September 04, 2011
LSU 40, Oregon 27.
"Winning ugly" is not always a badge of honor, especially if you're the kind of team that expects to remain on the short list of serious BCS contenders. Membership in the upper crust in the up-tempo, spread-friendly world of 2011 tends to entitle one to fireworks, overt Heisman campaigns and gaudy box scores you could hang on a wall. Then there's LSU, which sits at the end of the bar with uncombed hair, a vulgar t-shirt and a plastic Abita cup and still goes home with the girl almost every night.
Consider that the Tiger offense gained 272 yards Saturday on 3.9 yards per play. If it averages those numbers over an entire season, it will finish at or near dead last nationally in both categories. Quarterback Jarrett Lee completed fewer than half of his passes, for a paltry 98 yards and a pass efficiency rating of 97.9. The Tigers only connected on one play covering more than 20 yards, and none covering more than thirty.
Those are ugly offensive numbers. They're about as ugly as they get. And yet: On the same night, the Tiger offense also scored five touchdowns en route to LSU's first 40-point effort against a ranked team since 2007.
That's only possible when you have an unusual knack for generating a) Turnovers, and b) Non-offensive touchdowns. LSU led the SEC last year in the former category, in the latter in 2009. Tonight it struck for both: Oregon turned the ball over five times, more than in any other game since head coach Chip Kelly arrived as offensive coordinator in 2007, and Tyrann Mathieu both caused and scored on a fumble by Duck punt returner Kenjon Barner for the first touchdown of the game in the second quarter. From there, three of the LSU offense's four touchdown drives began in Oregon territory.
On one hand, that doesn't seem sustainable. How often are you going to fall on four fumbles in a game, or score on the punt team? How far can you go with a pedestrian quarterback at the helm of a one-dimensional attack that's stuck at the bottom of the conference, where LSU has finished in total offense the last two years? On the other hand, at this point, the Tigers' ability to create big plays and enviable field position on defense and special teams is undeniable. No defense last year, including Auburn's in the BCS Championship Game, made Oregon look so un-explosive: The Ducks' longest play of the night covered all of 17 yards. Their 330 total yards for the game was a full 200 yards below their NCAA-best average in 2010, and even then was heavily padded by two long, meaningless touchdown drives in the fourth quarter that made the final score look like the result of a shootout.
Obviously, it was anything but. First and foremost, the win belonged to LSU's aggressive, endlessly athletic front seven, which forced the ball out of the hands of Oregon's warp-speed tailbacks — sometimes literally — and into the hands of Darron Thomas, who chucked up a career-high 54 passes to little effect. There's nothing ugly about that kind of talent up front, and no limit to how far it can take this team.