LSU – Florida: What to Watch For

A song written by a man who sold his soul to the devil so he could play the blues, for a game involving Les Miles. What's that? Am I trying to suggest something? Not in the slightest.

 

This is getting to be a habit.

For the fourth year in a row, LSU and Florida will meet as consensus top-15 teams. And for the fourth year in a row, both teams arrive trying to figure out just what direction they want to go in next. The last two years the Gators made all the right choices. In 2008, a 51-21 blowout set the tone for a dominant homestretch as Tim Tebow fulfilled a promise to get Florida a national title. In 2009 Urban Meyer's squad rallied around their recently concussed quarterback and gritted their way out of Tiger Stadium. In each of those years, the direction turned decidedly south for the Tigers. The 2008 ass-kicking was the first of two games in which opponents scored 50 on LSU as we all learned a new curse word in "Maleveto." The 2009 game represented an offensive nadir for the Miles-Crowton era, with more sacks for the Gators (5) than points for the Tigers (3).

Florida enters this game coming off an ugly, and very weird, loss against Alabama. The Gators won the yardage battle and made six red zone appearances, yet came away with just 6 points as the home team just kind of squatted down and waited for the visitors to give up.

LSU...well...it might as well have been an ugly lost last week, and fans don't seem to care that much that the Tigers actually won. With the atmosphere in Baton Rouge this week, it's might not be a bad time for a road trip.

The question is, which team takes the right turn this season?

What to watch for on Saturday

The Muck and the Mire

You have two struggling offenses playing in a stadium called the Swamp, so back off Pun Police.

For Florida, it seems like a struggle of identity. All summer we all heard that John Brantley would be one of the two or three best quarterbacks in the league. And sure enough, he's a talented passer. Yet he looks miscast in the Urban Meyer spread attack. He's clearly not comfortable with the veer and option elements of the attack and it shows. Florida's offense ranks just 84th (just seven spots ahead of LSU) in total yards, 65th in rushing and 85th in red-zone conversions.

And while Trey Burton has been a valuable and versatile weapon at times, he's only as good as their ability to get him the football. Jeff Demps and Mike Gillislee are talented backs (personally I think Demps would be one of the top backs in the league on other teams), but have battled injuries and struggled to gain traction. A big (320 pounds per man) and experienced offensive line has struggled with fundamentals - Mike Pouncey's snap issues are well documented. The receivers are inconsistent, but still very talented. Overall, Florida moved the ball pretty well versus Alabama when it was between the 20s, only to bog down in the red zone by trying to force themselves back into option mode. It's a unique level of stubbornness that makes me wonder if Steve Addazio is just some sort of Italian translation of "Gary Crowton."

If all this wasn't enough, keep in mind that John Chavis is one defensive coordinator who's managed to mostly fluster even the better Meyer attacks. In five years of facing off between Tennessee and LSU, Chavis' defenses have held the Gators to an average of 87 yards and seven points under their season averages - rough statistics that don't account for all the defensive and special teams touchdowns UT gave up to the Gators in 2007 and 2008.

LSU's best chance in this game is for the defense to slow down Florida early on, and try to create a turnover or two. The fans in the Swamp are frustrated enough with Addazio's playcalling that the crowd could turn toxic quickly. But between the two offenses and defenses, you're probably better off betting bet the under. Of course, given the way this season is going, the last thing any sane person would do is bet on a game involving the Tigers.

Jordan Jefferson

No one seems to be sure exactly which quarterback will be getting the start this week, but my guess is it'll be the much-maligned junior. But make no mistake; both quarterbacks will see snaps until one takes full control of the offense.

Jarrett Lee definitely earned a chance to run this passing attack last week, completely 16 of 23 passes including screen and deep passes that seem downright revolutionary compared to Jefferson. But (as myself and Paul Crewe pointed out) he still showed flashes that those old bad habits - namely rushing throws off his back foot under pressure. And as little as that mattered against Tennessee, throws like that can't happen against a Gator secondary that leads the nation in interceptions. Janoris Jenkins would surely serve as a captain in General Zod's cornerback cavalry. And Ahmad Black will likely be eyeing the flats in blitz situations.

