- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: Today and tomorrow, we’ll take a look at LSU’s success on third down last season -- the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time -- and the obstacles Cam Cameron’s offense will face in its attempt to remain similarly efficient this fall.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron used a golf analogy to describe his quarterbacks’ nonchalance when LSU’s offense faced third-down situations during spring practice. Clearly the Tigers' offensive coordinator has yet to see the young quarterbacks execute at a Tiger Woods level, unlike their predecessor Zach Mettenberger.
“The biggest thing that young quarterbacks have to learn is that if you don’t convert on third down, you’re going to go sit down,” Cameron said. “In practice, it’s almost like they’re at the driving range hitting a bucket of balls: ‘Ah, I missed that one. I’ll put another one down.’ Well, playing quarterback is not like hitting a bucket of balls. You go three-and-out, you’re sitting down watching.”
LSU’s veteran-heavy offense was the best in the nation on third down last fall, converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time (92 of 161). LSU was one of nine teams to convert at least half the time and one of just two in the SEC -- trailing the Tigers were Texas A&M (50.3 percent) and Alabama (47.6).
But the Tigers posted those numbers with a fifth-year senior, Mettenberger, under center, with veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. at receiver and NFL-bound Jeremy Hill at tailback. That group of recently departed stars posted eye-popping numbers in general, particularly on third down (more on that tomorrow).
Mettenberger threw 94 passes on third downs, completing 59 of them for a total of 978 yards. Of those passes, 44 resulted in a first down, and nine more went for touchdowns. Mettenberger tossed only one interception and was sacked six times in such situations.
Then-freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings also posted solid third-down statistics in a significantly smaller sample size, although his 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the waning moments against Arkansas accounted for nearly half of his yardage total. Jennings was 5-for-11 on third downs for 120 yards, with four of the completions going for a first down and the one to Dural accounting for a game-winning score. He also tossed a third-down interception in his lone start, the Outback Bowl win against Iowa.
One threat that both Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris present that Mettenberger didn’t is their ability to move the chains by running for first downs. On the three third downs that Jennings attempted to run last season, he achieved two first downs and a touchdown. And Harris proved in the spring game that he might be even more dangerous as a scrambler.
“One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home,” LSU coach Les Miles said of a 41-yard Harris run in the second quarter of the Tigers’ spring game. “And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds. That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”
If the trends from LSU’s spring game carry over into the fall, Jennings would almost certainly be the quarterback who is sitting down and watching in Cameron’s analogy. The rising sophomore struggled mightily on third down, while early enrollee Harris made some of the day’s most exciting plays in those situations.
Jennings was under center for seven third downs, and only one of them resulted in a first down: a 3-yard run by fullback Connor Neighbors. Jennings was 0-for-3 passing on third down and tossed an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned 67 yards for a touchdown.
On the other hand, Harris overcame a sluggish start -- the offense failed to convert on third down on any of Harris’ first five attempts -- to finish with a flourish. The Harris-led offense converted six of the final eight third downs, including three touchdowns: a 19-yard pass to tight end DeSean Smith, a 21-yard rainbow to Dural on the final play of the opening half, and a 4-yard touchdown run of his own.
In all, LSU’s offense gained 115 yards in 13 plays when Harris was on the field for third down and lost three yards in the seven times that Jennings was under center -- and that doesn’t include the 67 going the wrong direction for a score on Jones’ interception.
Harris had a hot streak in the second quarter where five of six plays on third down went for either a first down or a touchdown. It’s no coincidence, Cameron said, that only once in those instances did he face third-and-10 or longer -- a down-and-distance scenario that his starting quarterback must avoid if LSU’s youthful 2014 offense is to remain effective on third down.
Mettenberger’s veteran savvy and strong throwing arm frequently dug LSU out of third-and-long situations last year, and it didn’t hurt that he had two future NFL wideouts in Landry and Beckham and a future NFL tailback in Hill at his disposal.
This season’s offense will be extremely young at the skill positions, so Cameron emphasized that whoever wins the quarterback job must keep the offense in manageable situations in order to move the chains.
“I thought we converted pretty well on third down [in the spring game] and now they’ve got to understand how you set yourself up for a manageable third down by the decisions you make on first and second down,” Cameron said. “And right now, we’re not where we need to be.
“We’ve got to know on first down and second down, let’s put ourselves in the best third-down position possible. Last year we converted on third-and-22, third-and-15, third-and-18, third-and-10 consistently. You don’t do that every year, and I think they’re starting to figure that out.”
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