History is written by the victors, as we know, and until Saturday afternoon’s putrid performance leading to No. 5 LSU losing a 16-14 debacle Les Miles and his supporters were the winners of last November’s media-driven political fight (it became such when the move to fire Miles was leaked to the Baton Rouge Advocate by LSU Board of Supervisors member Stanley Jacobs two weeks before it was to come to fruition) over his job.
And so the media narrative nationally – and locally, too – around LSU in the offseason has been that Miles was unfairly treated by overzealous and heartless meddling moneybag boosters, that it’s insane to want to fire a coach who has won 77 percent of his games and that 2016 would be the season Miles answered his critics.
His backers even insisted that a veteran quarterback like Brandon Harris now is would enable Miles and his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to run a wide-open, unpredictable offense that would show off more than just Leonard Fournette – and in so doing would make for Fournette seeing a lot more daylight than he’s seen in the past – and produce more highlights as well.
Lots of people were OK with that history. I was one of them after being ready to see Miles gone in November. After all, he didn’t get fired. What’s the point of doomsaying LSU football when you didn’t get your way? If you still enjoy following the Tigers it almost seems like a character problem to spend an offseason trashing the coach when he’s ranked in the Top 5.
And after Miles escaped the axe by engineering a pedestrian win over a mediocre Texas A&M team at the end of the 2015 regular season, he did offer some reasons for optimism. The hire of Dave Aranda as the defensive coordinator has been regarded universally positively. LSU brought in a great recruiting class. Lots of last year’s juniors who had the ability to turn pro and be drafted fairly highly in the NFL Draft in April opted to return.
The scenario that Miles would have a magical season exorcising the demons of the last several seasons since that debilitating national championship game loss to Alabama in January of 2012 looked at least plausible, so why not play along and join the fun?
Saturday afternoon, as it turned out, was why not.
Aranda’s hire isn’t a bust yet – his defense was anything but dominant against a fairly pedestrian Wisconsin offense, but it did only give up one touchdown all day while scoring one of its own, it produced three turnovers and it more or less single-handedly kept LSU in the game. That’s not awful for a first game in a totally new defensive scheme, particularly when Wisconsin knew pretty much everything LSU was doing since it’s what they were themselves doing the previous year. That defense needs to get better as the season goes along, but it should – and probably will. If you think back to the performances of the LSU defense in Bo Pellini’s first few games as LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2005 or John Chavis’ first game against Washington in 2009, and how poorly the defense looked compared to how they’d do later in the season, Saturday really wasn’t so bad at all.
But it’s not the changes Miles made which are the problem. It’s what has stayed the same.
LSU was one of the worst teams in the country on special teams last year. It was thought that the coach of the special teams, Bradley Dale Peveto, would be moving on. Instead, Peveto did a good job helping to build that great recruiting class and he’s back. And Saturday, LSU’s special teams were every bit as bad as they were last year. Once again, kickoff man Cameron Gamble knocked a kick out of bounds – something which has driven Miles’ detractors to distraction over the years. Miles insists that his kickoff man attempt to pin the ball in the corner between the sideline and the goal line in an effort to limit the effectiveness of a return; that’s a great strategy when your kicker is capable of doing it consistently and a stupid one when he’s not good at it. Gamble, who by all accounts has a leg strong enough to kick the ball through the end zone practically at will, stinks at the corner kick – and yet he’s still being asked to kick into the corner. Saturday’s results were typical.
Something else Miles insists on is an Australian punter, and Saturday’s results showed the folly of that insistence. Josh Growden’s first game as Miles’ man was an unmitigated disaster; six punts for a 31.2-yard average is a poor performance for a high school punter, and Growden’s shanks seemed to be even more acute when a good punt was most required. That was a hallmark of his predecessor Jamie Keehn’s, but Keehn at least had a 40-yard average last year. This is the seventh straight year LSU has had an Australian punter, and we’re clearly in diminishing returns. It’s no solace that this was Growden’s first game punting, ever – he’d never played organized football before Miles signed him, and didn’t punt in a game while being redshirted last year. Perhaps he’ll get better, but a 31.2-yard average is a shining failure. If there is nobody on LSU’s roster capable of better, it’s inexcusable.
