LSU - Florida: What to Watch For

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"We're playing Florida...are you kidding me?"
- Les Miles on the Scott Van Pelt radio show, Wednesday

Well, as divided as the fan base seems to have been the last few days, at least the coaching staff and the players seem to be united in their focus on the No. 17 Gators (4-1, 2-1 in SEC play). And it's a good thing, because the last time a really highly ranked LSU team met Florida in Tiger Stadium for a 2:30 CBS kickoff, it didn't go that well. The Ron Zook-led Gators held LSU to 56 yards rushing, forced eight punts, three turnovers and shut out the Tiger offense in a 19-7 upset, the only loss on the 2003 national champions' record.

There are a few other mildly frightening coincidences between 2011 and 2003 besides just the timing. Florida once again comes to Baton Rouge with a freshman quarterback, an athletic defense (the 2003 Gators featured players like Bobby McCray, Channing Crowder, Earl Everett and Keiwan Ratliff) and faces LSU coming off a fairly dominant win that wasn't quite as offensively pleasing as the score indicated (the 2003 Tigers had just beaten a bad Mississippi State team 41-9, but had just 354 yards of offense with three touchdowns either scored by the defense or set up by turnovers deep in State territory). Oh and the 2011 Gators are coached by the 2003 Tigers' defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp.

So are the Tigers possibly looking at a trap game? Maybe, but so far this team seems to be taking the season one game at a time.

What to Watch For on Saturday

Defense, defense, defense!

Two of the most athletic defenses in college football will take the field on Saturday. Florida may not have the name recognition of LSU or Alabama's units, and the stats may be slightly padded by a light schedule, but the Gators are No. 7 nationally in total defense, 13th against the pass and 19th against the run, compared to a No. 9 total ranking for LSU, with rankings of three and 38 against the run and pass.

Urban Meyer didn't just leave Coach BOOM a stocked covered in his defensive front-seven, he left him a total of 14 former four or five-star recruits along the defensive line and linebacker positions, including studs like Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, both of whom LSU's coaches pursued heavily in 2009. Along the defensive line, Jaye Howard, Dominic Easley, Kedric Johnson and Ronald Powell.

Muschamp favors an aggressive 4-3 subtlety influenced by previous bosses Nick Saban and Tommy Tubberville. Coverages will be well-disguised and mixed up, and the front will attack from odd angles, with a lot of zone-blitzing mixed in. Powell (the No. 1 player in a ridiculous 2010 Gator recruiting class) will occasionally line up in a two-point stance as an "Elephant" defensive end/linebacker, a position that led to big results for players like Brian Orakpo, Sergio Kindle and Quentin Groves in Muschamp's previous stints at Texas and Auburn.

This is the best defense LSU will see until November, and there's enough talent here alone to give the Gators a fighting chance. Of course, there's still the matter of Driskell facing LSU's unit, first and second in the SEC in tackles for loss and sacks.

Charlie Weis

Weis is a lot of things (he said, passing on the obvious joke). He might not be the greatest head coach (not that it stopped the national media from trying to give him that crown back in 2006), but he's a damn smart offensive mind. He might not be able to assemble the pieces himself, but if you give him somebody else's set, he'll point them in the right direction.

His resume is fairly well known at this point, and Weis cut his teeth with Bill Belichick on Bill Parcells' coaching staffs on the New York Giants, New England Patriots and New York Jets. His principle approach to offense comes from the Ehrhardt-Perkins system, named for 1970s Patriots assistants Ron Ehrhardt and Ray Perkins (SEC fans may remember Perkins as an ex-Alabama player who later succeeded Bear Bryant as the Crimson Tide's head coach), and ostensibly what most of us have come to know as the traditional "pro-style" offense. Pass to score, run to win -- throw early to get a lead and run to keep it.

The offense revolves mostly around a limited number of passes and runs executed out of multiple formations and personnel groupings (heh, simplicity -- whoda thunk?), although Weis has incorporated some passing concepts out of the West Coast and Run-and-Shoot offenses. **Ed. Note: I just found this great story on the history of Weis' attack. HT to Smartfootball for the link.

