The Cat in the Hat
November 21, 2009

There are several things in sports that annoy me to distraction: stat geeks who refuse to acknowledge there is a profound difference between theory and reality, referees who constantly blunder - not just making mistakes, but making the diametrically opposite call from reality despite all the evidence, even despite the added benefit of instant replay - and coaches who have absolutely no clue.  Notice I did not say anything about players who make mental mistakes or coaches who make one bad decision that costs the team the game.  Those kinds of things just prove they are human.  The things that infuriate me are the products of broken systems.

A lot has been made of Les Miles and his lack of clock management at the end of yesterday's Ole Miss game, and that certainly is a problem for a team that has national championship aspirations every year and has the talent to accomplish it.  But the real fault of yesterday's loss in Oxford must be laid squarely on the offensive and defensive coordinators of LSU: Gary Crowton and John Chavis, disrespectedly respectively. 

I'm have been trying to figure out what exactly Chavis' defensive schemes are designed to stop, because it sure isn't the run.  Given that the second tenet in the SEC ten commandments is thou shalt stop the run (the first being thou shalt run the ball with authority), this is troubling.  However, LSU's lack of fortitude in this regard shouldn't be surprising given the dismal record of Chavis' defenses at Tennessee the previous decade.  Last year the Vols were very good against the run, ranking just outside the top 10, but for the previous decade they consistently ranked in the bottom half of the SEC.  Ironically, in six of the last eight years, LSU's defense had performed better against the run than Chavis' Tennessee D, and last year - when LSU did not have a defensive coordinator - was the only year in which the Vols' defense was ranked better overall.  This is not about talent as LSU routinely has some of the best recruiting classes in the country, particularly on defense.  The NFL currently employs 50 alums from LSU, 23 of which are on defense.  So it's clearly not about talent.  With that many players entering the NFL system year after year, there's really no reason why the Tiger D shouldn't be amongst the best in the country annually. 

Yet this year they allowed 193 yard rushing to the Rebels, 178 yards rushing the previous week to the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (who had previously scored a grand total of 34 points spanning 18 meetings against LSU the previous century yet managed 16 in one night against Chavis' defense), 176 against Alabama, 193 against Florida, 151 versus Mississippi State, 122 to Vanderbilt and 157 to the Washington Huskies.  Even Louisiana Lafayette ran for more than 100 yards against Chavis' defense.  There really aren't that many elite passing units in college football so stopping the run should be pretty much the primary focus of any defensive coordinator.  So how is it that Chavis' units are so completely awful at doing it?  And why was Skip Bertman so taken with Chavis' track record that he thought it was a good idea to hire him.  Watching yesterday's game, it looked like LSU's defenders were completely surprised by Ole Miss' blocking schemes.  It was if they not only had not looked at any film in preparation, but were completely unaware that such recording devices exist.  They were constantly reacting rather than anticipating.   At least last year LSU had an excuse as they didn't have a defensive corrdinator.   Maybe next year when they are looking for a new defensive coordinator they might look to hire someone who has demonstrated a reasonable level of success dealing with the opposition running game.

As for the offense, I have long been a critic of Gary Crowton and yesterday is just the latest example of his incompetence.  I have no doubt that he is fully capable of drawing up some pretty plays.  Some of the trick plays that LSU has sprung on opponents the last few years have been epic.  But Crowton continues to demonstrate quite ably that he has no clue how the plays should be implemented within the framework of the game, calling razzle dazzle plays when the team only needs to run out the clock or a triple reverse on the goal line or calling for Jarrett Lee to throw to the sidelines every third pass.  Yesterday's whirlwhind ending is just another example.  With time winding down, LSU recovered an onside kick on it's own 42-yard line, needing just a field goal for the winning margin.  Two plays later with around a minute left in the game, they found themselves with a first and ten on the Ole Miss 32-yard line, well within the range of Tiger kicker Josh Jasper.  A kick from there would have been a 49-yard attempt.  A long kick, to be sure, but Jasper had already kicked one from 50 yards and was 3-of-4 from beyond 50 this season.  In short, LSU has that rare college luxury of having a very good field goal kicker.  All the Tigers needed to do was run the ball a couple times, perhaps picking up a few more yards and then call their final time out to bring the field goal unit on to score the winning points on the final play of the game.  A field goal is not certain but with Jasper it's a pretty good chance that he kicks it through. 

