For former LSU stars, this offensive explosion has been a long time coming

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Life on this planet is filled with so many unanswered questions. Most remain lost in a perpetual fog of question marks, left forever unanswered. So when we suddenly do receive some resolution on one of those eternal what-ifs, it rattles us to the core.

We likely will never know the identity of Jack the Ripper. We probably aren’t going to ever know the names of everyone behind the JFK assassination. It is doubtful the lost city of Atlantis will ever be found.

But by god, we finally know how good LSU could be if it ever figured out how to move the football.

“People bring that up to me a lot, that maybe offense wasn’t really the big deal around here for a while,” said quarterback Joe Burrow, the Tiger whose right arm has slung his school’s offense into the 21st century and into the College Football Playoff’s No. 2 slot ahead of Saturday’s trip to third-ranked archnemesis Alabama. “But all I know is that every day I walk down these halls in the football facility and Death Valley and every wall is covered with photos and names of some amazingly talented football players who played at LSU. Some of the greatest who ever played. I’m pretty sure they knew how to move the ball.”

But that, young Joey Football, is precisely the problem. Or, was the problem. This weekend, there will be no fewer than 11 LSU offensive skill players on NFL rosters. During fall camp, that number was as high as 25. Talent has never been the issue. Using that talent to its fullest potential in Baton Rouge has always been the issue. Or, had been the issue.

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Since the middle of the 2018 season, the Tigers have traded in their traditional stump-removal tractor offense for a top fuel dragster. LSU is ranked fourth in the nation in total offense, third in passing and seventh in points scored. Burrow broke the school’s 16-year-old single-season TD pass record (28) against Mississippi State on Oct. 19, with five regular-season games still to play.

He spreads the ball around so much that LSU has a dedicated page in their weekly media packet to Burrow and his four primary targets titled “Everybody Eats.” He ranks second in the nation in passing yardage (2,805) and TD passes (30), trailing only Washington State’s Anthony Gordon (3,387, 32 TDs). But Burrow leads Gordon by a wide margin in QB rating (204.5), completion percentage (78.8%) and yards per completion (10.8), and the Tigers signal-caller has thrown fewer interceptions, with only four in 260 pass attempts.

Yeah, that’s right, an LSU offense is racing door-to-door statistically with Mike Leach’s Air Raid. And it has done so while playing an arduous slate that featured three matchups against teams in the top 10 at the time, including two against schools that claim to be Defensive Back University (Texas and Florida) and one against a team that might have the nation’s best defensive front four (Auburn). In those three contests, the LSU offense averaged 512 yards per game, 341 through the air.

The folks down on the bayou are loving it. Even if they aren’t entirely sure what it is they are loving.

“We were at the weekly team press conference stuff earlier in the season and I was approached by a guy who has been covering LSU football for a long time,” said Jacob Hester, former LSU running back and a key cog in Les Miles’ pro-style offense that won the 2007 national title. Hester is now a super popular and super busy sports talk radio host on ESPN Radio Baton Rouge and nationally with SiriusXM. “He came to me asking to help him really break down this offense X’s and O’s-wise, and he says to me, ‘I don’t even know what I’m looking at, and it kind of scares me.’ I laughed and told him not to be scared. Change can be scary. But change is good. Especially when that change means you’re 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the country [in the AP Top 25] headed to Tuscaloosa.”

Ah yes, the Alabama game. The one game everyone in Louisiana has circled on the calendar, in Sharpie. The one annual loss that has stood in the way of LSU returning to that 2007 glory. And it is played against Nick Saban, the head coach many believe would have led the Tigers to the same College Football Playoff immortality he has brought to the Crimson Tide had he chosen to stay in Baton Rouge instead of leaving for the Miami Dolphins and then Alabama.

The last time the Tigers defeated Bama was nine years ago, the legendary No. 1 vs. No. 2 Game of the Century that ended with a 9-6 score. But the Crimson Tide got a rematch in the national championship game, dominated LSU 21-0 and has never looked back.

Within three years, Saban — who had been lobbying NCAA rules committees to slow the game down — adapted, hiring Lane Kiffin and jump-starting Alabama’s offensive revolution. The next five seasons included five playoff appearances, two national titles and star turns for QBs Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Meanwhile, LSU coach Les Miles infamously refused to do the same, stepping into offensive meeting rooms and squashing any talk of creativity by announcing the importance of asserting wills and announcing one’s presence with authority.

“When I was at LSU, you were going to play in a phone booth, in between the tackles, stacking eight or nine guys and lining up with two tight ends and wearing them down offensively and making your move late in the game,” Hester said. “And that worked. And LSU won a lot of football games doing that. But football evolved, and LSU kept winning a lot of games, but they stopped winning championships.”

The 10-0 loss to Alabama was the signature game of Ed Orgeron’s 2016 tenure as interim head coach, taking over the team after Miles was fired four games into the year and after a brutally one-dimensional offensive effort in an 18-13 loss at Auburn. Coach O pledged to himself that night that if he were given the chance to be full-time head coach, he would make recharging the LSU playbook his highest priority.

“LSU is always going to be packed with defensive talent,” said Orgeron, the Louisiana-born former lineman. “It has been that way since they first started playing football here 125 years ago, and it will always be that way here. But now, we’re getting those guys some help up on that scoreboard. We’ve always had plenty of talent on the offensive side of the football. We just needed to find the right way and the right leader to really take advantage of that talent. We got that.”

