Stopping LSU's offense isn't so simple

October, 9, 2013
10/09/13
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It's easy to look at LSU's success offensively this season and believe that Cam Cameron has the Midas touch. The night-and-day difference has been that startling. The eye-popping numbers -- 488.7 yards per game, 45.5 points per game -- are leaps and bounds better than they've been in years past.

But truth be told, Cameron walked into the perfect situation when he was signed on as LSU's offensive coordinator in February. He didn't have to overhaul anything. He didn't arrive in Baton Rouge twirling a magic wand in one hand and a spellbook of plays in another. The parts were already in place. He just had to get them running efficiently.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Zach Mettenberger is only one of several worries for defenses facing LSU.
Les Miles would have told you so if you'd only asked. LSU's often eccentric head coach would have you believe he envisioned this kind of turnaround when he hired Cameron.

"I felt like it was just exactly the right pieces or factors to come together," Miles told reporters on Monday. "You have a veteran quarterback that can really throw it. You have a veteran receiving corps that can really run routes and receive the ball. Yeah, I really did [see it coming]. I don't underestimate our offense, nor do I underestimate Cam."

Whether you believe Miles' premonition is one thing. But understanding the root of LSU's offensive turnaround is cut and dried. What it comes down to is simple: balance. Cameron didn't bring an innovative scheme or better personnel with him, he simply unpacked his bags and used what was already there more effectively than his predecessors. His deft touch was golden, but not glaringly so.

LSU's scheme, as best summed up by its leading receiver, is downright elementary. It's old school in that it operates mostly under center and uses two or more running backs 72 percent of the time.

"You know, you can't run without passing and you can't pass without running," Odell Beckham Jr. said after LSU thumped Mississippi State 59-26 this past weekend. "We have great running backs in the backfield, and that's a threat. They have to respect that. If they load the box up we're going to throw the ball and then if they back off a little bit we're going to break big runs."

If Beckham's explanation seemed coy, it wasn't meant to be. Stopping LSU's offense isn't as simple as stopping the run or the pass. You can't blitz your way out of it or scheme against any one player in particular. As a defensive coordinator, you're basically left to hope for the best.

You can't double-team Beckham. If you do, Jarvis Landry will get you. The two receivers are first and second in receptions per game in the SEC. Beckham leads the country in all-purpose yards while Landry is tied for fourth in touchdown receptions. You can try playing off coverage and they'll burn you just the same. Mississippi State tried, playing 6 and 7 yards off of Beckham all night, and he still managed 179 yards and two touchdowns.

You can try playing two safeties back and shading them toward Beckham and Landry for help over the top, but that won't work either. If you leave only seven in the box, you're likely to regret it. With LSU's stable of running backs, they'll make you pay. Jeremy Hill, a 235-pound bowling ball of power and quickness, is second nationally with nine rushing touchdowns. When he leaves the game, Alfred Blue comes on, averaging 5 yards or more on 51.4 percent of his carries.

If you do everything right and somehow double-cover Beckham and Landry and stop the run, then you're still left with the matter of Zach Mettenberger. There might be no bigger turnaround in college football than LSU's senior quarterback. Mettenberger, thanks to the tutelage of Cameron, is first in the SEC and fifth nationally in raw QBR (86.7).

Mettenberger is fitting balls into windows that make scouts blush. The "oohs" from three pro scouts sitting next to me were audible even over the clanging of thousands of cowbells in Starkville, Miss., on Saturday night. You can do everything right and he'll still get you. The Bulldogs' defense played well and he still managed to complete a ridiculous 25 of 29 passes for 340 yards, defying blanket coverage and pass-rushers nipping at his heels.

"When you play LSU you have to prepare for the run," Mettenberger said matter-of-factly. "[Mississippi State] came out hyped and they did a really good job executing their run defense. But again that left holes in the secondary and we were able to execute and really soften them up for the run game."

Even LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson had to laugh.

"I told Coach Cam, 'What did you do that for?'" said Ferguson on LSU hanging 59 points and 563 yards of offense. "It was a great game, man. I've never seen an offense like that before. Zach Mettenberger is playing great. I call him old Drew Bledsoe."

And like those old Patriots teams, the theory on offense is balance. LSU doesn't run to set up the pass and it doesn't pass to set up the run. Cameron isn't using a gimmicky scheme. Instead, defenses make a choice: Would you like Hill and Blue to beat you, or Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry?

Pick your poison.

Florida will have to when it travels to Baton Rouge on Saturday. The 17th-ranked Gators have allowed the lowest Total QBR (13.0) of any defense and the second fewest rushing yards per game (65.0).

"They’re going to get movement in the run game, they do a nice job in protection, but again, balance is the word you’re looking for," Florida coach Will Muschamp said. "You have to try and make this a one-dimensional game as best you can and understand they’re very effective at throwing the football, and that’s where they’ve hurt some people."

Alex Scarborough | email

Alabama/SEC reporter

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