No Rush: SEC team joining in on spread of air-based offense (copy)

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, left, scrambles away from Vanderbilt defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo earlier this season.

Over the past few years, LSU’s football program has been well known for its ability to play suffocating defense and run the ball efficiently with talented, hard-nosed tailbacks.

Things are a bit different in 2019, though. The fifth-ranked Tigers are still solid on the defensive end of the ball — albeit not as dominant as in years past — but much more dynamic on offense. Led by senior quarterback Joe Burrow and a bevy of gifted, athletic wide receivers, this year’s LSU offense has been unstoppable so far.

Utah State will get a first-hand look at how skilled LSU is offensively when the Tigers host the Aggies on Saturday morning in one of college football’s most iconic venues.

LSU currently ranks first among all FBS programs in scoring offense (57.8 points per game). Additionally, the Tigers are second nationally in passing offense (431.8 yards per game) and third in total offense (563.5 ypg).

So far opposing defenses have had no answer for Burrow and the LSU offense. The Ohio State graduate transfer has completed a whopping 80.6 percent of his passes — the best percentage nationally — for 1,520 yards and 17 touchdowns, vs. only two interceptions, to 19 different targets.

In LSU’s last game, Burrow threw for 388 yards and a single-game school record six touchdowns passes in a 66-38 road victory over Vanderbilt. Earlier this season, the 6-foot-4, 216-pounder amassed 471 passing yards in his team’s 45-38 road triumph over then-No. 10 Texas, which is the second-highest single-game total in program history.

A year ago, Burrow became the first LSU player to ever tally more than 2,500 yards passing and 350 yards rushing in a season. No. 9 finished with 2,894 yards through the air and 399 yards on the ground during the 2018 campaign.

“Teams have tried a lot of different things against him,” USU head coach Gary Andersen said. “They’ve tried pressure against him, and I would say that’s been probably the least effective part for the defenses. He’s carved up pressures and really given his skill players a chance to catch the ball in space, and that has not gone well. Texas and some other teams have tried to drop eight a lot, and that’s where the chess match comes in. Can you get him off his point with a three-man rush and cause some problems, or is he going to sit back there for five or six seconds with a really good O-line and still have the ability to pick you apart?

“He’s a great fit for what they do, he’s a great quarterback and he’s surrounded by extremely talented kids.”

Burrow has the luxury of operating behind a huge, experienced offensive line. A trio of LSU’s O-linemen have made at least 16 consecutive starts in center Lloyd Cushenberry III, right guard Damien Lewis and right tackle Austin Deculus — three guys with an average weight of 323 pounds. Cushenberry III was tabbed a first-team all-SEC preseason selection, while Lewis was projected to be a second-team all-conference honoree.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron was asked to grade his offensive line during Monday’s press conference.

“Very well. I think very well,” he said. “I think the guys have — like I said, in camp was the most improved unit. And now that we’ve got Ed Ingram back, I do believe we’re going to be better. There’s some things we need to do to run the ball better. We need to finish better. We have not been challenged in pass protection yet. We may get challenged this week, but I know for later on we’re going to get challenged.”

Indeed, the Tigers haven’t been as successful on the ground as in years past. LSU is averaging 131.8 rushing yards an outing and 4.0 yards per carry. Junior tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire has averaged 72 rushing yards in LSU’s first four games, but is coming off a 106-yard performance on 14 carries against Vandy.

LSU’s explosive pass attack is highlighted by a trio of talented wideouts in junior Justin Jefferson and sophomores Terrace Marshall Jr. and Ja’Marr Chase, who have already combined for 16 TDs and an impressive 1,093 yards. Chase missed a game earlier this season, but returned to the lineup and absolutely torched Vanderbilt to the tune of 229 yards and four TDs on 10 receptions.

“Ja’Marr is finally in good shape,” Orgeron said of his 6-1 speedster. “His first year he didn’t go through a fourth quarter, and he was just getting in shape. This year his individual drills are structured as he’s getting a lot of reps. ... He had a great summer. He’s big, strong, fast and physical. I think what Ja’Marr is seeing is that he’s in tip-top condition, and he’s able to play at full speed for the whole game.”

Fortunately for the Aggies, the 6-4 Marshall Jr. is nursing a foot injury and won’t play Saturday, while the 6-3 Jefferson has been limited by an ankle injury. Jefferson, who paced the Tigers in catches (54) and receiving yards (875) a year ago, only made two receptions for 18 yards against Vandy.

Several Tigers have been recovering from injuries on the defensive side of the ball, including starters K’Lavon Chaisson (linebacker), Michael Divinity Jr. (LB), Glen Logan (defensive end) and Rashard Lawrence (DE). Lawrence, a three-year starter who made 10.5 tackles for loss last season, was listed by Orgeron as “probable” for Saturday’s game. Logan will definitely not play, while Divinity Jr., who created four turnovers last season, is likely out. Chaisson, who missed the previous two games, will start against the Aggies.

LSU’s defense is led by a returning consensus All-American in junior safety Grant Delpit. As a sophomore, Delpit contributed with 74 tackles, including 9.5 for a loss, 5.0 sacks, five interceptions and nine passes broken up.

Junior linebacker Jacob Phillips has been LSU’s leading tackler so far, and he ranks third in the SEC in tackles an outing with 8.8. Phillips was the team’s second-leading tackler in ’18 with 87.

Freshman cornerback Derek Stingley currently ranks third nationally in passes defended with eight — seven PBUs and one of the team’s two interceptions. LSU’s other starting corner, senior Kristian Fulton, was a preseason second-team All-American.

Not one single Tiger has racked up a lot of tackles for loss or sacks this season, but 19 different players have combined for 25 TFLs and 12 different players have accounted for 11 sacks. Per usual, LSU has a wealth of depth on the defensive side of the ball.

“Again, you don’t look out there and say, ‘hey, there is just an average guy, we can work to take advantage of him,’” Andersen said. “They fly around, they play hard, they have high expectations to play hard defense every single week. You just don’t see a bunch of missed assignments, you don’t see a bunch of errors and you don’t see a lack of communication for the most part. They’re used to playing against a fast-paced offense, which, that probably helps them and will help them against us, I’m sure.”

The Tigers have also been rock solid on special teams this fall. For starters, LSU has found paydirt on special teams in its last two games — a 54 punt return against Northwestern State by Trey Palmer, and a blocked punt in the end zone against Vandy.

Junior Zach Von Rosenburg is averaging an impressive 45.3 yards a punt, while freshman kicker Cade York ranks first in the SEC with 12.2 ppg. York has been successful on all seven of his field goal attempts, including two from 40-plus yards out.

The Tigers are averaging 28.8 yards per kickoff return, while only allowing 14.5.

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.