And then there was Tre’ White as Miles’ punt returner. White, who on defense was far and away LSU’s most valuable player, had a nasty habit last year as a punt returner of failing to acquire the ball on the fly; far too often he’d let it bounce and roll long distances. Saturday showed there is no improvement on that score; not only did White not hustle ahead to catch a short Wisconsin punt on the fly and therefore save a first-down’s worth of field position, he failed to get out of the way of the ball and very nearly had it hit his foot to give Wisconsin a crucial turnover that would likely have put the game out of LSU’s reach.
In other words, Miles made no changes to his program on special teams, and in the Wisconsin game the results were just as bad as last year.
And on offense? Same story.
Cam Cameron returned as LSU’s offensive coordinator and no changes were made to the offense. There weren’t even any changes promised. There is a new running backs coach in Jabbar Juluke, who comes relatively highly-regarded, and a well-thought-of new wide receivers coach in Dameyune Craig to replace the scapegoated Tony Ball. But Saturday, there was no evidence on hand either of those moves changed anything.
LSU is running the same mix of formations and the same lousy mix of plays out of them. LSU is still completely failing to adequately distribute the football to a set of skill position players most people around the country think is one of the best cohorts in the country. LSU is still trying to run the ball into eight- and nine-man fronts. It’s even worse than that; they debuted an inexplicable set in which Travin Dural, who had a relatively good game catching passes, goes in motion from a split position to something akin to a tight end and then serves after the snap as a 6-2, 200-pound inline blocker after he’s brought the man covering him into the box. One assumes the theory behind doing that is to protect the back side of the play by putting someone in between the defense’s edge rusher and the running back, but don’t be shocked when we tell you it didn’t work against Wisconsin.
Once again, the success of LSU’s offense revolves entirely around the offensive line physically manhandling the defense. The running game involves virtually no misdirection – there is almost no attempt to incorporate zone read concepts into the offense, and when those are haphazardly introduced they’re poorly executed, and the passing game is almost completely comprised of slow-developing seven-step drops. It’s little wonder the offensive line looks worse than it is – and when the line really is that bad, as it was on Saturday, this offense is on the field for only 50 snaps and 23 minutes of possession time.
LSU’s athletic advantage over the Badgers was fairly pronounced even as they were getting completely outplayed by them. Once again the offensive scheme totally negates that advantage. It’s so obvious Fournette is more effective when the defense in front of him is spread out and he has some room to gather a head of steam, and yet Miles and Cameron seem hell-bent on forcing him to bull his way through traffic.
Or maybe the offense is Neanderthal because there is no quarterback capable of running anything else. We wouldn’t know whether that’s true, because Miles won’t put Danny Etling or Lindsey Scott on the field for us to see whether they’re capable of throwing short, manageable routes to get those skill players the ball on the move. We know that despite the fact he’s a junior Brandon Harris simply isn’t effective at doing so. Harris’ lack of accuracy throwing short and medium passes makes it awfully easy to defend this team, but that was true most of last season.
And it’s been true more or less since Matt Flynn graduated with a national championship ring. Since that time LSU has had a productive passing attack in precisely one season; that being Zack Mettenberger’s senior year in 2013 when he had perhaps the two best receivers currently on offer in the NFL to throw to in Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry. At some point you have to conclude that Miles simply isn’t a competent coach when it comes to recruiting and developing quarterbacks. You can only suffer through so much of his attempts to make the Jordan Jeffersons, Anthony Jenningses and Brandon Harrises – athletic spread quarterbacks all – into NFL-style pocket passers before you realize it’s never going to work.
And Miles proved it on Saturday for the people who still don’t get it. Harris might not have been so terrible statistically, though 12 of 21 for 131 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions earned him a single-digit quarterback rating in ESPN’s system that won’t impress anybody. But his decision-making was a true disappointment for somebody who’s supposedly an upper-classman quarterback, and his execution was just awful. Especially on that game-sealing interception he threw on LSU’s last offensive play, which was inexplicable.
