It's been four long years in the making. Finally, in 2012, after years of suffering buried beneath sub-par quarterback play and run-driven offenses with inconsistent at best, anemic at usual, downright pathetic at worst passing attacks, 2012 was supposed to be the year.
Gone were Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee. Gone was Gary Crowton and the razzle-dazzle bullshit offense that regressed each progressive year under his watch (at LSU he slowly and painfully choked the life away; at Maryland he went for the more economical immediate death blow). Back were a stable of running backs that proved capable of carrying an offense to a championship game, sure to be a stabilizing force. Back were 4/5ths of an offensive line to make it all even easier. Yes, 2012 was the year. Except, until it's not.
Total Offense: 432.80 ypg (47th in the nation)
Scoring Offense: 39.00 ppg (24th in the nation)
Rushing Offense: 229.60 ypg (18th in the nation)
Passing Offense: 203.2 ypg (93rd in the nation)
Passing Efficiency: 148.09 rating (34th in the nation)
Turnovers Lost: 8 (55th in the nation)
3rd Down Conversion %: 43.94% (47th in the nation)
Red Zone Offense: 76% (85th in the nation)
Time of Possession: 30:08 (55th in the nation)
At first glance, the numbers aren't dreadful. The rushing attack is predictably strong. Even the scoring offense is a more than respectable 39 points a game. So, what, exactly is wrong?
There are three major problem areas: passing production, Red Zone efficiency and turnovers.
It's tough to win with a passing offense ranked only 93rd. Yet, 203.2 yards per game are a break dance worthy numbers for LSU the past four seasons. Yet, it's pitiful stacked up against the rest of the nation. This is a problem.
The second thing to consider is the shocking decline of Red Zone efficiency. In 2011, LSU ranked 4th in the nation in Red Zone Efficiency, cashing in a stellar 93% of their chances for scores. That's 17 percentage points of regression. LSU failed to get scores in only four of their 61 Red Zone possessions in 2011. They've failed to score six times already this season. That's a problem, too.
The final element is the turnovers. LSU lost the ball only 10 times last season. 10. 1. 0. 10. In 2012? 8. Again, a problem.
Oh yeah, did I mention, these numbers are compiled against a foursome of cupcakes so cuppy and cakey they probably shouldn't even count. That makes the good numbers look modest and the bad numbers look nightmarish. The average total defense rank of LSU's three FBS opponents: 72. Factor in Towson and that number is like a building collapsing on itself built on a sinkhole.
Ouch. Playing against defenses that shitacular should lead to monster offensive output. Instead, it's lead to only good offensive output. Run that currency through the SEC exchange and you are staring a bottom-half offense to go with your top-flight defense. Or, the 2011 team all over again. It's fifty-cents on the dollar production. It's unacceptable.
Isolating these three issues, what then are the primary root causes?
1) Inexperienced QB Play
When the Jefferson-Lee era ended, the automatic assumption became that LSU's QB play was sure to improvement. Waiting in the wings behind them stood a young, strong-armed pocket-passing QB ready to unleash a violent passing attack on the SEC. Instead, the passing attack continues to produce at a similar rate as the previous four seasons. It's not that Mettenberger is any worse than Jefferson and Lee. It's that he's not established himself as considerably better. For LSU fans needing to believe he was the missing piece in a championship, this is simply not good enough.
That being said, it's far too early to give up on the kid. These reps are vital to his development. Remember, he's never played a meaningful down of FBS football in his life. In fact, here's a comparison for you:
Player A: 78/119, 65.5%, 1,016 yards, 6 TD, 2 INT, 150.2 Rating.
Player B: 75/120, 62.5%, 919 yards, 4 TD, 2 INT, 138.12 Rating
Player A is Zach Mettneberger. Player B is A.J. McCarron in 2011.
The important takeaway here is that Mett is still learning. He's made mistakes, but they are correctable. He's on a trajectory that will give LSU a competent, consistent passing attack. He's more physically talented than McCarron, the question is whether or not he will be dedicated to improving. Both of his interceptions have occurred in inside the red zone (it's worth mentioning that there was also a fumbled snap against Auburn, though Miles himself attributed blame to Elliot Porter).
There are glimmers of greatness. Mettenberger commands the pocket better than any LSU quarterback since Rohan Davey (no, that's not a slight on the best quarterback in LSU history: Jamarcus Russell). His arm and release allow him to make throws the LSU offense simply swore off the previous four seasons. LSU fans need to be patient that Mettenberger is still evolving into the role.
2) Personnel Turnover
Consistency is key. Since the spring LSU has lost it's starting LT and starting RB (this may be a matter of semantics, but it's worth noting). Losing Chris Faulk is proving difficult to overcome. Against Idaho and Auburn, Studrawa experimented with experienced back-up Josh Dworaczyk at LT. The results were mixed but porous enough to call for another change last week, when career right tackle Alex Hurst moved to the left side and true freshman Vadal Alexander slid into the right side. Offensive line play is so unit based that such turnover can create difficulties in creating offensive consistency. The protection hasn't been great. The line is allowing 2.2 sacks a game, good for 81st in the nation. That's unacceptable.
3) Focus and Maturity
Penalties and turnovers continue to be a bane. LSU is 108th in the nation in penalties. They are 55th in turnovers lost. Talk about drive killers. When your team is constantly playing behind the sticks, it's hard to generate consistent offensive production.
On top of that, the young crop of wide receivers continue to struggle. There are flashes of brilliance (Odell Beckham Jr. against Towson), but they are still plagued by drops. Through each of the first five games, a number of drops have held Mettenberger back from more impressive stat lines. Again, these are the issues you work through with young talent. The receivers catching the ball with more consistency will improve this offense substantially, in and of itself.
There are two main schools of thought here:
A) This is a sign of poor coaching.
Teams penalized at the rate of LSU are typically cited as poor preparation.
B) This is a sign of youth.
The 2011 LSU football team proved to be an anomaly. They were so focused from game 1, it seemed nothing could stand in the way. This season, they seem to perpetually be shooting themselves in the foot. Of the two, the latter seems more appropriate. It's important to remember that LSU is breaking in new starters at QB, LG, LT and RT (due to injuries) as well as expanded roles for each of their WRs. In that regard, it's not terribly surprising they've struggled to click on all cylinders to this point.
Thus, we return to question: What's wrong with the 2012 LSU offense?
The problems are both obvious and correctable. Penalties and drops undo many a team. Minimize these and the offense will already take significant strides to improvement.
Yet, this all ultimately ties back to the progression of Mettenberger. Thus far, LSU fans are experiencing the growing pains. These are the steps any QB takes on the path to excellence. This is not the 2011 LSU passing offense, with little upside to speak of. The potential is there for an attack that scares defenses. Mettenberger just needs to take that next step. That step needs to be Saturday.