Tuesday, January 19, 2010

LSU Football 2009 Season In Review

What in the heck happened this year? I've given it my best shot to objectively look at the 2009 LSU Football season in efforts to figure out exactly why the team, and especially the offense, looked so bad in most games. Many are filling up the message boards and call-in shows with angry demands that Les Miles and Gary Crowton hit the road. While the passion is good to see, it doesn't answer the questions that need to be answered.

Is it the coaching or is it the talent? LSU has consistently hauled in recruiting classes ranked in the Top 12 nationally, so it can't be the talent, can it? While coaching shoulders much of the blame (more on that later), I firmly believe LSU is indeed lacking talent in certain areas.

With stars like Brandon Lafell, Charles Scott, Richard Dickson, Terrance Toliver, Trindon Holliday and Keiland Williams and more potential stars such as Russell Shepard and Reuben Randle, how in the heck can an offense like that can be ranked 112th in the nation? It's a valid question and one that I asked many times throughout this season...usually at a high volume. However, all of the players I listed above have one thing in common. None of them are linemen.

A team can have all the talented play makers in the world, but they need a good line to make holes for the runners and to give the quarterback time to throw. Well, LSU has talented linemen, right?  Since the guys from the 2005 class thru 2007 class should have made up the upperclassmen during the 2009 season, let's take a look at the guys they signed on the offensive line in those years:

Ciron Black - All-American plagued by knee problems causing him to underachieve in 2009
Lyle Hitt - Converted defensive tackle. Below average SEC lineman.

Matt Allen - left team, currently a starter at Texas A&M
Phil Loadholt - never enrolled at LSU, was All-American at Oklahoma
Steven Singleton - left team
Mark Snyder - career over due to injuries
Zhamal Thomas - kicked off team due to disciplinary issues

Jarvis Jones - kicked off team due to disciplinary issues
Ernest McCoy - left LSU's team
T-Bob Hebert - LSU's starting center
Josh Dworaczyk - LSU's starting left guard
Will Blackwell - signed as DT, now backup guard
Joseph Barksdale - signed as DT, now starting right tackle

Look at all the attrition among the offensive linemen during those years. A significant amount of players left the program for various reasons, and LSU plugged in many of the gaps with defensive linemen. Only three players originally signed as offensive linemen from those classes remain on the team (Black, Hebert, Dworacyzk) and all three started in 2009. It's easy to conclude that the abnormally high amount of attrition has taken its toll on LSU's offensive line, adversely affecting the performance on the field.

Consequently, the attrition on the offensive line has affected the defensive line since LSU has moved so many players from defense to offense. LSU is known for having very talented defensive lines recently. Guys like Marcus Spears, Chad Lavalais, and Glenn Dorsey personify LSU Football this decade. But is LSU's defensive line currently at that high level?  Let's do the same drill for defensive linemen.

Ricky Jean Francois - left early for NFL
Lyle Hitt - moved to OL
Rahim Alem - signed as LB, starting DE in 2009

Al Woods - started in 2009
Lezarious Levingston - started in 2009
Charles Deas - never qualified academically

Kentravis Aubrey - left LSU's program due to injury
Will Blackwell - moved to OL
Joseph Barksdale - moved to OL
Sidell Corley - left LSU's program
Drake Nevis - part-time starter in 2009

Once again, we see only a small number of players remaining from these classes, and LSU is left with very few upperclassmen.   

To conclude that exercise, it's certainly reasonable to deduce that LSU's talent along both lines in 2009 was simply not what we've become accustomed to this decade.  It's just not there.  And with so many football experts claiming that "everything starts up front" or "the game is won in the trenches", it's no wonder that LSU struggled this season.  So when your radio or computer lights up with angry fans claiming LSU is wasting "all this talent" or that LSU is one of the "most talented teams in the nation," you should know that for now, that talent is for the most part limited to the skill positions. 

While that helps explain why LSU struggled in 2009, it's only part of the problem.  The coaching staff let down the players and the fans this season.  If one statistic could tell the story of LSU's season, it would be this:  LSU averaged 59 offensive plays this season while their opponents averaged 70.  In fact, LSU ran fewer offensive plays per game than any other team in college football.  When you look at some of LSU's worst performances of the year, this gets amplified even more.   Here is the count of offensive plays in some games this year:

Washington - 83
LSU - 48

Mississippi State - 86
LSU - 59

Florida - 64
LSU - 47

Alabama - 72
LSU - 56

LA Tech - 84
LSU - 52

Arkansas - 74
LSU - 63

Needless to say, it's really tough to win games when the other team runs 10, 20 or in the case of Washington and LA Tech, 30 more plays than you.  LSU had a deadly combination of an offense that could not string drives together and a defense that played a "bend but don't break" style which allowed opponents to keep the ball for long periods of time. 

