September 24, 2011
LSU 47, West Virginia 21.
West Virginia gained 533 yards tonight, earned 29 first downs and successfully mounted touchdown drives of 73, 80 and 91 yards. And yet: Just about everyone who watched the Mountaineers get there will come away raving about LSU's defense, and they're probably right. Even when the Tigers get gashed, the wound is only statsheet-deep.
For one thing, much of the damage was quantity over quality: WVU put the ball in the air 64 times, which is exhausting even to type, for an uninspiring 6.6 yards per attempt. For another, giving up a few yards didn't stop the Tigers from coming out ahead the vast majority of the time: Only three of the Mountaineers' 14 offensive possessions resulted in points, compared to six that ended with punts and four that were halted by turnovers. And for a third: Once again, no team in America exploits "hidden yards" with the ruthless efficiency of LSU.
Sometimes, as with Tyrann Mathieu's tip-drill interception return to the WVU one-yard line at the end of the second quarter or with Morris Claiborne's 99-yard kickoff return to halt a brief Mountaineer rally in the third, they're hiding in plain sight. Sometimes, it's less obvious — such as, for example, the fact that LSU's average starting field position tonight was its own 43-yard line, while West Virginia didn't start a single possession past its own 29, and only then following the opening kickoff of the game. (For the night, WVU started eleven possessions inside its own 20-yard line; LSU started zero possessions inside its 20.) Not including the one-yard "drive" following Mathieu's interception, four of the Tigers' five touchdown drives started at or near midfield; through four games, they've scored ten touchdowns on drives covering less than 60 yards, and allowed zero touchdowns on drives covering less than 60 yards.
Tonight was not the kind of stuff-you-in-a-sack-and-throw-you-in-a-river performance LSU delivered in the process of shutting down Mississippi State and Oregon. Unlike the Bulldogs and Ducks, West Virginia actually moved the ball. But the problem isn't just that it's hard to gain yards against the Tigers, it's also that you have to gain so many. And even when Dana Holgorsen is calling the plays, something bad usually happens along the way.
In that context, the main virtue of the LSU offense is that it doesn't turn the ball over — a plus-4 margin tonight pushes the giveaway/takeaway tally for the year to plus-8 in just four games — and doesn't leave the defense in the tough spots it benefits from itself on a regular basis. At the current pace on defense and special teams, the Tigers don't have to do much on offense beyond taking what they're given. When they do that as consistently as they did tonight — and as they've done over the first month of the season, in general — the box scores and rankings could not mean much less.