Auburn-LSU, Florida-Tennessee, Stanford-Arizona State and more from Week 4 in college football.
TIME TO RECOGNIZE LSU AS SEC, AND THEREFORE BCS TITLE, CONTENDERS
It seems silly to say we underestimated this Louisiana State football team, considering it was ranked No. 12 in the preseason AP poll, but it’s true. We overlooked Les Miles and all that Bayou talent.
The Tigers lost to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to end the 2012 season, marking the beginning of a series of events that constructed this dark fort of skepticism in which we ordered LSU to exist all summer.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger decided to return for his senior season. Now, I don’t mean to type this with any semblance of surprise. It was no such thing, because, well, Mettenberger had no place else to go but back to Baton Rouge. What it did, though, was drive deeper the doubts that came with a Mettenberger-led offense.
He ranked 73rd nationally in passing efficiency (58.8), 69th in QB rating (128.34) and 53rd in yards per attempt (7.4) last season. He threw only 12 touchdowns in 13 games, with seven interceptions. In the bowl game, he had a 9.6 QBR, an advanced metric that judges a quarterback’s true contribution to his team’s offensive performance. The scale runs from 0 to 100.
So if you were an LSU fan last January saying, “We have Mettenberger at QB going into 2013,” what you were really saying was, “We have a hell of a lot of questions going into 2013.”
In February, Miles shook up his offensive staff by hiring Cam Cameron as his new offensive coordinator, leaving Greg Studwara to focus solely on his work with the offensive line. Cameron and Miles had been friends since coaching at Michigan together in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s under Bo Schembechler.
Since Cameron was hired to fill the role of OC, I suppose his previous stint in college coaching – going 18-37 as head coach at Indiana from ’97-01 – isn’t entirely relevant. But it is relevant to note that last December, Cameron was fired as the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens. In Baltimore, they said Cameron’s offense had become predictable and he wasn’t able to maximize Ray Rice’s abilities. Cameron was replaced by Jim Caldwell, who then helped the Ravens win the Super Bowl.
So if you were an LSU fan last February saying, “We have Mettenberger at QB and new blood on the offensive staff,” what you were really saying was, “We have … oh god, we have so many questions.”
In April, leading rusher Jeremy Hill was arrested for punching a man outside of a bar. Hill was already on probation for a 2011 arrest – he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile – and now he faced misdemeanor battery. Miles announced Hill was suspended from the team indefinitely. These were not the best days for offense at LSU.
What happened on defense? Everybody left. Well, not literally everyone, but many.
Ten underclassmen turned pro (not counting Tyrann Mathieu, who didn’t play in 2012), and the Tigers’ D lost seven starters. Most everyone knew LSU had layers of talent ready to be peeled back, but most everyone also assumed no one unit can replace that much quality talent in one swoop without regressing a bit. The defense, too, had questions.
The one thing Miles did know when he hired Cameron is that he would bring a vertical element to LSU’s offense, which would fit nicely with Mettenberger. It didn’t take Cameron very long around his new QB to proclaim that Mettenberger throws the football like Joe Flacco.
I don’t know if NFL scouts would agree with that statement, but we can’t deny the early success of the Cameron-Mettenberger partnership. Entering Week 4, Mettenberger ranked third in the country in passer rating (205.29) behind only FSU’s Jameis Winston and Baylor’s Bryce Petty. After beating Auburn, Mettenberger sits fourth in the country in yards per attempt (11.3) and has 10 TDs to only one interception.
Receiver Odell Beckham Jr. has been a great beneficiary of the looser offense, with 20 catches at almost 20 yards per touch and four TDs. That predictable and stuffy system Cameron was accused of running in Baltimore? We’re not seeing that at LSU.
Miles has praised Cameron’s ability to utilize all of LSU’s offensive personnel – including making use out of fullbacks Connor Neighbors and J.C Copeland — and a significant part of the opened-up offense, of course, is Hill.
