Overshadowed by passing explosion, LSU’s running game needs improvement

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Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Through three games in 2019, Clyde Edwards-Helaire leads LSU with 60.7 yards rushing per game (Photo: Jonathan Mailhes).

Quarterback Joe Burrow is the face of LSU football right now, and quite possibly the template for future signal callers that Ed Orgeron will want going forward.

Over the first three weeks of the season, Burrow has been the fulfillment of years of prayer that one day the Tigers might have someone to usher the offense into the 21st century. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and passing game coordinator Joe Brady have created one of the nation’s most fearsome aerial attacks.

Burrow ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency and passing yards, while coming in third in both touchdowns and yards per game.

It’s unheard of production in Death Valley. Everyone is excited, and rightfully so. But it has also overshadowed something that has become a troubling trend; LSU struggles to run the football, and has for the last few years.

For the most part, LSU has had a number of good, but not great quarterbacks, come through Baton Rouge. That, coupled with a steady supply of highly-rated ball carriers and offensive linemen, made running the football one of the defining characteristics of the program.

The names are legendary: Billy Cannon, Dalton Hilliard, Kevin Faulk, Charles Alexander, Harvey Williams, Leonard Fournette, Alley Broussard, Jacob Hester, and on and on.

However, the last few seasons have been a steady decline in LSU’s production on the ground.

  LSU RUSHING OFFENSE & SEC RANKINGS SINCE 2016
Year Attempts Rank Yards Rank Avg. Rank
2019 32.0 12 115.7 13 3.6 13
2018 43.0 1 173.6 8 4.0 12
2017 43.3 5 207.6 5 4.8 6
2016 38.2 9 233.1 4 6.1 1

 
Since Ed Orgeron took over in 2016, LSU has watched its once powerful running game reduced to one of the worst in the Southeastern Conference.

The Tigers have dropped from fourth in the SEC in rushing yards per game to 13th. Since Nick Saban arrived in Baton Rouge in 2000, LSU has finished the season in the bottom half of the conference rushing rankings only three times (2000, 2009, 2018). In the other 16 seasons, the Tigers finished no lower than sixth.

Overall, LSU has seen a more than 50 percent decrease in yards per game since 2016. Yards per carry have dropped nearly 41 percent over the same time frame; declines that can only be characterized as precipitous.

It’s one thing to have a philosophical shift in offensive strategy, while it’s quite another to have a lead back in Clyde Edwards-Helaire, whose season stats (37 carries, 182 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 4 touchdowns) look like a really good night for many of his predecessors.

The Tigers are likely fighting with Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Clemson for spots in the College Football Playoff. Each of those teams are getting much better production from the rush offense than the Tigers, with the majority running spread offenses not that different from LSU’s.

Team Total OFF Pass YPG Rush YPG Attempts YPA
LSU 552.0 436.3 115.7 32.0 3.6
Alabama 562.0 382.3 179.7 33.0 5.4
Clemson 544.3 293.3 251.0 37.0 6.8
Georgia 566.0 278.7 287.3 37.7 7.6
Notre Dame 507.0 313.5 193.5 40.0 4.8
Ohio State 499.0 228.0 271.0 45.3 6.0

 
Of those six programs, LSU ranks third in total offense and first in passing yards per game; but last in all three rushing categories, by a significant margin.

LSU is favored in every game the rest of the season, with the notable exception of their matchup at Alabama on Nov. 9. It’s conceivable that they could continue to whip the ball around the field and light up the scoreboard.

It is also conceivable that at some point this season, the Tigers’ offense will face some real adversity. There will be a game where they can’t afford to be one-dimensional, when they’re going to have to lean on the running game to grind out a win.

Will it be there to answer the call?

Now is the time to start finding out. LSU’s next opponent, Vanderbilt, is allowing 179.5 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry. Utah State is more stout statistically against the run, but the Aggies gave up 178 yards on the ground in a loss to Wake Forest, the only Power 5 team they’ve faced.

It would be unfair to think that Burrow will complete 83 percent of his passes all season, or that LSU is going to put up more than 400 yards passing each week. Unfortunately, the pressure to do so will increase as long as the Tigers’ ground game can best be characterized as “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Ed Orgeron needs to find the offensive balance that he preached about during the offseason. Not necessarily in play-calling, but definitely in production.

It’s time to find out if the offensive line, which continues to shift in personnel on a week to week basis, can open some holes. And, it’s time to find out if John Emery Jr. or Tyrion Davis-Prince are as good as the hype they received coming out of high school.

Coach O may have modernized in many ways, but in the end he knows that championships are won and lost at the line of scrimmage, and that the defenses his team will face will only get better than what they’ve seen so far.

LSU is just fine in changing its identity, but to reach the pinnacle of the college football world, the Tigers need to find some of that old mojo to go along with the new.

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David Grubb

David Grubb

Sports 1280am host/CCS reporter

David Grubb has more than a decade of experience in the sports industry. He began his career with KLAX-TV in Alexandria, La. and followed that up with a stint as an reporter and anchor with WGGB-TV in Springfield, Mass. After spending a few years away from the industry, David worked as sports information director for Southern University at New Orleans…

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