NEW ORLEANS — You didn’t have to wait very long in LSU’s 27-0 win over BYU Saturday night to see how much different the LSU offense looks in the Matt Canada era than it did under Les Miles.
It was LSU’s first play from scrimmage. The Tigers broke the huddle with quarterback Danny Etling under center and running back Derrius Guice behind him as the lone running back. LSU lined up empty to the left with tackle Toby Weathersby technically eligible as a receiver. To the right, LSU had a jumbo package. Tight end Foster Moreau put his hand in the dirt, with H-back J.D. Moore split off him as a wingback. Split out wide to the right, LSU had senior wide receiver D.J. Chark and, in the slot, senior running back Darrel Williams.
Then everything got complicated. Every player on the offense except for Etling, Chark and center Will Clapp shifted. Weathersby and guard Saahdiq Charles swapped places with tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield. Moreau and Moore followed Malone and Brumfield from the right side of the formation to the left side. Guice stepped up from running back to take over for Moore as the right wing back. And Williams came flying in from the slot to line up as the tailback.
BYU’s defense barely reacted. The Cougars stayed in their base defense. So Etling sent Guice in motion and handed the ball to his Heisman Trophy hopeful. The junior broke a couple of tackles and gained about 6 yards.
But for one play, for one brief moment to start the game, the presentation was more important than the product. In that moment, Canada made it clear: His offense will be different.
“We knew that play was going to be the first play call,” Williams said after the game. “I just knew I had to shift back to the backfield. It was a 50-50 chance I may get the ball, a 50-50 chance I may not get the ball. Yeah, it was an option.”
Yes. On top of the confusion and the double shifts and the eligible linemen, that play was also an option. It’s a pretty bold play-call for your first as the offensive coordinator at LSU. But it established Canada’s tone for the whole game: LSU was going to win with its running game, no matter how long it took.
Behind this philosophy, LSU ran the ball 57 times Saturday night for 294 yards, with 42 of those carries and 212 of those yards belonging to Guice and Williams, who also punched in 3 touchdowns from 1, 1 and 4 yards out. Guice alone had 27 carries, including 13 carries for 65 yards in the first quarter alone.
Thanks to this commitment to the run, LSU dominated time of possession. The Tigers offense spent 41 minutes and 54 seconds on the field Saturday, compared to 18 minutes and six seconds from BYU. And while LSU had a couple of drives stall inside the red zone and were forced to punt on its first possession because of a string of penalties, the running attack was consistent enough that LSU’s chances of winning never felt small.
Guice said he always knew the plan was to run the ball. With new LSU coach Ed Orgeron and Canada, running the football is also going to be a primary ingredient in the game plan. But Guice said he’d be lying if he said he expected to be fed as much as he was.
“I didn’t really think that was the plan,” Guice said. “When I saw I had 20 at half, I was like ‘Shoot, it all happened so fast.’ I thought I was around 10. When I saw I was around 20, I was like ‘Man, we’re running a lot. Let’s go!’ ”
Guice scoffed when he was asked if he was exhausted after his 13-carry first quarter. He said there was a part of him that wished he ended the night with 40 carries. And he also said that Canada is “crazy” enough that some day he might hit that 40-carry mark.
But there’s a built-in protection with Canada’s offense — all the motion — that helps keep his backs fresh. Williams said he noticed BYU’s defense playing like it was on ice skates a little bit, having no choice but to move backward while trying to figure out where the ball was and where it might be headed.
Guice noticed a similar phenomenon.
“Sometimes they’ll just sit there and wait for us to run a play,” Guice said of BYU’s tendencies. “And sometimes the [strongside] linebackers and the safeties, they’ll move with the shifts. Sometimes they don’t. We take whatever they give us. If they sit, we’re going to go outside. If they go outside, we’re going to go inside.”
Taking what was given to them was another calling card of LSU’s night Saturday. As Guice pointed out, LSU’s plan was never supposed to be to ride its running backs like a 1940s single-wing team playing in the snow. But, as Orgeron acknowledged in his postgame news conference, BYU didn’t have an overwhelming amount of team speed and is the type of team that likes to lock offenses into trench warfare.
LSU took that idea, and literally ran with it, using the Cougars’ comfort zone against them. Because of that, Canada didn’t show off the full scope of his playbook. Orgeron estimated Canada called about 10 percent of the plays he could’ve. Guice said Canada called all the plays he “wanted [people] to see.”
It wasn’t a night completely devoid of passing. Etling finished 14-for-17 with 173 yards, and freshman Myles Brennan tacked on another 12 yards with a completion of his own.
But more than that, against BYU Canada learned — or stumbled upon — Guice’s great edict about LSU football.
“We’re RBU,” Guice said. “We’ve gotta run the ball.”
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