How LSU can fix itself

AUBURN, Ala. -- After LSU struggled mightily to subdue Auburn on Saturday, holding on for dear life in its 12-10 win, the questions about what's wrong with the Tigers arose.

What's wrong with the passing game? Is anybody going to make plays like Tyrann Mathieu made last season? Are they too young?

They are reasonable questions. Last year's LSU team was flawed, sure, as Alabama exposed in the BCS championship game. But aside from Alabama, no opponent challenged LSU last season the way Auburn did Saturday. Mathieu would return a kick or a turnover back for a touchdown to change a game. Brad Wing would pin an opponent deep, flipping the field. Something would happen every game, even if the offense struggled, to shift momentum.

These things aren't happening as regularly, as a season ago.

Certainly, poll voters are noticing, dropping the Tigers a spot in both polls, from No. 2 to No. 3, behind Alabama and Oregon, which jumped LSU with a win over Arizona State. No. 4 Florida State crept closer to the Tigers in the voting.

Most of LSU's problems are self-correctable though. Here are five ways LSU can regain its 2011 mojo:

1. Make special teams special again: A season ago, LSU was darn near impeccable on special teams.

Perhaps the best, most outrageously impressive statistic of the season was Wing's 27 punts inside the 20 versus just five touchbacks. He got so many punts so close to the goal line without getting them over, pinning offenses in the shadow of their own goalpost. This year? He has three touchbacks in three games.

It's not just Wing. Drew Alleman has as many missed field goals in four games this season (two) as a season ago.

Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect a repeat of what Wing and Alleman did last year. While they are still outstanding, that was lightning-in-a-bottle stuff, indeed.

What is reasonable to expect is for the penalties on return and coverage teams to cease. A year ago, LSU was near flawless in the return game and the coverage game. In this year's opener, an Odell Beckham Jr. punt return for a touchdown was called back by penalty, as was another long return. In the Auburn game, LSU had four personal fouls on special teams plays.

It's inexcusable for LSU to make so many bad penalties on special teams. It's also fixable.

2. Protect the ball: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has four turnovers this year. What makes it tougher for the Tigers is three killed drives in the red zone and a fourth set up Auburn in the red zone, a chance converted to a touchdown.

A season ago, LSU turned the ball over 10 times, less than once a game, a result of LSU's obsessive emphasis on ball security. This year the Tigers already have five and they are coming at the most inopportune times, close to either goal line.

Clean those up and LSU has four blowout wins this season.

3. Throw it better: Simply put, the passing game needs to get better.

Mettenberger's statistics -- 194.5 yards per game, 4 touchdowns, 2 interceptions -- don't inspire. It's not just him. LSU has struggled to protect him -- he's taken seven sacks -- and Tigers receivers have had a recurring issue with dropping the ball.

4. Deliver the knockout blow: In three of four games, LSU had a chance to knock the opponent out early, but let it off the hook.

Against North Texas, The Tigers jumped to a 24-0 lead and seemed on its way to naming whatever score it wanted before the Tigers blew a coverage and gave up an 80-yard touchdown pass that allowed UNT to creep back in the game before the Tigers ultimately pulled away, 41-14.

Against Idaho, LSU was up 14-0 and driving for another score when Mettenberger was picked off in the red zone -- and a long return set up an Idaho touchdown and the lowly Vandals crept within a touchdown in the second quarter before the Tigers pulled away for a 63-14 win.

Against Auburn, LSU was up 9-0 and completely dominating when Mettenberger fumbled to set up an Auburn touchdown that changed the flow of the game.

Last season's team had a remarkable habit of putting teams away, given a chance. This team has lacked that killer instinct.

5. Badger the opponent: Perhaps the most difficult way LSU can improve is to find another Honey Badger.

Without Mathieu, LSU lacks the player who makes unexpected, game-changing plays, whether they be interception returns, fumble returns or punt returns for scores. Mathieu's knack for doing that, to be fair to current Tigers, is a rather unique trait.

What's more reasonable is LSU simply needs to replace his game-changing ability by being be more explosive on offense, particularly the passing game (see No. 3).