As Year2 of TSK pointed out, Alabama had success against a talented but young Gator D by keeping it simple. They used quick passes and screens when Florida lined up in their 52 or "big" front (with LB/DE Duke Lemmens lining up as an extra lineman), and plain old downfield running when the Gators used a base front. I would like to believe LSU will use a similar tactic, but I've ceased having a silly thing like "expectations" of Gary Crowton's play calling. That said, Florida's linebackers are athletic, but young, and it would be wise to attack them in the short passing game with screens and quick throws the tight end.

If Jefferson does get the start, I expect it to be a temporary situation. A few plays, maybe a series at the most. Partly to establish the run, and partly to take a little heat off of Lee when he gets frazzled. If Lee can hit the same throws he did as last week, he'll probably get to run a few more series while Jefferson moves to a situational role and as the "cooler" I've previously mentioned. Hopefully, any rotation will lean on the hot hand rather than the tit (how is this the first time I've ever used that word in a column?) for tat pattern we saw last week.

And to the Humanoids who believe Jefferson is totally useless, he did seem to bring some value to Stevan Ridley. The Tigers' workhorse back averaged 8.6 yards per carry last week with Jefferson handing him the ball, compared to 3.1 under Lee. If LSU fans could possibly agree on one thing right now, it's that something that helps create more room for Ridley is a good thing for this offense.

The bottom line is neither one of these two is ready to hold down the job on their own. Until one or the other (likely Lee) steps up, they need to be managed and kept in good situations with power running and managed passing (we're becoming a broken record on that last part).

The Phantom Zone

Phantom_zone_medium

via www.straferight.com

 

For all the credit Meyer gets for his innovative offense, he really pulls out the stops on special teams. The Gators are never afraid to try unorthodox formations on punts or kickoffs, and use their best athletes wherever they can - even getting speedsters like Demps, Chris Rainey, Brandon James and Percy Harvin in on kick block teams.

Since 2005, Florida's allowed just 317 yards in punt returns, and in Meyer's five years they've never given up a touchdown. In fact, Julio Jones' 41-yard return last week represented double the yardage the Gators allowed in all of 2009. Patrick Peterson getting any sort of kick to return would be more shocking than an actual pattern to LSU's play calling.

On the positive side, the Gators will still be without kicker Caleb Sturgis. Punter Chaz Henry will be pulling double duty. That might get interesting if the game comes down to field goals.

Cookie Monster


One of the more interesting battles of the game will be Drake Nevis versus Mike Pouncey. The Cookie Monster has made life hell for every center he's faced this year. And Pouncey's been giving himself enough problems. After botching over a dozen shotgun snaps in week one, the 2009 All-American guard is still struggling. Multiple snaps went askew last week against Bama, at times disrupting the timing of some of Florida's run attempts.

And what has to be so frustrating about this for Gator fans (trust us folks, we know from misused talent), is that Pouncey is a damn good blocker. He's got the strength to drive people off of the line and the athleticism to hit a moving target when he pulls. He's absolutely going to follow twin brother Maurkice into the NFL. Moving him to center was an understandable experiment. It might be the most important line position in Meyer's offense, which relies on pulling the center maybe more than any other in the SEC. But Pouncey's snap issues directly contributed to at least two of the Gators' stalls in the red zone last week. Can he manage both those and one of the most explosive defensive tackles in college football? That should be fun to watch.

Do NOT Expect

Stuffed Gators

Florida has their share of issues, but don't ever forget the talent that is there. Demps is a full-size version of Trindon Holliday, a 100-meter national champion in a 5-9, 195-pound body. Rainey (if he's healthy/on the team) and Gillislee are capable of breaking games open on their own. And the Gators have another multi-purpose guy sitting on their bench in Andre Debose that may see a lot of time this week.

After watching Tennessee attack LSU's linebackers, nickel/dime defensive backs and Karnell Hatcher in coverage last week with tight ends and slot receivers, I expect more of the same. Look for Brantley to try and find Burton on drag routes over the middle, with of wheel routes out of the backfield to isolate Demps/Gillislee/Rainey/Debose on linebackers. The Tiger defense will absolutely have to tackle better than it did last week. Whereas Tauren Poole kind of wore down the defense and made them pay over time, Florida's playmakers will do it all at once if you miss that first chance.

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