LSU - West Virginia: What To Watch For

Editor's Note: It's come to our attention that West Virginia's returned some of their allotment -- so EXTRA TICKETS AVAILABLE! Better contact the LSU Ticket Office while they got 'em!

 

Another week, another "must-win game" on LSU's season and the Les Miles era (funny how these games always seem to become less important if LSU wins them) as the Tigers welcome the 1st Annual International Trappers and Taxidermists Convention,Tailgateocalypse Now the No. 22 West Virginia Mountaineers to Tiger Stadium for an extra-late 8 p.m. kickoff .

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via 4.bp.blogspot.com

Now that's just wasteful. An open flame without some sort of meat cooking over it?

 

Anyways, this is the first time LSU and WVU have met, so we figured we might as well go to a source to learn a little more about the ‘Eers. Hence, here are five questions with Country Roads of the WVU blog The Smoking Musket:

Billy Gomila: So how has the program and the Mountaineer attack changed in year three of Bill Stewart compared to the spread-n-shred days of Rich Rodriguez?

Country Roads: I'll start with a disclaimer that I am among the 30-40 percent of the fan base that is thus far supportive of Coach Stew. I will concede that our offense is not nearly as explosive as it was during the Pat White/Steve Slaton years, but I do think it's more balanced. It seemed like once or twice a year, a team would come along and shut down our running game and end up beating us because we couldn't throw it very well. Now, while we aren't lighting up scoreboards with our running game, I think we are more equipped to win in different ways, whether it be getting Noel Devine in space, running between the tackles with Ryan Clarke, or letting Geno Smith distribute the ball to speedy wideouts Jock Sanders, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The thing I would note about the program in general is that it seems to have lost some of the edge that Rich Rodriguez brought. His teams always played hard and he did a lot to bring a sense of innovation and excitement to the program that hasn't been at the same level since he left.

BG: I don't think anybody doubts Noel Devine's explosive ability -- so how is West Virginia only averaging 3.9 yards per carry?

CR: There are three reasons, really: offensive line, offensive line and offensive line. This is a unit that has struggled mightily the last couple years while transitioning from a zone blocking scheme to a more traditional scheme. It seems like on most of Devine's carries, there is a linebacker or defensive end waiting for him as soon as he gets the ball - and he's not the kind of back that can just pick up a few yards on his own in the trenches. If you look at his history, though, he consistently has a number of carries that go for between -1 and 3 yards, and then he will break a long one. He just hasn't broken many long ones yet this year, but it seems like he's about due. I also think teams have been loading up the box to stop him, which may change over the course of the year as Geno Smith continues to improve and burn teams in the passing game. 

BG: Speaking of Geno Smith, he seems to have stepped up as a young QB. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

CR: Having only watched him start for 3 games, it's hard to say too much about Geno. I think his biggest asset is his poise. Against Marshall, on the road, down by 15, he led scoring drives of 96 and 98 yards to tie the game and force overtime. On those drives, he never panicked and was able to step up in the pocket, avoid pressure, and get the ball to one of our playmakers. That really impressed me.  As far as weaknesses go, those are harder to pick out right now. He's not as fast as guys like Jarrett Brown and Pat White, but he does have some escape-ability. He's made a few ill-advised throws on screen passes (one of which that was nearly returned for a TD) that leave you shaking your head. And he's had some injury problems in the past. Other than that, I'm hard pressed to be critical. Let's just say I'm optimistic with what I've seen to this point, and I'm hoping that continues to hold true on Saturday night.


BG: Who are the names to watch on defense?

CR: NT Chris Nield - his name doesn't show up much on the stat sheet, but he is a key cog up front in our 3-3-5. If he is able to occupy multiple blockers, it frees up our linebackers and safeties to make plays.

LB J.T. Thomas - speaking of linebackers, Thomas is our main playmaker. He has excellent sideline to sideline speed and always seems to be around the football. He also hits hard.

FS Robert Sands - he's had an issue with his shoulder this year that's limited his effectiveness, but he's still our best defender. At 6'5, 215, Sands is an imposing presence in the defensive backfield. He isn't afraid to lay the wood on unsuspecting receivers coming over the middle, but he also has excellent ball skills as evidenced by his 5 interceptions last year.

CB Brandon Hogan/Pat Miller - Hogan was suspended against Maryland for a DUI arrest the previous weekend. Pat Miller started in his place and was burned for TDs of 60 and 80 yards. If Hogan's suspension is lifted, it will be a big boost to the defense as it will allow us to play more man coverage and bring pressure. On the other hand, if Miller gets the nod again, he may be susceptible to the big play. 

BG: So just how scared are you of your trip to Baton Rouge after reading some of the reports on the interwebz?

