For LSU’s offensive line, Friday nights are usually set aside for a trip to the movie theater.
The one night prior to LSU’s matchup with South Carolina consisted of a different sort of cinematic adventure.
“We didn’t go see a movie,” said senior lineman Josh Dworaczyk. “We stayed in, and watched some film.”
Can you blame them?
Coming into town were two of the nation’s top defensive ends in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, leading the way for the SEC’s most sack-happy defense.
Add in the Tigers’ offensive line struggles throughout the season - and the fact that only two starters from LSU’s opener against North Texas would make starts on the line against Carolina - and it’s easy to see why Dworaczyk and co. bypassed the big screen for the small one.
It worked. Against South Carolina’s vaunted front four, the LSU line was dominant, allowing only a single sack - to a Gamecock safety, mind you - and paving the way for 258 rushing yards. Yet on a night where the offensive line clearly dominated the game, the root of that domination was less clear.
Where did that performance come from?
So much for LSU’s makeshift line being the team’s weakness. With left tackle Chris Faulk done for the season with a knee injury, guard Josh Williford out Saturday with a head injury, and right tackle Alex Hurst at home tending to personal matters, the LSU offensive line that gave up five sacks and struggled to 42 rushing yards against Florida the week prior was supposed to break beneath the force of the Gamecock defense.
And it started with what Dworaczyk called one of the best weeks of practice he’s seen in his six seasons at LSU.
“I’m really emotional right now,” he said after the game, fighting tears, “but it’s because of how hard everybody worked this entire week.”
And when he says everybody, he means it. From backup center Elliot Porter - who could have been called into action with starter P.J. Lonergan battling his own injury issues - to freshman guard Trai Turner, making his first career start, the entire lineup spent the week “chopping wood,” as Les Miles has been known to call good, hard work.
But starters busting it is one thing; scout team guys, another. Yet that’s exactly what Dworaczyk said happened during the week.
“I was blocking against (sophomore defensive end Justin) Maclin, and to be honest with you, he was shakier and shiftier than the guy I saw tonight,” Dworaczyk said, less dig at Clowney than a compliment to Maclin. “He gave me a great look every single day and pushed me. I was able to use some things he saw on film and he replicated throughout the week.”
All the while, the LSU line had to continue working, not only aware of the opposition coming in on Saturday night, but also the opposition already around them. The unit, as a whole, received a great deal of blame and criticism for the Florida loss. It might have been deserved, but it certainly wasn’t beneficial.
“You can’t avoid it,” Dworaczyk said of the criticism. “I don’t read a lot of the press, and I definitely don’t read the message boards, but it gets back to you.”
Then came the big blow: losing Hurst. The senior left the team for the week to deal with undisclosed personal matters related to a family illness, leaving a hole - physically and emotionally.
“It was emotional, seeing a guy go through some things that you want to be there for him and play for him,” Dworaczyk said. “It was one of those situations where he had some issues family-wise, some personal things. We weren’t sure if he was coming back or not.”
But as struggle often does, all the issues - from the criticism and the injuries to the loss of a brother - made the remaining unit that much stronger.
“It wasn’t until we knew [Hurst] was going to be away for the week that we really came closer as a group,” Dworaczyk said. “We’re still there for him, but for the guys who are still here, you have to come together and get closer. That chemistry that’s continuing to grow is something we have to continue to work on. We were able to pull everybody together.”
“We know what kind of group we have in our offensive line room, and we know what kind of team we have,” he said. “When the lows come, you have to be able to deal with those.”
The tale of the tape
And that started with film, where Dworaczyk absorbed everything he could about Clowney, the likely top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.
“It starts with knowing your opponent, and that comes from watching a lot of film,” he said. “His lateral movement is what makes him the athlete and great player that he is.”
Of course, film study helped Dworaczyk learn about Clowney, but it also helped him study himself.
“After you know your opponent, it comes down to knowing yourself,” he said. “I really started to focus on what my strengths were, the things that I do well.”
And that’s when Dworaczyk realized: Clowney might have better feet than he did, but Dworaczyk, a converted guard, could have better hands.
“It’s really just getting my hands on the guy as fast as I can,” he said. “At guard, I’m so quick at setting and getting my hands on the guy, so at tackle, you have to kick (block, a technique that takes longer to develop), so when you finally get your hands on him, don’t just push and let go. That’s something that I did, and it worked well.”
An empty threat
Boy, did it. From the get go, Clowney was visibly frustrated with his inability to get to LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Of course, that frustration could stem from a pregame incident, in which Clowney and another Gamecock defender promised during warmups to knock Mettenberger out of the game.
“You’re not going to finish the game,” they told Mettenberger.
Unfortunately for the threateners, Mettenberger’s teammates overheard.
“I think from that point on everybody had the understanding that [Mettenberger] wasn’t going to get touched,” Dworaczyk said.
One safety blitz excepted, he didn’t, thanks to a dominant offensive line, who protected against the pass and dominated in the run.
“When we do that, we’re a deadly offense,” Dworaczyk said.
Run, Forrest, Run!
And, for the record, not only was Dworaczyk excellent, but so were Turner and freshman tackle Vadal Alexander, the young guns who held down LSU’s right side of the line.
“That’s Bull and Dozer,” Dworaczyk said. “Trai is Bull, and Vadal is Dozer. Those guys are road raiders. Those last few drives, we’re just running power right behind those two guys.”
Power, a play in which LSU pulls a guard to lead block for the running back, is a Greg Studrawa staple. It normally goes for four or five yards, but as the game wore on, LSU noticed the Carolina defense tiring.
“We fed off of that, when we saw hands on the hips and that they were tired,” Dworaczyk said. “We decided to push the pedal.”
So when LSU took the field with a 16-14 lead late in the fourth quarter, it was the “old man at left tackle,” as Mettenberger calls Dworaczyk, who told them it was time to end the game.
“In the fourth quarter, you don’t know when you might get the ball back,” he told the players in the huddle, “so when you get the chance, you’ve got to make the most out of it.”
Stud dialed up Power. The line did its job. The hole opened up. Freshman running back Jeremy Hill did the rest, racing 50 yards for the deciding touchdown.
As fast as Hill got down the field, however, Dworaczyk was behind him step for step.
“I’m running down the field cramping up, but I couldn’t stop,” he said. “I had to get to the end zone and celebrate. I think my knee brace was falling off. It was like a Forrest Gump moment. For me, it was something I’ll always remember.”
So, too, will Tiger fans, as the win put LSU back on track for its SEC and national championship hopes. And it couldn’t have happened, wouldn’t have happened, without the revitalized line.
As for how the turnaround happened, you could look to the extra film session on Friday night. You could look to a week of hard practice. You could look to motivation from an embarrassing loss.
Or, like Dworaczyk and his teammates did all week, you could look deeper.
“It was heart,” Dworaczyk said. “That’s what won it for us.”