This week's preview will be a little abbreviated. It feels like we've said most everything there is to say about this game. It makes people nervous. State is kind of like LSU's version of the Washington Generals - after all the Tigers have won 22 out of the last 25 and 10 in a row. And right now people aren't really sure if this team is any better than last year. Meanwhile, Dan Mullen brings the Bulldogs to Baton Rouge with a general sense of optimism that, despite losing the conference opener to Auburn last week, things are on the upswing for the program. This game is kind of becoming the chic upset pick of the week.
To get a little first-hand info, here's five questions with Jeremy Flint of the Mississippi State blog For Whom the Cowbell Tolls:
1. It's year two of the Dan Mullen era, and in general there seems to be a sense of excitement, but is there any actual improvement on this team from last year?
Actual improvement is hard to measure at this point in the season. I think off-the-field improvements are definitely there in the form of Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson as Co-defensive coordinators. I think Mullen has also installed an attitude of confidence with the team that is definitely there even more so this season. Offensively, Chris Relf seems more comfortable at the QB position, and we are getting much better play out of our offensive line. Defensively, we have adjusted well after having to replace Jamar Chaney, who was the leader on defense.
Our defense is running well under the co-direction of Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson this year. Diaz loves to blitz, and will do it from just about any position on the field. I think that helped to keep Cam Newton and the Auburn offense a little off balance and apply some pressure that they didn't get against Arkansas State. The line played extremely well, and the line backers were able to keep the running game in check. We were also rotating players a good bit, especially on the line, so we had fresh players in there every few plays or series.
I think we are going to see a fairly defensive game, not unlike the Auburn/Mississippi State game. Both offenses have their bright spots, but also struggle at times, while the defenses are both pretty well matched. I doubt each team gets above 20-25 points and could see this game coming down to a field goal. I think if Mullen can come in with a zone read/option offense, and try to limit the downfield passing, we will have some success against the Tiger D. If we come in and try to sling it all over the field like we did against Auburn, we will do nothing but go 3 and out and wear down our defense with too much play.
I think the first game against Memphis, Mullen used the inexperience of the opponent to let both quarterbacks get plenty of reps in. During the Auburn game, it was clear that a two QB system would not work for us right now. Tyler is not a dual talent like Relf. He does not have the legs to run out of the pocket for 4-6 yards if pass protection breaks down. Also, we don't have the receiving corps to really support an all-out passing game yet. Also, without solid running back like Anthony Dixon, it is clear that Tyler is in there to do one thing and one thing only, and the defense can sniff that out pretty quick. I think you will see Relf begin to take more and more snaps and Tyler will be used less and less.
I think last year's game showed that we had the ability to beat LSU, and most fans want that second chance. A lot has changed this time around, though. We don't have Anthony Dixon to lean on offensively. Also, Tiger Stadium is not the friendliest place to play, especially on a Saturday night. MSU hasn't won in Death Valley since 1991, and only 18 times in 64 games over all. Not to mention that LSU leads the 103 game series with MSU 67-33-3 (dating back to 1896), a win over LSU in Tiger Stadium would be a big boost to Bulldog fans this year.
What to watch for on Saturday
If you're a fan of aesthetically pleasing offense, this won't be the game for you. Dan Mullen has kind of adapted the offense he cultivated with Urban Meyer into a "three-yards-and-a-dip-of-skoal" attack in Starkville. He inherited a team built to pound big backs out of the I-formation and adjusted to that. The Bulldogs are going to come right at you with the running game, heavy on the option and the zone running. Anthony Dixon is gone, but they'll still plod along with Vick Ballard and Robert Elliot.
Chris Relf was brought in last year to provide an option threat to the attack, and that's about literally all he provides. He's a power running threat, but not much of a passer. Auburn managed to hold him to just 110 yards and no touchdowns, just a week after they allowed Arkansas State's Ryan Aplin to throw for 278. On the year Relf is just 4-10 for 27 yards on third down, and hasn't been able to convert any over seven yards. Receivers Chad Bumphis and Leon Berry are good athletes who can create plays in space, but not consistent threats down the field. And with the way LSU is playing on defense right now, the last thing an offense wants to be is one-dimensional.
Of course, LSU can't exactly boast a superior offense themselves, especially after one of the rougher passing days in Jordan Jefferson's career last week. And if that's not enough, State can actually boast one of the bigger and stronger front-sevens in the conference. They average 281 pounds per man on the defensive line, and three of the four starters are former 4-star recruits (Pernell McPhee, Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox). The linebackers are big gap-fillers as well, led by 245-pound K.J. Wright and 250-pound Chris White. And while the secondary isn't quite so great, they'll blitz from all angles, particularly safety Charles Mitchell.
So, as we've discussed steadily for most of the week, the run game needs to be a focus, even if MSU makes an effort to stack the line. It will slow the defense down and allow for the passing game to manage risk while developing a sense of rhythm. It'll also be the best way to soften up the coverage for a deep shot or two, rather than trying to force it against a deep zone. And with Russell Shepard involved, a run-first attack still has a chance at breaking big plays.
But overall, this game will not be pretty.
Do NOT Expect
LSU has had just one out of 11 punts returned on the season, and State just three out of 11. Both teams have been excellent at flipping field position (a combined 8 downed inside the 20). So don't be surprised if General Zod spends a lot more time fair catching than he does making people kneel before him.
Jordan Jefferson is going to start this game, and while his detractors like to pretend last week was this normal outing for him, it really wasn't. The problem is, right now, the way Gary Crowton seems to insist on using him (I've stopped dreaming that we won't see the option), Jefferson's best game won't be all that much better. Of course, in a run-first, heavily managed attack, Jefferson would likely be much more effective. We saw that in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt. Hopefully there's some carryover.
Regardless of the passing stats, if the offense moves the ball Jefferson will stay in. But if the first quarter features another series of three-and-outs though, Jarrett Lee may get his shot. As Miles has said all week "it's a game feel."
As Jeremy's indicated above, expect MSU to let Relf carry the load in their rotation as well. Between LSU's pass rush and secondary, rotating in Tyler Russell may wind up hurting more than helping.