If you are a fan of scoring, then we are living in a golden age — scoring is the highest it has been in a century. After decades of relatively flat scoring and modest growth, the liberalization of offensive rules and increased emphasis on skills players has led to an explosion in points. In the first decade of the 21st century, just two teams averaged 50+ points per game. In 2019 alone, at least five had attained that mark through the end of September.
Teams posting big numbers on the scoreboard has not slowed down much in the second month of the season either. Through the Halloween weekend, two teams still average right at 50+ PPG (OU 50.4, LSU 50.1) and two other teams are between 48.7 PPG and 49.7 PPG (Alabama, Ohio State). All four are in the Top 10, at least three control their playoff destiny.
Nor is this an outlier. In 2018, Alabama and Clemson were third & fourth in scoring offense. In 2017, Georgia was the laggard — “just” 20th, while Alabama was 15th. And 2016 saw much of the same: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington all were in the Top 15 in total scoring. Defense may have won championships a decade ago, but in this era you need points, and oodles of them, to hoist the trophy.
It is a lesson that Nick Saban learned half a decade ago, after losing yet another high profile game to a spread team. Coincidentally, it is also a lesson that LSU had to absorb after several noncompetitive contests against their main nemesis — a certain spread team in Tuscaloosa.
So, let’s take a look at the three men who are most responsible for the LSU offensive renaissance.
LSU Offensive Staff
Ensminger is an alum. After a year in college exile, he went back to Baton Rouge following the departure of Tuberville at Auburn. Known these days primarily as a TE development coach, that’s not entirely fair to Ensminger. He spent most of career bouncing around various stops throughout the South working as a passing game coordinator and calling plays. He had some success too — with the mid-90s A&M Wrecking Crew teams, Tommy West’s Clemson, Goff’s electric Bulldogs with Eric Zeier under center, and some of Auburn’s most balanced offenses with Jason Campbell and Co.
When Les Miles
got railroaded for a cheaper version departed LSU in September 2016, the Tigers offense did see an uptick in performance.
LSU’s offense had been stagnant, scoring only nine touchdowns and averaging 18 points and 339.5 total yards per game through four games. In eight games under Ensminger that year, LSU improved drastically in every offensive category as the Tigers averaged 32 points and 464.9 total yards per contest during that span. LSU scored 38 or more points five times under Ensminger, including 54 in a win over Texas A&M and 38 against both Arkansas and Ole Miss. The Tigers averaged 7.1 yards per play and converted 46-of-102 third-down opportunities during that eight-game stretch.
Though an improvement, Ensminger’s offenses were nothing particularly special. He was very much a man from another time and place: a lot of three-wide Ace sets, twin tights, I-formations, etc. In the three years that Ensminger called the plays without Joe Brady, the Tigers were just 10th, 9th, and 7th in the SEC in scoring offense and were just 9th, 7th, and 9th in total offense in the SEC.
Thus, it would be very unfair to lay the complete blame at Les Miles’ feet for an antiquated offense, just as as it would be unfair to give Ensminger too much credit for this year’s results.
This season, the Tigers are second in scoring offense (50.1 PPG), 4th in total offense (despite being 74th in rushing) and 2nd in passing offense.
The real people putting this sausage in the casing are the Tigers two newer assistants, and you have to think both are due for promotions following the season.
Since bringing the tandem of Joseph and Brady onboard, the Tigers offense has been more of a vertical threat, especially dangerous when Burrow gets in trouble. It also spreads defenses out across the field — that five-wide formation, for instance. Most of all, it is efficient, and Ensminger has called some good games without a running game that can take over contests.
It’s not a great LSU running game, no. And that’s because it’s not a great offensive line. Tigers’ backs are averaging under 5 YPC; LSU has fumbled six times; and the Tigers have surrendered 15 sacks. But like everything else LSU does in 2019, it takes what the defense is giving up and has made a luscious lemonade from the lemons — the beautiful, sweet platonic ideals as well as the mushy, malformed ones in the bargain bin. And he is unafraid to lean on Edwards-Helaire if defenses don’t honor the run.
At the end of the day, I suppose that degree of flexibility and growth as a playcaller marks a tremendous improvement over his LSU offenses of years past — even the one he ran last year. A youthful injection of modern football was just what ailed a coordinator in a rut. If that were a lesson Les Miles had ever learned, he’d still be wearing the whistle in Baton Rouge.
Joe Brady, Passing Game Coordinator/WRC:
Did you like Brian Daboll’s pro spread in 2017? The Pats’ quick-strike offense that puts guys into space, and particularly exploits the underneath? Well, do we have some deja vu for you: You’ll be watching that same offense this Saturday when the Tigers come to town...only with a quarterback who’d rather throw, and is in fact unafraid of making a mistake. Tigers fans, you should thank this guy no matter how the season turns out. Like Lane Kiffin coming aboard in 2014, Brady’s hire marks a turning point in LSU football.
