What's scary is LSU's offense averaging half a hundy is a work in progress
Two games, two wins, an SEC-leading 410.5 passing yards per game, 50 points per game, a quarterback who leads the nation in touchdown passes and is second in pass efficiency and three receivers ranked in SEC’s top six for yards per game.
Can it get much better for fourth-ranked LSU? Even after a 45-38 victory at No. 9 Texas that opened the nation’s eyes to the Tigers’ new Brady Bunch offense?
“We still left points on the board in both games we played,” said LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, the triggerman for the most sizzling offensive start in Tigers’ football history. “There were three opportunities to score touchdowns (at Texas) that we didn’t execute well in the red zone and ended up kicking a field goal. We left 14 to 17 points off the board.”
Which is the weekly approach Burrow, passing game coordinator Joe Brady and the rest of the offense must take for LSU to successfully navigate its way to the College Football Playoff.
The national media has gone gaga over Burrow, who has moved into the top five Heisman Trophy candidates. It means absolutely nothing to him and the rest of the Tigers as they head into Saturday’s Tiger Stadium date against Northwestern State.
“We’re not even in SEC play yet,” said Burrow, who completed 31-of-39 for 471 yards passing, four TDs and an interception at Texas. “You can’t feed into what everybody is saying, good or bad. You have to focus on improving every day. I know it’s a cliché, but that’s what you’ve got to do.
“At end of the day, every week is about LSU. If we execute the way we’re supposed to, we’re going to put up a lot of points and a lot of yards, throw for a lot of touchdowns, run for a bunch of yards. If we execute the way we need to all throughout practice, it’s going to show on Saturday.”
Fast, faster, fastest
Even in the midst of the record-breaking early success, such as Burrow becoming the first LSU QB in history to complete 20 or more passes in five straight games (dating back to last season), he and his battalion of pass catchers are learning something new every Saturday.
Such as the faster the tempo, the better the offense plays.
“We really start to get going when the tempo gets fast,” Burrow said. “We’re starting to see we’re even more of a tempo offense than we thought at the beginning. You saw it in the three-minute drill before the half, three plays. That was the most in rhythm I’ve felt in a long time.”
Burrow was referring to the Tigers’ final possession of the first half against the Longhorns’, a three-play, 58-yard scoring drive in just 26 seconds.
A 19-yard completion to JaMarr Chase. An 18-yard throw to Justin Jefferson. Then, a 21-yard scoring strike to Jefferson with 47 seconds left in the first half.
When was the last time that happened for the Tigers? Likely never.
When Burrow gets on a roll, he’s like the world’s best 3-point shooters. He can’t the ball in and out his hands fast enough because he feels he can’t miss.
In LSU’s season opening 55-3 win over Georgia Southern, Burrow had completion streaks of seven, seven and eight passes. In the final three quarters at Texas, 20 of Burrow’s 26 completions were for first downs or touchdowns.
What flipped his switch against the Longhorns?
“They got after us in that first quarter with their blitzes,” Burrow said. “We had trouble figuring out where they were coming from. We started getting tempo going and they couldn’t get to the blitzes they wanted. They had to start showing it and we started getting them picked up.”
LSU’s receivers have learned a very simple lesson they’ve taken to heart.
“You don’t know what play is being called, when it’s being called,” wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase said. “You’ve just got to be ready.”
Chase and fellow receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. already know this.
Marshall, a sophomore who didn’t have a TD catch last season among his 12 receptions, didn’t have a reception in the first quarter of the season opener vs. Georgia Southern two weeks ago.
Then in a 12:12 span of the second quarter, he had TD grabs of 8, 3 and 11 yards.
“We have so many good receivers you can’t afford to double-team any of us,” Marshall said.
Against Texas, Chase didn’t have a pass thrown his way until there was about 4:30 left in the first half. Then, Burrow threw him completions of 13, 20 and 6 yards in the first five snaps in a series that netted a 33-yard Cade York field goal.
Chase finished the game with eight catches for 147 yards, including a 41-yard grab over Texas defensive back Jalen Green to jumpstart the Tigers in the third quarter after the Longhorns scored to cut LSU’s lead to 20-14.
