The 33-7 win LSU posted against Miami of Ohio came as somewhat of a surprise to many Tiger fans who expected a closer game. Their reasoning centered around Miami's offensive capability, LSU's untested pass defense and the Tigers' overall inconsistency in their first two outings of 2002.
But with hindsight providing a clear perspective, LSU's margin of victory and how it was attained was not entirely unexpected. The Tigers entered the season with a running game that was expected to dominant; a 207-yard performance against a mediocre Mid-American defense shouldn't raise many eyebrows.
Furthermore, LSU's defense was projected as an improved unit and veterans highlight its special teams. So to see the Tigers moved out to a big lead and hold on to it against the RedHawks doesn't seem at all astonishing.
But when you see the 215 passing yards LSU posted in the Miami game, it gives cause for a second look and explains the elation around TigerTown. After averaging 120.5 yards in the first two games, a boost of nearly 100 yards (far more if you discount penalties on completed pass plays) is reason to believe the LSU passing game is finding its range within the overall offense.
Running will continue to be the foundation of the Tiger attack. But a passing game that continues to produce as it did against Miami will make the LSU offense a formidable one. As head coach Nick Saban explained last week, the two can co-exist and in fact be mutually beneficial.
"If you run the ball effectively, you're going to see more eight-man fronts," Saban said. "But if you see more eight-man fronts, you're going to see a lot less coverage variables because you can only put eight guys in the box so many ways, and there's only a few coverages you can play with it.
"There's two ways to look at it. If you run the ball effectively, they're going to make it hard for you to run it but easier for you to pass it. If you pass the ball effectively, they're going to try to make it harder for you to pass it - which should make it easier for you to run it. I think both things compliment (each other) regardless of how you look at it."
So what unfolded against Miami was the end result of the running and passing games hitting full stride for the Tigers. Against Virginia Tech, both aspects lacked consistency and were forced to operate in catch-up mode for most of the game. The following week against The Citadel, the big play via the pass continued to be elusive.
"I think things have been close to working out," quarterback Matt Mauck noted just before the Miami game. "There have been just a couple plays here and there, and we haven't made the big plays. I don't care if I throw it 50 yards or throw it two yards and run 60 – we just need some big plays."
Mauck gave himself the chance to make those big plays with smart decision making in the first two games, but he struggled at times with his accuracy. When he was on the mark, his receivers made some untimely drops. Although the potential existed for doubt to invade the Tigers' passing psyche, everyone involved remained convinced of the unit's potential.
"Matt is confident," claimed Michael Clayton following Mauck's 10-for-22 performance against The Citadel. "I think Matt is throwing the ball real well. Besides the receivers dropping balls and fumbling occasionally, he's done an excellent job. I don't think any of this is Matt's fault. Receivers have to make plays just like quarterbacks and running backs have to make plays. We slacked a little bit from last year and I think we're getting it back slowly."
Clayton, for the third game in a row, led the Tigers in receiving. His seven catches for 91 yards accounted for the lion's share of yards from Mauck's 15-of-23 passing performance.
"Tonight, I finally felt like I saw some results in my play," said Mauck after the Miami win. "We have a lot of pressure on us, but we knew we could do it. It was just a matter of time. There were a lot of guys open out there tonight and I did my best to get it to them. When you can run the ball well, it takes a lot of pressure off of you at quarterback."
Penalties and dropped balls marred an otherwise strong performance from Mauck, but Saban came away happy with the overall performance of his offense. With confidence, execution and effort firmly in place, the head coach feels he can work on the remaining elements that are still a bit rough around the edges.
"I think those kinds of things are all things that are correctable and are things that we need to work on," Saban said. "The thing that I am encouraged about is we have improved in every game, and we have improved offensively in every game."
ALSO IN THE SEPT. 17 ISSUE OF TIGER RAG