Brady is a red hot up-and-comer in the ranks. He’s only been coaching for the better part of three-plus years, but the imprimatur of his experiences at Penn State and the New Orleans Saints are all over this offense: Let your wideouts do the work, quick passing, strategic deep shots (planned: off play-action; unplanned: off of busts). It is no coincidence that Brady also helps coach the wide receivers. Getting the ball out of the hands of Joe Burrow and to the big athletes on the outside has paid off on the scoreboard and, at the same time, has helped disguise a weaker-than-average OL and running game.
Through eight games, the Tigers are averaging north of 370 YPG passing, 10.5 YPA, and over 36 attempts per game. All those 3- and 0-step drops, and working the perimeter, has done wonders for Burrow too: he’s hitting 75% of his passes.
It is nothing complicated or innovative, but it works: quick hitches, quick slants, shallow crossing routes, let Burrow take a few shots each week either planned or via defensive busts. But, when your wideouts are physical enough to get separation, they have sure hands, the strength to break tackles, and enough speed to gobble up YAC over the middle, it’s highly effective. Beware: This team also runs a ton of rubs and picks, especially in the red zone, and it has wideouts who are not afraid to do some shoving to get separation. Given how rarely either of those infractions are called at the collegiate level, it makes a reasonably talented wide receiving group even more effective.
The Tigers best enjoy Brady this year, you can’t imagine he’ll be here by Valentine’s Day.
Mickey Joseph (WRC):
As much credit as we give Joe Brady for installing a modern scheme, perhaps we should direct an equal amount to second-year WRC Mickey Joseph. Like Brady and Ensminger and Ed O, he’s got a ton of local experience. And, like Brady in particular, his impact was noticed almost immediately (See: the development of DJ Chark, involving the young corps early last season, coaching WRs to turn upfield).
The threat in this Tigers’ offense lies not with Joe Burrow necessarily. His job is to distribute quickly and accurately, and he does that. The greater threat lies with those to whom he gets the ball.
Joseph has done an outstanding job coaching the Tigers’ route-running. It is a big, physical unit that gets very good separation off the jam. They also have eerie rapport with Burrow. When he is rolling out, or when the pocket collapses around Burrow, this group is almost prescient in knowing precisely where to be. The Tigers turn upfield when Joe’s legs have bought him some time. And, when he’s in particular trouble, they come to the play to bail him out. They pick effectively without blowing up defenders. And they are very good at finding the soft spots in zone coverage that allows Burrow to throw to a spot.
Finally, it is underrated, but almost as crucial as the unit is to the success of the passing game, their ability to block is exemplary, especially against the run. (It is still LSU, after all.) Justin Jefferson in particular has laid some haymakers on defenders this year.
What Ensiminger and staff have done very well this year is work within the limitations of their personnel and at the same time take advantage of what strengths they offer. If Ensminger and Brady have done anything especially well in 2019, it is coaching a somewhat limited, but highly-accurate quarterback to take what the defense gives him. And that in turn is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When you take what the defense has made available, you complete more passes, making an accurate quarterback even more so at the end of the day.
This coaching is really noticeable in the mental part of Burrow’s game. He can throw on the run quite capably (though not always with aesthetic or mechanical grace), and Ensminger has done a great job of getting Burrow to keep his head up and his eyes downfield when he leaves the pocket. So while Joe is an athlete, he’d rather look for the bust that his feet have bought him rather than rely on those to make the play necessarily — but he will scoot, if given a chance. He’s a quick decision-maker and goes through his reads promptly, even if it results in a lot of off-balance throws. But, especially in those throws under 20 yards, his quick decision-making and quick release have been very effective. When he can buy himself time with his legs and stress the secondary and the wideouts know exactly where to go, it is lethal.
Nothing in this offense is rocket science, though it is frustrating. You will give up yards and a few scores as a matter of course. And, no, Burrow won’t make you say “wow”...but neither will he beat the Tigers or make you cringe. It is just a fundamentally sound, smart, well-coached offense. But, neither is it invincible. The running game alone won’t beat teams. There is a reason the Tigers are throwing almost 40 times a game. And Auburn did show how to neutralize the underneath schemes that have been devouring linebackers for the better part of the season: the 3-1-7. Spy Burrow, let the matchup zones prevent those lethal releases the WRs live and die with, and then tackle, tackle, tackle. A Tide defense that is 14th in the country in yards-per-play allowed may just be coming around enough to do so.
Someone made the point to me last week, and it is apt: It is not unfair to call Ed Orgeron a Cajun Dabo Swinney — a 9-win coach that has identified standout assistants that can make a good team an elite one. Football is very much a game of talent and matchups, and this staff has done as good a job as anyone of doing that.
“Take what they give you” can carry a team far. But, it remains to be seen if it is enough to carry LSU past the Crimson Tide and end almost a decade of frustration.