After a judge handed Hill two more years of probation instead of jail time in early August, Miles gave the team the option to invite the sophomore back. Well, of course they did, and Hill has produced 350 yards rushing and six TDs in three games (Miles suspended him for the season-opener against TCU), including 183 yards and three TDs Saturday against Auburn.
Suddenly, there don’t seem to be many questions fluttering around Mettenberger’s ability or Cameron’s competence. As long as Hill remains on the field, there are no questions about the backfield, either.
And so if you’re an LSU fan in late September, what you’re thinking is, “No, we may not be Texas A&M, but we possess all the offense we need.”
The amount of elite talent LSU lost off last year’s defense really is staggering. Five starters were drafted in the first three rounds: DE Barkevious Mingo, S Eric Reid, LB Kevin Minter, DT Bennie Logan and DE Sam Montgomery. That’s not including starting safety Tharold Simon, who was drafted in the fifth round by Seattle two days after being arrested on suspicion of intimidating a police officer.
But here we are now with four weeks complete, and the Tigers are fine. They’re 30th in yards per play, and Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are as good a D-line duo as there is this side of Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Johnson is a first-round prospect for the 2014 draft, and Ferguson is rising.
Senior Craig Loston, who had one of LSU’s two picks on Auburn QB Nick Marshall Saturday, and junior Ronald Martin have filled in the safety spots, and Jalen Mills, a sophomore corner, is showing flashes of being the latest LSU ball hawk. There’s some inexperience at the linebacker position, but overall it is strong, with Lamin Barrow back as a senior to anchor the unit.
LSU has a lot of new names on defense this season, but as we’re beginning to see, that doesn’t necessarily mean something significant was lost. John Chavis still runs the Tigers’ defense, and as Johnson said in August, “We don’t talk about there being a drop-off. We replace talent with talent at LSU.” That sounds about right.
I don’t know how this season will turn out for LSU. Yes, it’s only four games. But opportunities remain on the schedule to build a strong case, even if that includes a loss. LSU is at Georgia next week, has Florida (without Jeff Driskel) in two weeks, is at Alabama on Nov. 9 and then has Texas A&M at home on Nov. 23. It’s a difficult slate, but that’s the SEC. That’s life at LSU every fall.
Five months ago, I think most of us would have been surprised if the Tigers were up for a run at a conference championship (and, by default, likely a run at a national championship).
Saturday, as many were lamenting the poor Week 4 docket, I was intrigued by the possibilities ahead for LSU, from Baton Rouge to Tuscaloosa to, perhaps, Pasadena. After a month, that doesn’t seem so crazy.
FOUR NOTES FROM WEEK 4
1. USC handles Chuckie Keeton and reveals nothing new
Earlier this week, I spoke with a rival defensive coordinator who has studied Utah State QB Chuckie Keeton over the last year, and he was noting Keeton’s improvement this season.
“The biggest progression for him is he’s more comfortable in the pocket and not antsy to get out,” the defensive coordinator said. “The D-line has to keep him balled up and not let him escape, but that’s easier to say then do. So you have to give him different looks.”
USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast did a nice job of mixing up creative blitz packages and getting pressure on Keeton. The Trojans held him to 21-of-39 passing for 179 yards and two TDs. They kept Keeton mostly in the pocket, and he didn’t look particularly comfortable there on this day, hurrying some throws into the flat and missing some targets. The 17-14 win was a feather in the cap for USC’s defense.
And yet, we didn’t learn anything about USC. Cody Kessler was below average, going 13-for-26 passing for 164 yards and one touchdown. Tre Madden piled up 93 yards on the ground but needed 24 carries to do it. USC had only two drives longer than 30 yards, both of which it converted into touchdowns.
Sure, with all the fuss following Kiffin around, the Trojans will take the victory and move forward into next week at Arizona State. But with four weeks down, USC is last in the Pac-12 in total offense and only 0.02 yards better than last-place Washington State in yards per attempt. Nothing has really been answered about USC.