Instead, after a first down incompletion, Crowton called for yet another pass, this time a slow developing pass play to get the ball deep down the field.  There are three problems with this decision.  The first is that they've already wasted a down by throwing an incompletion, which does not use much time off the clock nor did it gain any yards.  The two things that LSU absolutely wants to happen in this situation is to gain yardage, even if it's only one yard at a time, and to run down the clock to the point where they can call a timeout and kick the field goal on the last play of the game.  The second problem is that it risks an interception.  The team is already within range of scoring the winning points and there's really no difference between winning by 1 point or winning by 5 points; the only thing that matters is scoring the winning points.  LSU's BCS bowl chances aren't affected by such a small difference in margin of victory; at this point in the game it only mattered if they won or lost.  The third problem with this call is that it risks a sack of the QB which has the double whammy of putting the team out of field goal range and forcing LSU to either use it's final time out or use up more clock in an effort to get back in field goal range.  The benefit of a long pass downfield was far outweighed by the risk of taking the team out of the position to win.  And that is exactly what happened: Jefferson got sacked for a loss and LSU was no longer in range for a field goal.

If that weren't enough, Crowton followed that up with a call for a screen pass, which had little or no chance of making up the ground they had lost on the preceding sack  Spreading the field wide gave them a better chance of getting out of bounds, but at that point they needed yards downfield to get back into field goal range.  Again, a double whammy as the play did not get out of bounds and lost 7 more yards.  Is it any wonder why LSU ranks 106th in total offense this year?  So in two terrible play calls, LSU went from a likelihood of winning to needing desperate miracle to win.  They almost got it with a 42-yard completion and it is here that Les Miles' time management blunder cost the team the game.  But it never should have gotten to that point.

Crowton's offensive cluelessness has another effect.  Because LSU can not sustain drives with any consistency or control the clock, other teams routinely run more plays than LSU which forces an already leaky defense to be on the field longer.  It's bad enough that one coordinator doesn't do his job competently; having two makes it next to impossible for talented players to show their value.  About the only thing that LSU has going for it this season is a pretty good special teams unit, which ironically got blamed in part for this latest loss.  The reports are that the LSU coaches verbally called for a timeout but the referees didn't give it to them and it wasn't until many seconds had passed that the coaches realized that the clock had not stopped.  It's also been revealed that one of those coaches was yelling for Jordan Jefferson to spike the ball on what turned out to be the last play of the game.  Given the confusion on the sidelines, he merely did what he was told to do.  That said, LSU would never have been in that situation had they had a competent play-caller at the helm.

As I see it, there are only a couple possibilities as to why LSU has failed to live up to their lofty expectations the last two years.  The first is that they don't have the same quality of talent other big time programs have.  But if that were true, LSU would not perform well in bowl games nor would they put a lot of starters in the NFL.  Les Miles' teams have always performed exceptionally well in their bowl appearances, going undefeated in four tries with an average margin of victory of 28 points.  Their wins against #14 Georgia Tech 38-3, #1 Ohio State 38-24 (for the national title), #11 Notre Dame 41-14, #9 Miami 40-3 means the average score of an LSU bowl game under Les Miles is 39-11.  And I've already pointed out the number of LSU alums playing in the NFL.  In fact, no school has more players currently in the NFL than LSU: not Ohio State, not USC, not Penn State, not Florida, not Texas, not Alabama, not Oklahoma, not Michigan.  No one.  And it's not even that close as none of those schools have even 40 NFL alums.

The other option is that the coordinators don't do a good job of preparing the players on a weekly basis, possibly because their schemes are too complicated to be fully grasped by collegiate players on such a short turn-around and don't build any continuity within each game, or because they simply don't work.  Based on what has happened the last two years, that seems the likely culprit.  Over the last two years Miles is now 0-6 versus Nick Saban, Houston Nutt and Urban Meyer, coaches of the three teams - Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida - LSU faces every year in their quest to win the SEC.  Personally, I don't mind Les "the Hat" Miles' tendency to be... well, some would call it bold and ballsy, others might call it stupid and overly risky.  I don't mind it because it brings something refreshing to the game.  A head coach should be allowed to be that way when the situation calls for it (see: Belichick, Bill).  But in order to have that luxury, his coordinators have to be rock solid and fundamentally strong.  LSU does not have guys like that on offense or defense and as long as that is true, they will continue to waste the best talent in NCAA football.  It's time for LSU athletic director Skip Bertman to fix his mistakes.  And next time, Les, make sure the refs give you the time out.

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