BATON ROUGE, La. -- After a rocky start in SEC play, LSU is finally starting to accomplish some of its objectives on offense.
The initial spark, according to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, was settling on the starting lineup of offensive linemen that has been in place for each of the past four games.
“It’s a pretty good line,” LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday’s 41-3 win against Kentucky. “They’re starting to play like they’re capable.”
Playing like they’re capable was a lengthier process than most expected for a line that returned four starters. Not only did center Elliott Porter miss the first two games on suspension, but guards Vadal Alexander and Ethan Pocic had struggled with injuries.
“Something that’s overlooked is all the movement we had early in the year,” Cameron said after the Kentucky game. “It was significant, not only with Elliott not starting the season, but with some injuries, with Pocic and so forth, and just our style of wanting to be physical and getting better each week. Our guys played tonight like they practiced all week.”
LSU has long prided itself on a physical, run-first mentality, but the line’s general ineffectiveness was one of the lowlights from a bumpy first half of the season. Perhaps the group has turned a corner after back-to-back solid outings against Florida and Kentucky.
Although it ran the ball reasonably well against Auburn (36 carries, 138 yards), LSU didn’t deliver a strong performance against a good run defense until Leonard Fournette was the driving force in a 195-yard night against Florida. The Tigers followed that by wearing down a mediocre Kentucky run defense, rushing for 231 of their 303 yards in the second half.
The Kentucky game was the first time LSU rushed for 200 yards against a Power 5 opponent after Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn -- all of which rank among the nation’s top 26 defenses against the run, as does Florida -- effectively defended the Tigers’ running game.
“We’re getting better,” said Cameron, who participated in postgame interviews for the first time all season after the Kentucky game. “I think our guys up front really did a nice job. That was the plan coming in. Obviously [Kentucky employs] a pressure front. They bring a lot of field blitzes, a lot of boundary blitzes and I thought our guys did a nice job once we got on track.”
Pinning the Tigers’ offensive improvement solely on improved play from the offensive line would be too simplistic, however. It’s also receivers running better routes and getting separation from defensive backs. It’s running backs hitting the correct holes and making tacklers miss. It’s playing with a full complement of fullbacks for the first time in weeks and having them create consistent running space for the backs.
It also helps that the Tigers (6-2, 2-2 SEC) recently faced two mediocre teams from the SEC East -- clearly the lesser of the conference’s two divisions -- in Florida and Kentucky after opening league play against Mississippi State and Auburn, teams ranked No. 1 and 5, respectively, in the newest Associated Press Top 25.
They’ll move back toward the tougher end of the SEC spectrum on Saturday when No. 3 Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0) visits Tiger Stadium, bringing a run defense that ranks sixth nationally at 97.1 yards per game.
Facing the Rebels’ defense will be the true test of the progress LSU has made recently – and whether quarterback Anthony Jennings can truly be an effective performer against a top-flight defense. Although LSU seems to have settled on sophomore Jennings as the starter after freshman Brandon Harris struggled mightily in his lone start at Auburn, Jennings has hardly scared the major-conference defenses LSU has faced thus far.
“He really can play better than he played [against Kentucky],” Miles said. “There are a number of guys that he could have chosen to throw the ball to early on in the game and I think that he’ll see this and learn from that and I think he will be a better quarterback when we get to next Saturday.”
Jennings was 7-for-14 for 120 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky and 10-for-21 for 110 yards and one score against Florida. Harris threw an interception in his only pass attempt against Kentucky and didn’t play against Florida.
“I don’t know that it’s a competition as much as it’s just guys working to get better,” Cameron said. “It’s two guys that are growing just day by day, snap by snap and just maturing and understanding what we’re trying to get done.”
One objective that Jennings has met is taking care of the football. He briefly lost the starting job with three early turnovers against New Mexico State, but otherwise Jennings has not been plagued by turnovers. He has thrown three interceptions and lost one fumble through eight games, helping LSU tie for 11th nationally with a plus-7 turnover margin.
If all LSU asks of Jennings is to be a game manager, it will probably need to have more games like last Saturday’s, where it made big plays on special teams and controlled the contest with stout defense and a powerful running attack. It was the type of performance that LSU fans have grown accustomed to seeing under Miles.
“We’re trying not to put our defense in a tough position if we can help it. They do a great job of getting us the ball,” Cameron said. “Our special teams got us in great position. They scored tonight. I think it’s a collective effort.
“Anytime you block well and take care of the football, whether it be run blocking, pass protection, you should be successful. ... We’re in the back half of the season and we’re still getting better, and that’s a good thing.”