Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

08 Oct 2012

OFI: Paper Tigers

by Matt Hinton

When the preseason polls re-installed LSU at the top over the summer, it was on two assumptions. One, that the Tigers would be back to their usual, ferocious selves on defense, fueled largely by the same surplus of future draft picks that ate opposing offenses alive en route to a 13-0 regular season in 2011. And two, that the offense would not be affected by the transition from senior quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee to untested transfer Zach Mettenberger. As it turns out, both assumptions were basically on the money: the defense remains one of the most fearsome, impenetrable units in America, and at the first sign of resistance, the offense is still prone to retreat into the same inept shell that made January's BCS Championship loss to Alabama such an unmitigated disaster.

The most frustrating part of Saturday's six-point meltdown at Florida? Not just the end of the Tigers' 18-game regular season winning streak, but the fact that it could be seen coming from miles away. The change at quarterback was the least of their concerns. Before the season even began, they'd bid an unexpected farewell to the resident spark plug, cornerback/kick returner Tyrann Mathieu, who was at least as valuable to the scoreboard last year as anyone on the offense. Before the second game, they'd lost arguably their best offensive lineman, left tackle Chris Faulk, to a season-ending knee injury. In the SEC opener at Auburn two weeks ago, LSU committed two turnovers, managed a single touchdown in the first quarter, and didn't come close to the end zone again in a 12-10 escape from one of the worst teams in the conference. The final margin, naturally, was the result of a safety by the LSU defense.

At that point, more optimistic Tiger fans were still able to gloss over the offense's failings by reasoning that Mettenberger would make fast strides with a tough road test under his belt, and with the fact that the defense would still be there to bail the offense out as long as there was no sudden rash of turnovers. But the trip to Gainesville was the confirmation of every nightmare that had accumulated over the prior ten months. After marching 64 yards for a field goal on its first possession, LSU retreated into the shell, apparently hoping a 3-0 lead would be good enough to win it. Aside from an isolated, 56-yard completion from Mettenberger to Odell Beckham, Jr. in the third quarter, the offense did not cross midfield again, and that play ended with Beckham turning the ball over on a fumble. After the opening salvo, LSU's only other score was the direct result of a Florida turnover just before halftime, with which the offense could do nothing before trotting out the field-goal team. Including sacks, the blue-chip running game churned out 42 yards on a dismal 1.7 per carry.

In fact, the 3-0 lead was good enough until late in the third quarter, when Florida's struggling offense finally broke through on back-to-back touchdown drives. By then, it was abundantly clear that LSU had no answer.

LSU does still have some hope for the rest of the season: The Tigers' next four games are against South Carolina, Texas A&M, Alabama, and Mississippi State; all ranked teams boasting a combined record of 20-1. That's more than enough juice to overcome an eight-point loss to a very good team in early October, on the road, and possibly to earn a rematch with Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Every larger goal is still in front of them, if they're perfect the rest of the way. Ask anyone who's gotten a glimpse of this offense, though, and the odds of perfection should become abundantly clear. Whether it comes back to the absence of the "Honey Badger," or of their best offensive lineman, or the departure of last year's only reliable deep threat to the NFL, or a combination of all three, we can now be certain: The 2012 Tigers are very clearly not who we thought they were.