“At first, I didn’t think I was going to get the ball like that,” Chase said. “I keep running my routes, keep trying to get open and do something when I get the chance. Guess Joe wanted to keep hitting me because I was finding ways to get open.
“Joe trusts us more in the new offense. We all have different spots on the field where we can get the ball.”
Burrow said he started feeding Chase more when the Longhorns switched coverages.
“At the beginning of the game, they started clouding the boundary and playing Cover 2 a bit,” Burrow said. “They started going man-to-man to take away our quick throws. That’s when I activated Ja'Marr. He had one-on-one back side a lot, so that was a schematic thing.”
Jefferson, LSU’s leading receiver last season who’s currently first in the SEC with 125 receiving yards per game, said he and other receivers having constant communication with Burrow has established a bond of trust.
“Going to Joe talking to him that `we can do this, this play might work, this DB can’t guard this’,” Jefferson said. “You just never know when you’re going to get the ball.”
Fourth and 17 means TD time
Like Jefferson’s game-breaking third-and-17 61-yard TD catch and run for a 45-31 LSU lead with 2:27 left that stunned the Texas defense and the home crowd of 98,763.
“I told him (Burrow) before that drive,” Jefferson said, “that `these DBS are a little soft. I can work them at the top of my route. If you need to, I’m there for you.’
“When I’m running my route, I can’t see what’s going on back there. So, I didn’t think he was in that much pressure.”
Burrow’s pre-snap read told him Texas was blitzing.
“There were bringing zero, so they were bringing one more than we had to block,” Burrow said. “They had a spy on me in the middle. I knew if I bought time, my guys were going to be open.”
At the snap, Texas rover Jeffrey McCullough blitzed up the middle. Simultaneously, LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire blocked him enough to where Burrow moved left and up in the pocket as McCullough tried to use his left hand to grab Burrow.
Burrow took four or five quick steps and was almost on center Lloyd Cushenberry’s back when he saw Jefferson.
“Joe was literally on my back as he was throwing it,” Cushenberry said. “I was just trying to finish the block. But he jumped and he was right on my back. I just saw `Jets’ (Jefferson) wide open in the middle of the field and I knew he was going to take it to the house. I was like `I don’t what happened, but it worked out.’”
In a blink, a summer’s worth of pass-catch workouts paid off.
“I saw Justin open, his body language told me when he was going to break,” Burrow said. “So, I just jumped, threw it out in front of him and hoped he would go and get it.
“That might be one of the best throws I’ve ever made. I was pretty proud of myself after that one, I’m not going to lie.”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron said that play will forever remain in his memory.
“Clyde made a great block on a blitzing linebacker, Joe squeezed up in there, threw off of one foot,” Orgeron said. “Justin made a tremendous catch and yards after the catch. What a great play. I'm always going to remember that play. We needed it. At that point in the game, we needed the offense to score one more touchdown, and we did.”
While Burrow’s fit to Brady’s new passing schemes is obvious, the improvement of LSU’s receivers over last season is just as impressive.
Orgeron noted that LSU’s wide receivers caught 24-of=25 balls thrown to them against Texas.
“We had one drop, that's phenomenal,” Orgeron said. “I think it's a matter of work, catching the ball, (new) concepts, and then having a quarterback to put it all together.”
Also, as Jefferson explained, there has been a jump in confidence from Chase and Marshall.
“Last year, he just had to think way more than he’s done this year,” Jefferson said of Chase. “Having this easier offense, more fun offense, he can be himself and play his own game.
“Terrace felt a little down at first because he wasn’t getting the ball that much at practice. But just like we were saying, `The game is totally different than practice.’ Just like the first game (when) he had three touchdowns.”
One of the best parts about the Tigers’ early offensive success is the realization it’s just game week 3 and there’s enough mature leadership from veterans like fifth-year senior Burrow and junior Jefferson to realize working towards perfection never stops.
“We definitely need to fix some things that we did in the game,” Jefferson said of the Tigers’ win at Texas. “We have to fix some things with the O-line, fix some things with the receivers, fix some things with Joe.
“It’s never a perfect game. We definitely didn’t have a perfect game.”
But if it ever comes, what will that perfect game look like?
“If we’re doing 50 (points per game) and we have these minor errors,” Jefferson said, “who knows what we can do if we have close to a perfect game?”