LSU’s “Air Canada” offense shows some signs, still waiting to fully take off
Saturday’s highly anticipated debut of LSU’s new-look offense came and went with 17 pass attempts, 173 passing yards and 27 points against BYU.
The once-again ground-dominant attack’s statistics, which missed the Tigers’ 2016 scoring average, fell shy of at least some vocal fans’ lofty expectations for “Air Canada.”
But the unit actually showed notable change under new coordinator Matt Canada that could ultimately validate offseason-long confidence and some early ooo’s and ah’s — if it can clean up some mistakes and continue to progress, as promised in the wake of the 27-0 victory.
“(Canada) was fantastic,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “He was on fire tonight. But that’s what I’ve seen is just what happened. You saw what our defense looked like tonight, and there are some days that we can not stop him. And I know he has some more things that he wants to get better at, obviously, but I thought he did a great job of managing the whole offensive staff.
“He calls the game. He’s in the headset. He’s enthusiastic. He’s very knowledgeable. A-plus.”
The Tigers’ 479 total yards surpassed their 2016 average by 56 yards and would have ranked behind just four of their 12 contests last season.
Derrius Guice, Darrel Williams and the rushing attack accounted for the bulk of that production, though, with 294 yards and all three touchdowns on 57 carries.
Guice led the way with 120 yards and two touchdowns and 27 attempts, while Williams added 94 yards and the other score on 15 rushes.
“We try to be 50/50,” Orgeron laughed.
But as Orgeron and multiple players pointed out, BYU allowing them 5.2 yards per carry didn’t exactly force Canada and company to the air.
“Coach Canada has his own style for the way he does things,” Guice said. “We could’ve thrown it 50 times. But we wanted to run it. Like he came in halftime and told us, ‘We’re gonna take what they give us. If they give us the run, we’re gonna run it. If they play soft and laid-back, we’re gonna run it.’ So we were just taking what they were giving us.”
The similarities to past offenses under former coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and his predecessors don’t extend much past those initial numbers.
Senior quarterback Danny Etling’s modest 173 yards passing fell in line with his and other LSU passers’ totals in recent seasons when the Tigers fell short of 200 passing yards in 30 of their 63 games from 2012 to 2016.
LSU tallied between 200 and 249 passing yards in another 15 contests, between 250 and 299 in another 12 and more than 300 yards on just six occasions.
The Tigers haven’t seen the efficiency with which Etling completed passes (82.4 percent) since the 2013 season in which wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry helped fellow NFL-bound standout Zach Mettenberger challenge program records.
“I felt great,” Etling said. “I felt as good as I’ve ever felt playing a game. I was out there in warmups, and I was feeling pretty good. And I said, ‘I haven’t felt this good in a game in a long time.’ So it was a big difference I felt out there, and it was good.”
Etling completed more than 68 percent of his passes on just one occasion in 2016: a 20-for-28 (71.4 percent) showing at Texas A&M.
And the senior utilized eight different receivers, including three running backs, tight end Foster Moreau and fullback J.D. Moore.
“I thought he did a great job — exactly what we asked him to do tonight,” Orgeron said. “I thought he did fantastic. It goes to show you the hard work that he did all summer. He learned, he studied. The guy’s a tremendous worker. Our players believe in him. That’s why we named him the starting quarterback, and he proved it tonight.”
Canada’s offense also benefited from eight different rushers, including Etling, Guice, Williams, Moore, freshman running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and three different wide receivers.
Many of the weapons lined up in multiple different roles. And the Tigers used a slew of formations — both even and uneven looks of anywhere from no to four wide receivers, no to four tight ends and one to three running backs — and a variety of pre-snap shifts and motions.
“There is a little bit more,” Etling said of the playbook. “Obviously we found what plays we liked, and we found what plays worked, and we kind of stuck with those. And we’ll probably change it up again next week. We’ll just see what the defense gives us and whatever we think is the best way to attack them.”
Guice laughed when asked about the play sheet: “Oh, it’s pretty big. You’re gonna get some plays. The whole big step is, and I’m proud of these guys for, picking everything up, learning it, buying into it and trusting it. That was a major thing for us. We all bought into it, and we all learned it. We all wanted to make this offense great, and it’s paying off. Every week’s gonna be a different game plan. So we’ve gotta get ready for another big menu next week.”
All that variety and motion came with probably the biggest criticism of Saturday’s performance: 10 penalties for 86 yards, a few of which stalled otherwise promising possessions.
“I just like how the whole offense is created,” Guice said. “I like all the shifts, motions. I love that stuff. Sometimes we get confused. It’s a fun offense, though.”
But if the Tigers can clean up some of those issues moving forward, Saturday’s season opener provided several positive signs that their offense could indeed “take off.”
“Obviously, we are going to eliminate the penalties,” Orgeron said. “I think it was first-game jitters. We are going to fix them. We are going to do better in the red zone. We should have made a couple more touchdowns in the red zone. We know that, and we will fix it.”
Jerit Roser can be reached at Jerit@DatBoot.com.