TOE DRAGS

  • You wouldn't know it by the final score, but compared to last week's point-a-minute shootout against Baylor, the up-tempo, pass-happy offense at West Virginia showed a very different side in a 48-45 win at Texas. For starters, the Mountaineers yielded to the most lopsided run-to-pass ratio in favor of the former –- 42 runs to 35 passes –- since "Air Raid" guru Dana Holgorsen installed his system last year. And despite four more touchdown passes by prolific quarterback Geno Smith, the star of the show in Austin was actually a running back for a change. Sophomore Andrew Buie, who finished with career highs by far for total yards (274), rushing yards (208) and carries (31) in place of injured starter Shawne Alston. Clinging to a 41-38 lead in the final five minutes, the Mountaineers called Buie's number on all but one play of their final drive: an eight-play, 76-yard march that slammed the door shut on Texas with Buie's second touchdown run of the night.
  • Two weeks into conference play, the Big Ten's stock keeps dropping to new lows. In the major polls this week, the Associated Press features just two Big Ten teams in the top 25, No. 8 Ohio State and No. 25 Michigan, and the conference was shut out of the USA Today Coaches' Poll entirely. (Unlike the writers, the coaches are barred from ranking Ohio State due to NCAA sanctions, as well as Penn State.) Besides the scarlet letters they're forced to wear at all times, the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions are also undermining the conference's credibility by beating the teams that are actually eligible to win the conference: On Saturday, Penn State dispatched the only remaining unbeaten outside of Ohio State, Northwestern, by scoring 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. The only other ranked team at the start of the weekend, Nebraska, was thoroughly trounced in Columbus, 63-38. Barring an unforeseen rally by, say, Wisconsin –- the defending conference champs turned in their best effort of the season by far Saturday in a 31-14 win over Illinois, although that also happened to be the Illini's narrowest margin of defeat in four losses –- the Big Ten Championship Game in December may be a collision of two unranked mediocrities.
  • After Florida State's stunning 17-16 flop at N.C. State, the ACC race isn't looking any better. In that game, the Wolfpack rallied from a 16-0 halftime deficit by shutting the Seminoles out in the second half, blocking an FSU punt with a little over two minutes to play, and subsequently converting three do-or-die fourth downs on a game-winning touchdown drive. With the loss, Florida State plummets (again) from its tentative perch among the national elite, and the conference comes one terrifying step closer to a championship game featuring Maryland and Duke.
  • Miami failed to score a touchdown in a 41-3 beatdown at the hands of Notre Dame, the third consecutive opponent the Fighting Irish have held out of the end zone entirely. The last touchdown of any variety against the Irish came in the fourth quarter of a 20-17 win over Purdue on Sept. 11, a span of twelve full quarters. Incredibly, that streak only ranks second nationally: with a 6-3 win over Utah State on Friday, BYU hasn't allowed an offensive touchdown in 13 consecutive quarters, despite losing twice in that span. Notre Dame and BYU will play on Oct. 20, by the way, in a game that could very well come down to a decisive safety.

OFI TOP 25

1. Florida (5-0). Gators have offensive issues of their own, but for now, no team in the country has a better individual scalp than LSU, on top of back-to-back September road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee.
2. South Carolina (6-0). Gamecocks looked like the complete package in a thorough whipping of Georgia. Now they have to do it on the road in Baton Rouge.
3. Alabama (5-0). Crimson Tide still look like the most dominant outfit anywhere, but big wins over Michigan and Arkansas aren't nearly as valuable in retrospect.
4. West Virginia (5-0). Approaching midseason, Geno Smith is on pace to finish with 62 touchdown passes and obliterate NCAA records for completion percentage and efficiency.
5. Oregon (6-0). Ducks are off this week, and probably in for their first real test next Thursday night at Arizona State.
6. Notre Dame (5-0). Visit from Stanford will help the Irish set a ceiling on BCS ambitions, one way or the other.
7. Kansas State (5-0). After falling behind early against Kansas, 14-7, K-State outscored the Jayhawks 49-2 over the last three quarters.
8. Ohio State (6-0). Probation-saddled Buckeyes are far and away the class of the Big Ten, which is not good news for the Big Ten.
9. Oregon State (4-0). Beavers may be the most obscure top-10 team in recent memory, but wins over Wisconsin, UCLA and Arizona still hold up well.
10. LSU (5-1). Tigers still have every major goal in front them after the loss to Florida, but a steeper climb and no more margin of error.
11. Florida State (4-1). Since 2005, Seminoles have now lost eight of their last nine as a ranked team on the road against an unranked home underdog. Read that sentence again.
12. Stanford (4-1). Cardinal narrowly escaped their second upset in as many weeks at the hands of Arizona, but can still make a strong statement Saturday in South Bend.
13. USC (4-1). Once they got the QB-center exchange down, Trojans ran Utah out of its own stadium.
14. Oklahoma (3-1). No team did more for its stock than the Sooners in a lopsided win at Texas Tech, their first poll-worthy performance of the season.
15. Texas (4-1). Loss to West Virginia was Longhorns' seventh consecutive defeat at the hands of a ranked opponent.
16. Texas A&M (4-1). Narrow loss to Florida in College Station is looking pretty good right now, actually.
17. Georgia (5-1). Latest big-game flop has even patient Bulldog fans wondering if Mark Richt can get them over the hump.
18. Cincinnati (4-0). Six weeks in, I'm still exploiting every available opportunity to type the name of quarterback Munchie Legaux.
19. Rutgers (5-0). Reassuringly routine win over UConn is a good omen for the Big East race.
20. Louisville (5-0). Cardinals' last three wins have all come by a touchdown or less.
21. Mississippi State (5-0). Don't rain on the Bulldogs' parade by reminding them they still have road dates at Alabama and LSU.
22. Iowa State (4-1). Solid win at attrition-ravaged TCU gives the Cyclones four upsets over ranked teams in the last three years.
23. Arizona State (4-1). Sun Devils have quietly outscored their first two Pac-12 opponents by a combined 40 points.
24. Louisiana Tech (5-0). High-scoring Bulldogs finally get their big test this weekend against Texas A&M, in a game postponed by Hurricane Isaac.
25. Ohio (6-0). Bobcats ambushed Penn State in the opener, and will spend the rest of the season trying to avoid an ambush as the only undefeated team left in the MAC.
- - -