2. Will Florida be more potent with Tyler Murphy?
The comforting news for Florida is it has a second quarterback who looks capable of at least competing against SEC defenses. When Jeff Driskel went down with a fractured right fibula early in the first quarter against Tennessee, redshirt junior Tyler Murphy stepped in. Murphy hadn’t thrown a pass in his college career until Saturday.
Despite that, he did quite well, completing eight of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 84 yards (10 carries) and another TD. Most importantly, in a game that featured nine turnovers and had Vols coach Butch Jones turning maroon with anger in the first half, Murphy took good care of the football and utilized his quality pair of running backs. Mack Brown had 86 yards and a TD on 24 carries, and Matt Jones chipped in 49 yards and a TD on 12 carries.
It’s tough news for Driskel, who will need surgery on his leg, but I imagine a good percentage of Gators fans are waking up Sunday and asking their buddies, “Are we a better team with Murphy under center?”
Not to diminish experience and poise and all of those things, but it does look like the Gators can do some things with Murphy that they couldn’t with Driskel. Murphy has the arm strength to stretch the field and the mobility to make defenses respect the threat of a QB scramble. I think it’s fair to say Driskel is less dynamic, and therefore so were the Gators with him at QB.
We’ll see. The Gators still have to go to LSU and South Carolina before finishing the season at home against Florida State, but they could be better equipped now to handle those defenses.
3. Stanford still isn’t clicking, which didn’t matter against Arizona State
It’s impossible to sleep on the Cardinal, as they are ranked No. 5 and have been built up as a national title contender all offseason, but I do think they will be overlooked a bit in coming weeks simply because they don’t play in the SEC and they aren’t an Oregon type that naturally attracts attention.
So it’s a bit scary to watch them roll over ASU 42-28 and think, “Eh – they aren’t even close to playing as well as they can.” Kevin Hogan was efficient, completing 11 of 17 passes for 151 yards and two TDs (one pick), and Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combined for 155 yards rushing and three TDs on 36 carries.
Stanford’s D softened a bit in the second half but did a lot of good things, picking two balls off Taylor Kelly, holding Marion Grice to only 2.9 yards per carry and allowing ASU to convert on 33 percent of third downs. None of the Cardinal’s numbers scream for attention, so we’re tasked with looking for other takeaways. Against ASU, Stanford’s physicality and speed in the secondary stood out.
If we haven’t learned much about Stanford until this point, we will soon. Starting in Week 6, Stanford plays Washington, at Utah, UCLA and at Oregon State before having a week off to prepare for Oregon. The Bruins at home may turn out to be Stanford’s toughest test, non-Oregon division.
4. Taysom Hill prepares Utah for upcoming dual-threat QBs
Utah defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake laughed over the phone a couple days ago talking about BYU’s running game and what it did to Texas in Week 2.
“You have to give BYU credit, they broke a lot of tackles, but 500 yards rushing is scary,” Sitake said. “That’s unbelievable.”
Heading into the Holy War, Sitake knew the Utes would have to be disciplined against BYU’s running game, but he thought the Texas game was skewing the perception of Hill, making some believe he’s a run-first, throw-second quarterback.
“His throwing ability in the past has been underrated because of the horrible weather conditions they play in,” Sitake said. “People say [Hill] can’t throw, but that’s not true. Unless we get a huge blizzard, we’re going to face a much different guy.”
There was no blizzard in Provo Saturday, and Utah did see a different attack, with Hill putting the ball in the air 48 times. He completed only 18 of those throws for 260 yards with one interception. Sure, Utah didn’t totally control Hill – he also rushed for 99 yards on 20 carries – but it was good work against a legitimate dual-threat quarterback. Consider it something of a practice test for Brett Hundley and Marcus Mariota.
Five completely non-football related things that happened