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Quarterback battle highlights LSU-New Mexico State storylines

9/25/2014

BATON ROUGE, La. – The topic du jour at Les Miles’ three Q&A sessions on Wednesday concerned his quarterbacks. Specifically, what will be LSU’s next move in the battle for playing time between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris?

Who will be the starter in Saturday’s game against New Mexico State? It most likely will be Jennings, Miles said on the SEC’s weekly coaches teleconference.

Has Harris – who starred in last Saturday’s fourth-quarter comeback against Mississippi State after Jennings’ dismal outing – made up ground in the race? “Some,” Miles told reporters in his post-practice interview.

Will Harris get more than the garbage-time snaps he mostly received to this point? “Look forward to him getting a little bit more playing time. He certainly was deserving,” Miles said on his weekly call-in show.

The problems that revealed themselves in the Mississippi State loss are much greater than simply which player is behind center, but we’ll start there in this week’s storylines for Saturday.

Third-down inefficiency: LSU has been mediocre in nearly every offensive category, but its decline on third down has been striking. That had to be expected with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill and receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham all departing from a 2013 offense that led the nation by converting 57 percent of its third downs.

It has been a problem this season, particularly with Jennings at quarterback. ESPN Stats and Information reports that LSU ranks 70th nationally in third-down conversions (41 percent) and has only converted on 38 percent of its third downs with Jennings at quarterback, compared to 63 percent with Harris.

During the last two seasons, Jennings led LSU to a 30-percent conversion rate on third down, while Mettenberger converted 54 percent of the time. The differences are also huge when comparing Mettenberger and Jennings’ Total QBR (97.2 to 37.1), yards per attempt (10.9 to 6.2) and passing touchdowns (nine to two) on third down.

These comparisons are unfair, of course. Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who ranked second nationally behind Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston on both third-down QBR and third-down conversions. Meanwhile, Jennings just made his fifth career start. Nonetheless, the dropoff has been substantial and is one of the contributing factors in LSU’s offensive slowdown.

QB comparison: Let’s shift from one comparison that doesn’t look pretty for Jennings to another. Again, different sample sizes paint an unfair picture for Jennings, but the Tigers’ offense has been more productive with Harris at quarterback.

LSU scored a touchdown on two of its three drives against Mississippi State with Harris at quarterback compared to one in 12 with Jennings. Of course, Jennings played against the starters and Harris did not face the Bulldogs’ full defensive arsenal when he entered the game with less than four minutes to play and Mississippi State ahead by double digits. But he was clearly the more productive quarterback last Saturday, leading LSU’s offense to 159 yards in just 12 snaps.

We could make similar statements about the other games in which they appeared. Jennings took the starters’ best shots in the first four games and Harris came on in relief, typically in the second half. But in his smaller sample size, Harris has led the Tigers to more yards per play, a greater percentage of touchdowns per drive and a significantly higher percentage of third-down conversions.

Stopping the run: We discussed this in a post earlier this week, but LSU must shore up its issues defending runs straight up the middle. On designed runs between the tackles, Mississippi State ran for 286 yards – the most allowed by an SEC defense in the last two seasons – averaged 8.2 yards per carry and broke nine runs of 10 yards or longer.

In the first three games, LSU allowed just 52.3 yards on designed runs between the tackles, 3.5 yards per carry and just one run of 10-plus yards, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

Opening it up? With the bulk of the SEC schedule still ahead, this seems like a good week for LSU to work on opening up its offense a bit if it will, in fact, spread the field in future games. But that doesn’t exactly jibe with what works best against New Mexico State’s defense.

The Aggies have been atrocious against the run, surrendering 299.3 rushing yards per game and ranking 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. So perhaps we’ll see plenty of Kenny Hilliard, Leonard Fournette and LSU’s power running game early and the Tigers can work on the passing game once they build a lead.

Dural, then who? If LSU puts the ball in the air more frequently, Travin Dural (18 catches, 494 yards, 4 TDs) is a given as the first option. But then who?

Maybe it will be Malachi Dupre, who delivered a breakout performance last Saturday night against Mississippi State. Fellow freshmen Trey Quinn and John Diarse are also possibilities. After Dural, the Tigers’ next three receivers have only connected with their quarterback for a completion on 19 of the 37 passes in which they were the intended targets.