In: Iowa State, Arizona State, Louisiana Tech, Ohio. Out: Clemson, Northwestern, TCU, Texas Tech.

LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH

1. Kevin Minter, LB, LSU. Arguably the least heralded member of LSU's starting defense, Minter was credited with an astounding (and career-high) 20 tackles in the Tigers' 14-6 loss at Florida, on top of two sacks and a forced fumble. His 17 solo tackles against the Gators matches the best single-game total by any FBS player since 2005.

2. Matt Elam, S, Florida. In the same game, Elam continued his breakout campaign with eight solo tackles against the Tigers, including one for loss and one against an unsuspecting teammate. He also delivered the biggest non-scoring play of the game, if not the season, when he stripped LSU receiver Odell Beckham Jr. at the end of what could have been a momentum-reversing, 56-yard gain in the third quarter -– the Tigers' first and only excursion into Florida territory over the final 55 minutes. From there, the Gator offense proceeded to drive 77 yards to convert the turnover into a clinching touchdown.

3. Alex Okafor, DE, Texas. It's not easy to applaud a defender whose team just yielded 48 points in a loss. But Okafor almost single-handedly ruined both West Virginia's perfect season and Geno Smith's Heisman campaign by a) blocking a Mountaineer field goal attempt in the first quarter, and b) forcing two critical fumbles on the pass rush. The first takeaway, coming with Texas trailing 21-14 in the first half, was recovered in the end zone by fellow bookend Jackson Jeffcoat for a tying touchdown; the second, coming with UT down 41-38 midway through the fourth quarter, set up a field goal attempt to tie with a little more than five minutes left. Alas, kicker Anthony Fera pushed the kick wide, and the Mountaineers were able to chew up most of the remaining time on an icing touchdown drive.

4a. John Simon, DE, Ohio State. While the offense stole the show in the Buckeyes' 68-38 thrashing of Nebraska, Simon led the charge on defense, turning in five tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble, and reaffirmation of his All-Big Ten credentials.
4b. Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State. Meanwhile, in the secondary, Roby had two of the Buckeyes' three interceptions off Cornhusker quarterback Taylor Martinez, including a pick-six that kicked off the scoring in the first quarter.

5. Phillip Thomas, S, Fresno State. Thomas did his best Honey Badger impression at Colorado State, racking up eight tackles, one sack and two takeaways (one interception, one forced fumble) in a 28-7 Fresno win. For the season, Thomas -– a senior who missed all of 2011 with a broken leg –- leads the nation with six picks in as many games, and has already been named the Mountain West Conference's Defensive Player of the Week on two separate occasions.

Honorable Mention: Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers had three sacks and a hand in a fourth in the Razorbacks' 24-7 win at Auburn ... Syracuse lineman Brandon Sharpe terrorized Pitt with four solo sacks in a defensively drive, 14-13 win for the Orange, tying a season-high nationally. ... And two different Pac-12 cornerbacks, Oregon State's Jordan Poyer and Cal's Kameron Jackson, recorded three interceptions apiece in their teams' wins over Washington State and UCLA.

Posted by: Matt Hinton on 08 Oct 2012

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