Talking about defense first, I do believe that John Chavis did a good job this season.  The primary goal of any defense is obviously to prevent the opponent from scoring.  LSU ranked third in the SEC in scoring defense and allowed just 19 touchdowns all season.  Compared to 32 touchdowns in 2008, that's quite an improvement.  The style of the defense was to play very safe and prevent big plays.  While effective in the long run, the soft defense allowed opponents to hold onto the ball and move the chains.  It also allowed the opponent to convert a maddening number of 3rd downs.  When an opponent is in a 3rd and long situation, most defenses see an opportunity to attack the quarterback and try to make a play to force a punt.  Chavis; however, stays true to his philosophy of playing soft and preventing big plays.  While LSU's defense was ranked 27th in the nation, allowing the opposition to keep the ball for so long limited the opportunities for an already struggling offense. 
If I'm being honest, I can only say that the offensive coaching staff did a very poor job in 2009.   First and most importantly, Gary Crowton poorly designed this offense and he failed to take advantage of his team's strengths.  Starting up front, left guard Josh Dworacyzk weighs 280 pounds.  T-Bob Hebert is one of the lightest centers in the league and Lyle Hitt is a very light offensive guard at 290 pounds. Thus, the interior of LSU's offensive line was very light by SEC standards.   Dworacyzk replaced Herman Johnson from 2008 who weighed 370 pounds.  That's a 90 pound difference.  So while the make-up of the interior line changed significantly from 2008, LSU seemed to keep the same play book by consistently forcing the running game up the middle.  LSU's line failed to make holes and the offense was faced with a ton of 2nd and 10s and 3rd and 7s this year as a result.  With a young quarterback, that's a recipe for a lot of short drives that end in punts.  LSU needed to focus their offense on the perimeter to take advantage of their speed.  Despite being light, LSU's linemen are athletic and perhaps they would have been more productive by pulling and getting out in front of some running plays to the outside. 

What's worse is that week to week, the play calling did not improve, and there's no real explanation for some of the things that took place.  LSU continued to try to run an option play that looked ugly at its best.  Crowton also failed to involve Russell Shepard, who may have been the best big play threat on the team.  They failed to make personnel changes when some were badly needed.   The substitutions in between plays were disorganized.  Worst of all, the communication of play calls to the quarterback was miserable which resulted in wasted time outs and delay of game penalties.  In short, the offense was a complete and total mess and it didn't improve at all between Week 1 and Week 14. 

How did we get here with the offense?  In Gary Crowton's first season, LSU set school records on offense en route to a national championship.  In two short years, the offense has regressed into a national disgrace.  Sure, the talent on the offensive line is not what we're used to but it's also not THAT bad.  And the talent along the line has nothing to do with the poor play calling, lack of creativity, and complete disorganization.  Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Gary Crowton.  Let's take a quick look back at his career: 

Gary Crowton was BYU's head coach from 2001 through 2004:
- In Crowton's first season, BYU led the nation in total offense and averaged 46.77 points per game. 
- In Year #2, BYU ranked #50 in total offense and averaged 22.67 points per game
- In Year #3, they fell down to #102 nationally with just 16.33 points per game. 
- In Year #4, they improved a bit but still struggled averaging 24.27 points per game

Crowton was fired and then became Oregon's offensive coordinator for two seasons:
-  In 2005, Oregon ranked 18th nationally and averaged 37.64 points per game
-  In 2006, Oregon fell to averaging 29.46 points per game

As you know, Crowton has been LSU's offensive coordinator since 2007
-  In 2007, LSU ranked 26th nationally in total offense and averaged 38.64 points per game
-  In 2008, LSU's offense regressed to 55th nationally averaging 30.02 points per game
-  In 2009, LSU dropped all the way to 112th nationally and averaged just 24.85 points per game

So what does this tells us?  It shows a disturbing trend in Crowton's career.  He has shown an ability to take over a new job and have great success.  But he has not been able to sustain that success.  The reasons for this are not clear.  Do defensive coordinators around the conference figure out a way to stop his offense after seeing it once?   Maybe.  I really don't know.  But I do know the pattern is not good. 

I've talked a lot about Gary Crowton, but the fact is that the head coach is ultimately responsible for the product on the field.  Les Miles makes $3.7 million per year, and his job is the one on the line.  If he chooses to retain Gary Crowton for 2010, which is apparently the case, then it may ultimately cost him his job.

Miles also threw a dump truck of jet fuel onto the fire of criticism regarding him being a poor clock manager.  The final minutes of the Ole Miss and Penn State game proved, without a doubt, that the criticism was valid.  Clock management is a weakness of Les Miles, and it's something that fans will have to get used to as long as he's coaching at LSU. 

Things were not all bad this year despite the negativity amongst LSU supporters.  We saw a ton of improvement among the linebackers in 2009, most notably Kelvin Shephard who is returning in 2010.  We saw the emergence of an All-American cornerback in Patrick Peterson.  He needs to play a bit more disciplined at times, but he'll be a difference maker next season.  We saw Terrance Toliver step up into a top notch SEC wide receiver, and he'll carry on the tradition of big-time receivers at LSU next year. 

To sum up, LSU had less than stellar talent along both lines, an offensive coordinator who is falling right in line with the pattern he's established throughout his career, a head coach who failed to function in critical situations, and a defense that let opposing offenses hold onto the ball for maddening amounts of time.  The results were that LSU played some pretty ugly and frustrating football but managed to finish third in the SEC. 

My post season awards:

Offensive Player Of The Year - WR Brandon Lafell
Defensive Player Of The Year - LB Harry Coleman
Most Improved Player - LB Kelvin Shephard
Best Moment - Charles Scott game winning TD run against UGA
Worst Moment - Last 1:19 of Ole Miss game
Best Individual Play - Chad Jones 93 yard punt return against Mississippi State
Best Individual Play By Opponent - Julio Jones 73 yard TD reception for winning score in 4th qtr


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