mean maybe the most talented ball-skill guys, drop balls [against Alabama]," LSU coach Les Miles said. "So I was surprised absolutely that that was the case. I would bet you that that wouldn't happen again like that for a long time."

But it did against Alabama, in the 20-13 OT loss. Twice when freshman Trey Quinn -- one of the Tigers' most sure-handed wideouts – dropped third-down passes from Anthony Jennings during drives in the fourth quarter. Fellow freshman Malachi Dupre also dropped a third-down pass that could have extended a first-quarter drive. And sophomore Travin Dural once picked up only 2 yards on a third-and-3 pass, although in his defense, the officials might have been a bit stingy with their spot.

Nonetheless, the collection of missteps in the passing game added up for LSU, particularly once Alabama was able to rally in the final minute and force overtime.

"There's just so much that's left on the table when you don't have drives that are continuous, down-the-field drives," Miles said. "That's ultimately the easiest way to extend an offensive productivity is to get so some of those plays you want to call after you've picked up a third down.

"In other words, just think about how many more plays would have happened if we pick up four third downs. Legitimately, minimum, eight to 10 max. Twenty?"

Dupre redeemed himself after his drop by making a one-handed touchdown catch on third down to cap LSU's next possession. But he also recognized that drops were a clear problem at his position against Alabama.

"Trey may have had a few questionable ones, Travin, myself," Dupre said. "Definitely we're guys who work extra hard to catch the football and [the Alabama game] isn't something that we want to keep doing. It definitely won't happen. I know I'll work harder, I know Trey will work very hard, Travin, and we'll get that fixed and it won't happen again."

To date, third down has been an issue for LSU on several fronts. Not only have quarterbacks Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris failed to come anywhere near the production that senior Zach Mettenberger provided in the passing game last season, but the collection of young receivers haven't measured up to what departed veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham accomplished in 2013.

Landry, in particular, was one of the nation's top third-down receivers, catching 28 of the 35 passes where he was targeted and accumulating 474 yards and six touchdowns on third down alone. Beckham caught 15 of his 25 targets for 272 yards.

As a group, LSU's top four receivers -- Dural, Dupre, Quinn and John Diarse -- have caught 20 of the 55 passes where they were targeted for 291 yards and three touchdowns.

Dural (seven catches on 23 targets for 105 yards) is the leader, but the conversion rate is not particularly impressive for any of the quarterbacks' regular targets. Diarse (4-for-6 for 78 yards) has caught 67 percent of his third-down targets and achieved three first downs and a touchdown, but he has only been targeted on third down twice since the Louisana-Monroe win on Sept. 13.

For his part, Jennings accepted some of the blame for the incompletions, saying that some of his passes were not as accurate as they needed to be.

"Those guys don't want to drop passes," Jennings said. "I've just got to put it in better position for them to catch the ball and see it with strong hands. And basically [if I'm] more accurate with the football, I have confidence in those guys that they'll do a great job catching the ball."

It's part of the risk you run when relying on young players. Landry and Beckham were not the reliable third-down performers they would become as true freshmen, either, but they developed into one of the nation's top receiving tandems by the time they were juniors.

Their performances against Alabama are part of the growing process for LSU's freshmen, and Dupre said he hopes it will be the last time he and Quinn's drops figure into a Tigers' loss.

"I don't want to say it's the story of the game. We did a lot of things right," Dupre said. "It's definitely not a characteristic of us, but it happened [against Alabama]. We just have to get better moving forward and make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the bottom line."