I watched the game again in the afternoon when there was no other SEC game on. Like most people, when I watch the game live, I follow the ball. When I watch the game on replay, I focus on other things. In particular, when LSU had the ball, I focused on right tackle Joseph Barksdale, who was making his first start.
Barksdale had an OK game overall, but I was looking for details. When LSU passed, Barksdale always took out his man. The right defensive end never got a hand on LSU's quarterbacks. He was excellent in pass blocking, and a big upgrade over last year's right tackle Carnell Stewart, who was at times awful in pass protection.
On running plays, however, Barksdale sometimes struggled. In particular, he struggled when the play called for him to block on the second level. He blocked someone on top of him pretty easily, and did a fine job of it, but he had a hard time getting away from the line of scrimmage and catching someone to hit him. Sometimes, he looked a little lost out there when he was called upon to do that. In particular, the option run to Keiland Williams on the goal line in the first half that ended up losing yards was blown up in part because Barksdale didn't get a good block.*
In a zone blocking scheme, the hardest part of a lineman's game is trying to figure out where to go and who to block when there isn't someone directly over him. The lineman has to either help on one of his flanks or go to the next level and find someone to hit, but he better not block in the back. There are lots of reads involved, and the process seems to take some practice. This was Barksdale's first time getting a lot of plays against live competition other than in practice. Hopefully he will improve that facet of his game as the season presses on.
Either way, I do not believe Barksdale will be an improvement over Stewart in run blocking. Stewart was a spectacular run blocker, and he rarely got credit for it. Many of those great Hester power runs were run to the right side of the field behind Carnell Stewart. Not to the left side behind Herman Johnson and Ciron Black. Of course, Stewart had plenty of deficiencies, which have been well-chronicled, but we will lose something not having his run blocking out there.
Barksdale is already a very big upgrade over Stewart in the passing game.
When LSU did not have the ball, I tried to focus on the coverage and the secondary, which is understandably difficult because you can rarely see all the DBs on the screen. Even worse, I usually could not identify the players who were in position, so I often couldn't tell who was being covered by a corner and who was being covered by a safety.
To the extent I could tell who was covering whom, I report the following observations:
- When 3 or more receivers were in the game (which was most plays), they really changed up who was covering the slot and who was covering the outside. Sometimes the corner would cover the outside (which is the traditional way to align your secondary when there are multiple receivers on one side), and sometimes the corner would cover the inside and a safety would go to the outside receiver. This is an innovation in defensive strategy designed to cross up spread offenses that are trying to isolate the team's best wide receiver on the inside against an overmatched safety. Slide the safety outside sometimes and the mismatch is not nearly as predictable.
- Jai Eugene played pretty well as the starting right corner. His struggles last year in a backup role were often discussed, but his supposed offseason dedication to improving his play seems to have reaped some early dividends. He looked comfortable and looked pretty good, at least at this level of competition.
- The corners changed up their coverage frequently. Sometimes they played soft, and sometimes they pressed. Jai Eugene pressed more frequently than Hawkins did, to my observation.
- I saw the following DBs get into the game: Jai Eugene, Chris Hawkins, Curtis Taylor, Harry Coleman, Chad Jones, Danny McCray, Patrick Peterson, Ron Brooks, Phelon Jones. I did not see Brandon Taylor, Stefon Francois, or Karnell Hatcher, but I can't swear they weren't out there. Like I said, it was very hard to get jersey numbers off the TV on the wide angles that showed the DBs.
- Peterson looked comfortable as a true freshman playing his first game, but perhaps I hyped him up a little too much. Sure, he looked fine, but I think I forgot he's human rather than an alien.
*There were other reasons that play didn't work, and most of them involved Appalachian State simply not being fooled and playing it very well. One Mountaineer came through the line and took out Quinn Johnson, the lead blocker. Another Mountaineer threatened Hatch and forced an early pitch, and yet more Mountaineers swarmed to the ball. Keiland is getting some criticism for his play in this game, and rightly so, but Tony Dorsett wouldn't have been able to get that play into the end zone.