In 2018, Burrow arrived as a transfer from Ohio State. Together with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, they started working the spread into the playbook. There were glimpses of greatness but a lack of consistency. This season, with the hiring of passing game coordinator/wide receivers coach Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints, the Tigers’ O has become a machine, the likes of which no one has ever seen in Death Valley.

The ground-breaking sports analysis program, brought to you by five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, continues with a college football edition, hosted by Alabama head coach Nick Saban. Watch on ESPN+

Everyone likes what they’re seeing. Especially those who played in Death Valley before — even if they are a little envious:

“I’m jealous,” admitted Odell Beckham Jr. of the Cleveland Browns, who was at LSU for its last SEC title in 2011 and played in the 9-6 Alabama game. In 2013, he had a school-record 1,152 yards receiving and eight TD catches. “When we were there, it just wasn’t like this. I hope they break every record that’s been put over there.”

“Yeah, I’d like to go back and play in just one game with that playbook now,” said Atlanta Falcons receiver Russell Gage. In 2017, his senior year at LSU, Gage had 21 receptions in 13 games and became known as a jet sweep specialist. “My friends who are still there are like, ‘Dude, you’d already have so many touchdowns right now!’ I’m happy for them.”

“After the spring football game, I told everyone that [Burrow] was going to break all of my records,” said Rohan Davey, who stepped in to helm the offense at the start of the Saban era and from 1998 to 2001 set a slew of school passing marks, including the most career 300-yard passing games (seven) and the most passing yards for a season (3,347) and a game (528, against Alabama in 2001). Burrow already has broken the first mark with eight and is only 542 yards behind the second with at least four games remaining. “I think some people might think I’d be mad about that, but they are crazy. This is too much fun to watch for anyone to be mad.”

But the giddiest of all Tigers is the man who, 30 years after his final game behind center, is still the gold standard for the LSU passing game. Tommy Hodson always has been a purple-and-gold anomaly, the 6-foot-3 Matthews, Louisiana, native and his long right arm standing out for gaudy passing yardage right smack in the middle of a record book written by the pumping legs of Billy Cannon, Kevin Faulk, Leonard Fournette and others. A four-year starter, Hodson threw for 9,115 yards and 69 touchdowns. From 1986 to 1989, those were video-game-set-to-easy numbers.

“If you go back and look at the film, we were actually pretty conservative,” said Hodson, 52. He points to yards per completion — his career mark of 7.8 yards as compared to Burrow’s 13.7 — and his Cajun-laced voice picks up volume. “I have been waiting for this for so long! It’s so much fun to watch. They’re playing modern offensive football, like everyone else has been playing for the last 10 years. It’s been so refreshing.”

Then Hodson, the co-owner of a manufacturers’ representation business in Baton Rouge, goes full-on businessman: “You have to keep fans interested. You have to keep them entertained. So you have to balance that. It’s a lot easier to sell $8 popcorn and $10 beers when you have a product that first of all can win, but is also entertaining. Not just to watch but to play. Those guys look like they are having plenty of fun to me.”

They are indeed. From Burrow thumping his chest and waving goodbye to opposing fans to wide receiver Justin Jefferson’s TD dance “The Gritty.” Offense is fun. But not as fun as winning. When it comes to keeping that perfect record intact, the fun bunch is willing to put in the work to ensure they have plenty more reasons to celebrate. And that’s where the hidden benefits of this newfangled offense come into play.

“Joe is in our position room all the time,” safety Grant Delpit explained. “He will come in and watch film of practice and explain what he saw us do that might have tipped something off. Or he will have watched the next QB we’re facing and he can give us a tip on something they are doing we can take advantage of.”

Jefferson offered his take.

“For the first time, we are throwing the same kind of offense at them in practice every day that they are seeing on Saturday from most of the teams that we’re playing,” said Jefferson, one of six Tigers with at least one TD catch. He has nine, tied with Ja’Marr Chase for the team lead. “Some teams I think maybe you don’t see a lot of talking between the offense and defense. But with this team, we are all talking all the time. They are teaching us and we are teaching them. It’s a good time, man, even when it’s hard work.”

That’s also the perfect description of the Tigers’ most recent game, a 23-20 cage match victory at home over Auburn. There was nothing pretty about it. It looked and felt a lot like old-school, pre-spread LSU football. But even during a cool, wet puntfest of a game in which Burrow was sacked three times and threw an ugly interception, the Tigers still produced 508 yards of offense to Auburn’s 287.

“Yeah, now we know we can still get in there in the mud and play old-school football if we need to,” Orgeron said as he walked off the field that night to start his preparations for Alabama, still two weekends away. “But now we can also do a lot more than that if we need to. Multidimensional. That feels good.”

As good as it feels to the men wearing purple and gold on the field, it feels even better to those who wear those colors as they watch them, especially those whose photos hang on those walls of the halls that Burrow and his teammates walk each day.

“This offense is so much fun to watch, and it has to be so much fun to play,” Hodson said. “I’d like to play just one game with that playbook. Heck, just one quarter. I think all of us former offensive players feel that way. But watching still feels pretty dang good, doesn’t it?”




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