CR: I don't think it's the WVU fans that should be scared. I just hope y'all are able to find some furniture on sale next week after we burn it all on Saturday night haha. In all seriousness, I'm really looking forward to coming down. Every fan base has their idiots (ours probably more than most) and I enjoy some good-natured heckling when I visit an opposing stadium, but from talking to LSU fans this week, I think it will be a great time win or lose. The SEC knows college football, including how to throw a good tailgate. Hopefully y'all can make the return trip to Morgantown next year - it would be worth your time.

What to watch for on Saturday

Running up that hill


 

Everybody wants to see LSU open the offense. Especially on a team that is really struggling to defend the pass the way WVU is. But here's the thing - that's not the offense LSU has. Why? Because Jordan Jefferson is a game-manager quarterback (remember when we talked about that?). You know what you do when you have a game-manager quarterback? You run the ball, ask him to pick the occasional third down (by the way LSU is currently picking up 47.5 percent of third downs and Jefferson individually is converting 43 percent) and take managed risks.

Nobody likes seeing guys like Rueben Randle or Terrance Toliver catch three passes for 30 yards a game, but here's the thing - it'll work. Running the ball and playing good defense (and great special teams) isn't necessarily the most entertaining style, and it's not always the most explosive. But that doesn't mean it won't work.

And it's the best way for this offense to improve. I'll go back to my baseball metaphor - keep making contact and the hits will come. If this offense continues to focus on running the ball and working off of that, it will create more big play opportunities (especially at the rate Russell Shepard has been involved) down the road as defenses are forced to play the interior run first. Giving Jefferson the run to base off of allows for a play-action and quicker passing game that plays towards his strength (rolling out and throwing from the run) and help with his weakness (throwing from the pocket) by keeping the pass-rush at bay.

Plus, it'll help keep that greasy, hairy, faster-than-fuck defense on the sideline - where it can stay fresh and sexy and ready to be the defense you want to be and your girl wants to be with. Remember how a big concern was the defense wearing down against bigger offensive lines? Know how you help that? You keep those bigger offensive lines on the sidelines.

That's why this type of offense, boring or not, is the type of offense the Tigers need. This isn't to say the offense doesn't need to continue to improve, far from it. But last week's effort was a step in the right direction. Here's hoping it was a first step.

Watch for another heavy dose of Stevan Ridley inside, and Shepard outside. Don't be surprised if Michael Ford gets the carries everybody wants to see - Richard Murphy and Spencer Ware aren't healthy and Alfred Blue struggled with fumbles last week.

The other reason this style of offense will work is WVU's 3-3-5 stack. It's a defense designed to defend the spread, with bandit safeties and linebackers in multiple alignments and blitzing from multiple angles. It's a defense designed to confuse, but not a defense built to stop a between-the-tackles running game. The Mountaineers want to show Jordan Jefferson multiple looks pre-snap and make him second-guess the play called. Don't fall for it, and plow forward. WVU has some impressive run defense numbers, but their defense has benefitted from big leads (and in the only game it didn't, Marshall's Martin Ward rushed for 101 yards). The ‘Eers are still allowing just over four yards per carry on first down, and have allowed seven runs of 10 yards or more. A committed team with the horses to do it can run the ball on this team.

Devine Intervention
(Ugh what a bad pun. I am sorry. I deserve to be punished. What's that ghost of Ernest Hemingway? Whiskey? No...please...don't make me...okay fine...)

Noel Devine's legend on the field (and real-life story off of it) became well-known in high school, and he really has become a great example of a kid who has used college football as a way of bettering himself and his life.


But honestly, not excited about the prospect of LSU trying to tackle him.


That isn't to say I'm worried about the Tiger defense - far from it (see "greasy, hairy and faster-than-fuck). But Devine's a special case. As much as gamebreakers get talked about in college football, there really are very few guys that are a threat to take it to the endzone on any given play. Darren McFadden is the last running back I can really think of - and when LSU played him, a five-yard run felt like a small victory. It gives you a small margin for error. One missed tackle, one poorly defended run and *poof* gone.

As such, the game on defense is about fundamentals. Gap discipline, containment and tackling. Pursuit from this defense has been excellent through three games, but tackling could be better for John Chavis' group. That can't be the case Saturday night.

And while pursuit and flying to the ball is an outstanding quality for any defense, it's also one you can expect West Virginia to try and exploit. Jock Sanders is the classic diminutive slotback/receiver, similar to Louisiana native Darius Reynaud on the White/Slaton Mountaineer squads. They'll put him in motion, hand it to him on sweeps and reverses and use him as a fake to try and create more room for Devine. And with an aggressive front seven, plays like that can be extremely effective if you over-pursue.

West Virginia has thrown the ball 19 times in the first quarter, compared to 34 runs, which means they will likely look to establish their own running game to open things up for their sophomore quarterback. As Country Roads indicated, Smith has shown a lot of poise (70-percent passer on third downs, long drives at Marshall) - but he's never played in a stadium like Tiger Stadium, and he's never seen a defensive back like Patrick Peterson.

Contain their running game, keep him in longer yardage, and let the Cookie Monster and his friends have some fun.

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