By Trey Mongrue
The temperature was not the only thing in Louisiana that dropped with the calendar flipping from October to November. As frigid as these shortened days have been over the past few weeks, the optimism for LSU football seems to have fallen to absolute zero.
Just three weeks ago, the Tigers were entering their first bye week of the season fresh off of an emotional comeback victory over then-third-ranked Ole Miss.
With a date with Alabama up next, not only did it seem like the youth of this LSU team was maturing before our very eyes, there was a mathematical possibility – albeit slight and a tad silly – that LSU could win the SEC West and sneak into the College Football Playoff.
Of course, that has since been thrown out of the window, and if the overtime loss to Alabama wasn’t enough, rolling over to hand Arkansas its first Southeastern Conference win in two years certainly did the trick.
The Tigers did not get shutout 17-0 by the Razorbacks because of the wintry mix or because they were on the road and Arkansas was due for a conference win.
No, it goes much deeper than that.
LSU proved in the game with Ole Miss and even against Alabama that, at full strength, the Tigers can wear teams down with its deep backfield and smash mouth rushing attack. What it also proved in those games was that running the ball is the only way that LSU can win games against good teams, because the passing game was surely not going to make any opposing team sweat.
Against the Rebels and the Crimson Tide, LSU averaged 332.5 yards on offense. In that same timeframe, Anthony Jennings completed 16 total passes. By comparison, Zach Mettenberger had seven games in 2013 where he completed as many or more passes.
Even before kickoff against Arkansas, a red flag should have been apparent when it was let out that junior left guard Vadal Alexander didn’t make the trip to Fayetteville due to a hand injury. Then early in the second quarter, senior center Elliot Porter was lost for the game due to an ankle injury.
The lack of a passing game already had the LSU offense going into games with one hand tied behind its bag. With the absence of two key offensive linemen – not to mention Kenny Hilliard’s shoulder injury – that untied hand was now missing a couple of fingers, and that became obvious well before halftime last Saturday.
Facing a defense that was stacking as many as eight players in the box, the Tigers couldn’t establish its rushing attack like it had been doing nearly effortlessly in past games.
In its last three games, LSU has put the ball in the end zone a grand total of two times.
Yet, basically trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, LSU kept running the ball, and the result was hardly ever positive.
Through three quarters, LSU had attempted just 11 passes for a meager 38 yards.
It was not until Arkansas went up by three possessions in the fourth quarter that the playcalling finally forced Jennings to try and win the game with his arm. Quite frankly, LSU may have been better off sticking with the run.
“Offensively, we struggled yet again,” Les Miles said afterwards. “ We were unable to get anything going on that side of the ball.”
What has happened on “that side of the ball” is nearly unprecedented.
In its last three games, LSU has put the ball in the end zone a grand total of two times. That has never happened under Miles, which includes the four seasons that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee rotated in and out after a brief cameo by Andrew Hatch.
The last time that happened? The first three games in 1993 – Curley Hallman’s second to last season at LSU.
To be fair to Miles, the Tigers won just four games that year, while this year’s team can win as many as nine games with Texas A&M and a bowl game still to come.
Still, two touchdowns in three games is a pretty harrowing statistic and takes us back to a debate that was thought to have been put to rest, at least for this season.
Brandon Harris has been on the field for 15 plays since his ill-fated first start against Auburn. The moment looked too big for the freshman quarterback then and, for all we know, it may still be now. With that said, there are two weeks before LSU hits the road for College Station, so Miles has time to at least give some serious thought to the idea.
At each quarterback’s best, Harris has looked the more dynamic of the two, albeit with a much smaller sample size. He certainly has not earned the job, but sometimes a coach’s hand is forced.
Had Harris been inserted in the fourth quarter against Arkansas, who knows if he would have made LSU at least competitive, similar to his off-the-bench performance against Mississippi State. According to Miles, Jennings was the only option though.
“I think we went with Anthony because he gave us the best chance to win,” the LSU coach said.
For all we know, that may indeed be the case going forward. But with that said, LSU did not have much of a chance to pull out a victory on Saturday.
And now, the Tigers have not much else to play for in 2014.