Where do the LSU Tigers go from here?
The Tigers must give Fournette more touches, utilize their WRs and put QB Danny Etling in a position to succeed.
Where do the LSU Tigers go from here?
In the wake of LSU’s late and (in the following moments, at least) controversial loss to Auburn, the focus will be on the firing of head coach Les Miles. His dismissal begins a new chapter at LSU, one in which they have immediate problems on offense to fix.
Leonard Fournette saw just 16 carries in the loss to Auburn, while top wide receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre have been underutilized and ineffective. So what’s going wrong for the LSU offense right now, and how can they best put quarterback Danny Etling in a position for the offense to succeed? Let’s take a closer look.
Lack of touches for Fournette
In a game that LSU ultimately lost by just five points, their star player in Leonard Fournette had just 16 carries. Fournette’s health has been in question, with an ankle injury forcing him to miss the Week 2 game against Jacksonville State. He rebounded and had 28 carries last week against Mississippi State last week though, and his performance on the field against Auburn didn’t suggest that he needed to be held back for health reasons.
Fournette carried the ball just 16 times, but on those 16 carries he forces six missed tackles, working out at a missed tackle once every 2.6 carries. With two of those missed tackles coming in the fourth quarter, and while he missed a play after going off injured on the game’s final drive, he was straight back into the line up so it seems unlikely that he was being limited so that reason.
Even if that were the case, they still found just three carries for backup Derrius Guice, who ripped off a 52-yard carry earlier in the game, and with a game separated by such small margins, a stronger dedication to the running game could have made a big difference. In defense of the LSU offense here, they were limited by how long was left on the clock on the game’s final drive. They saw a penalty put them in 1st-and-25 on their penultimate drive, but even needing 25 yards on first down, it might not have been the worst idea to hand him the ball again — particularly given Fournette’s ability to make people miss in the open field.
Underutilizing Dupre and Dural
Only 16 carries for Fournette were frustrating, and in my opinion it was the wrong move, but the game situation in the fourth quarter does make it more understandable, despite the benefit of hindsight. What isn’t easy to comprehend is just how little LSU has gotten out of wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural this year.
LSU’s passing offense has been ineffective throughout the year, and we saw them make the switch from Brandon Harris to Danny Etling during the win over Jacksonville State. That hasn’t fixed the problem though and their top two receivers have combined for just 241 yards and one touchdown through the first four games of the season.
Dupre has to shoulder a large part of the blame for how he performed in the first two weeks of the season, dropping three of the six catchable passes thrown his way against Wisconsin and Jacksonville State. LSU wanted to get him more involved with the offense though, so after spending 90.1 percent of his snaps at either left or right outside wide receiver in the opening two weeks, he has seen 93.8 percent of his snaps in the past two weeks come from the slot. That’s a big role change, and it’s seen him pick up eight receptions through two games, with no drops, but as we saw from the numerous post play replays on Saturday night, there are too many times where he’s running free and not being targeted.
Perhaps this is something to do with the scheme, or keeping things simpler for Etling as he adjusts to his role as a starter. Whatever the reason, it’s not working right now. Dupre averaged 2.45 yards per route run last year, and through two games this year his yards per route run average of just 1.27 ranks 169th out of the 206 wide receiver to run at least 47 routes so far this year.
Dural has yet to drop a single pass, making the fact that he has seen just 15 catchable targets thrown his way even more disappointing. He’s forced five missed tackles on those 15 receptions, with 38 of his 143 receiving yards coming after the catch. Like Dupre, too often Dural is having to deal with inaccurate passes downfield, which is a big part of the reason with his yards per route run average has fallen from 2.84 to just 1.42 through four games this year. That means that Dural, and the way he is being used, is half as effective this year as it was throughout the 2015 season.
Getting the most out of Danny Etling
Les Miles decided to go with Etling at quarterback during the game against Jacksonville State and it definitely helped provide a spark to the LSU offense. However, with a PFF rating of 62.1, he hasn’t performed well since taking over as the starter. He hasn’t been effective throwing the ball downfield, completing just two of the 16 passes travelling 20 yards or more downfield, and just nine-of-18 on throws between 10 and 19 yards. Simply put, the LSU offense isn’t effective throwing the ball beyond 10 yards at this point in the season, so it makes a lot of sense to alter the game plan slightly, regardless of whether or not Etling remains the starting quarterback.
We know Dural and Dupre are good receivers, because they’ve shown it in the past. We know Leonard Fournette can carry this offense on his own if he gets more than 16 carries, because he’s shown it in the past. Etling struggled at Purdue and he is struggling again for LSU now. He very well might be the best option the team has at quarterback right now, but the game plan has to be one which gives LSU the best chance to win. Hand the ball off to Leonard Fournette early and often, and manufacture touches for Dupre and Dural. Put the ball in their hands on wide receiver screens, quick outs and slants; on throws travelling between zero and nine yards from the line of scrimmage, Etling has gone 21-for-24, so this would save on wasted plays where receivers are chasing inaccurate throws downfield, and get the ball into the hands of the Tigers three best playmakers.
They host Missouri this Saturday before going on the road to Florida the week after, so if they’re to recover from this loss, they need to make some changes quickly. Sometimes simple is better, and LSU can simplify this offense and make life a lot easier for their struggling quarterbacks.
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.