Harris lacks moxie, and as rough as this will sound he’s not a smart quarterback and never has been.
He hasn’t improved over last year, just like Jefferson didn’t improve. Jefferson’s failure to improve was written off as evidence he was uncoachable. What’s the excuse now?
Too much of what happened on Saturday was simply the same old same-old.
I said last year that Miles had gone stale at LSU. It’s clear he has. And while it’s always possible that a talented college football team can right the ship after a bad season opener, this wasn’t supposed to be a team that needed the ship righted. What’s much more likely is this season will contain four or five more losses and something like a .500 record in the SEC.
And another debilitating, humiliating loss to Alabama in November, not to mention a failure to outclass Ole Miss and Arkansas. Because there is no reason to believe the product on the field Saturday will fare any better than the last three LSU teams, which were 2-7 against those three opponents.
In the post-game call-in show after Saturday’s loss, out pal Charles Hanagriff said for the first time he can’t honestly see the LSU program getting back to where it used to be under Miles. And Fox Sports’ Aaron Torres wrote a piece acknowledging that Saturday’s debacle was the reason why there was a move to run Miles out of town last year…
Look, it’s obviously too early to talk hot seat, but this was the exact kind of loss LSU simply couldn’t afford to open the season. It wasn’t just that the Tigers lost, or that now they’ll probably need to go undefeated from here on out to sniff the playoff. It’s that all the problems that have plagued the Tigers for years – the ones that nearly cost Miles his job last year – were back and more prevalent than ever Saturday at Lambeau Field.
That says quite a bit, and it also means that even though it’s only the first week of September, the Les Miles “hot seat” chatter will officially pick up steam over the next couple days. It’s not fair after one game, but it’s hard to blame LSU fans either.
This was the year where things were supposed to be different, where the offense was supposed to evolve, where Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron were supposed to open things up. Where the combination of experience and a “win or we’re all going to lose our jobs” mindset from the coaching staff helped the Tigers get back into the national title chase.
The Tigers could still get there, but man, do they have a lot of work to do.
In the meantime, the phone lines will continue to heat up in Louisiana, demanding that the Mad Hatter be removed as the team’s head coach.
We don’t know if this is the beginning of the end for Miles, but it certainly didn’t help.
The Times-Picayune’s Ron Higgins was even more caustic in his judgement of the performance…
There’s no one to blame except the guy who pockets a $4.38 million annual paycheck, the person who said after nearly being fired at the end of last season he thinks his archaic offense only needs tweaking, the funny, quirky guy who annually lands top 10 recruiting classes and turns them into teams battling for minor bowl bids.
Again, when you judge Les Miles, you have to separate the person and the coach.
As a person, Miles is a gem, someone who deeply cares about his team and the city and state that has been his home since 2005. The class way he handled the last two months’ worth of tragedies in Baton Rouge, the racial tension, the police shootings, the recent flooding, can’t be disputed.
But he’s not handed a truckload of cash to be a voice of social conscience. He is being paid to win football games, especially the ones in which he has superior talent, which is most of the time.
His repeated answer to several questions from the media after Saturday’s debacle: “I’ll have to wait and see the film.”
Really, does he have to see the film to realize how unprepared his team looked?
The coach’s reservoir of goodwill with the fans and those Tiger Athletic Foundation boosters who were willing to pony up $15 million to send him on his way last year was replenished with what amounted to promises – and what was worst about Saturday was that it showed those promises to be empty. That’s going to carry intensely negative consequences for the coach, and LSU President F. King Alexander, who stood in the way of his firing last year.
If things don’t turn around, this is going to be an ugly season – and Miles won’t finish it with the loving sendoff the fans thought they were giving him in the Texas A&M game. His gobbledygook answers to media questions, his transparent lies about his team, his neanderthal offense and his team’s maddening disorganization – there were only nine players on the field for a punt return in the second quarter Saturday – are no longer cute.
We are likely seeing the end of an era. And most things end badly, or else they wouldn’t end at all. That’s a huge disappointment for a fan base which had been sold a magical 2016 season by the coach and the school.