At Notre Dame, veterans like Brady Quinn, Jeff Smimnotgonnatrytospellthatname, Maurice Stovall, Rhema McKnight, Darius Walker and Jeff Carlson picked it up pretty quickly, and so far the returns are pretty solid at Florida, to the tune 34 points and 413 yards per game (5-point and 62-yard improvements over the 2010 Gators). Weis directs the offense mostly through Florida's running backs, Chris Rainey, Jeff Demps and Trey Burton, and it's resulted in one of the league's leaders in plays of 20 yards or more (tied with Bama and Arkansas).

And when I say mostly, those three have accounted for 51-percent of the team all-purpose yardage and 40-percent of the total offense on 54-percent of the offensive touches and 13 of the team's 19 touchdowns. It should come as no surprise, given that Demps and Rainey are two of the fastest running backs in the country (Demps may very well be the fastest player in SEC history). Rainey leads the team in rushing and receiving, and is third in the league in yards from scrimmage, behind just Marcus Lattimore and Trent Richardson. Demps, while hobbled, leads the league in yards per carry (8.7), and Burton has seen time at running back, fullback/H-back, tight end and quarterback.  

I expect Demps to play despite his injury in the Bama game last week, but Rainey will probably be the focus. He's not built like the classic I-back at 5-9, 180 pounds, but Weis has used him and Demps on classic speed and misdirection plays like the stretch, sweep, toss, counter and draw (here's a great link with info on some of Weis' favorite runs at Notre Dame). In a way, it's not unlike the way they were used in Meyer's offense, but there are more under-center and two-back formations.

One of the more interesting ways that Weis has started getting the two backs into open space is by using bunched up formations such as this two-back shotgun look:

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via 3.bp.blogspot.com

The advantage of tightening up the formation like this is that on outside plays the back doesn't have very far to go to get to the corner and turn upfield, with a lot of space to operate him if the play is blocked correctly. The disadvantage is that if the defense can set the edge themselves, the back will have less room to cutback and freelance, as compared to the typical outside zone runs where a back will have multiple holes to choose from and take what the defense gives them. Rainey and Demps have generally been able to get to the edge against most defenses, but last week Alabama was able to hold them in check, mostly because they overloaded the edges of the defense and Florida had no constraint to attack the middle. This week, that may be where Burton comes in.

He's played almost every offensive skill position, but in Weis' offense Burton has principally been a fullback/H-back type, with a few snaps as a Wildcat quarterback -- a position you might see more of against LSU. Driskell is much more of a mobile QB than Brantley, but Weis knows that there's a finite amount of running he can do with the freshman against a defense like LSU's. Burton and fellow tight end/quarterback Jordan Reed could see a lot more snaps in that spot.

Expect Rainey and Burton to get a lot of targets in the passing game as well, as LSU's linebackers have hardly looked steady in coverage, and that might be a matchup issue. And Rainey has already shown that he can make something big happen on a simple check-down pass.

For LSU's defense, the recipe doesn't change all that much. Win the line of scrimmage, maintain gap discipline versus the run, and make tackles. Florida has a fairly innocuous group of wide receivers, so expect Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid to be pretty active in run support. If you remember some of the tutorials on Oregon's running game, the safeties will have alley responsibility on a lot of the outside runs with Rainey or Demps. And with backs like these, it only takes one missed tackle to put six on the board quickly.

Getting Right on Offense

Nearing the midseason point, LSU's offense has, as previously discussed, much improved in the little things. Passing efficiency, third down conversions, red-zone percentages are all up, and that's great. But total offense is right at about where it was last season, because while passing is slightly improved, rushing is slightly worse. Yards generally lead to points, and if LSU can't consistently move the ball they won't consistently score points as the season lags on. And the offense is probably coming off of one of its worst games since the season opener. So what is the solution?

For starters, this offensive line can absolutely play better,. They've been solid -- pass protection is fantastic, and as I mentioned in Paul's post yesterday, they're doing a good job of wearing defenses down. P.J. Lonergan in particular has struggled, with consistently lower knock-down-block numbers compared to his teammates. The center is such an important piece of the inside zone (probably LSU's favorite running play so far this season), because how he generally allows for one of the guards to get off the d-tackles and get to the linebackers. That 2.5 ypc in the first quarter stat is a number you want to see go up for those games where falling behind is not something LSU can afford.

Diversifying the rushing attack could help. So far most of what we've seen have been plays like the inside zone, the stretch, the toss, the trap and the draw. Counters and jet sweeps would help keep opposing d-lines from pinching down on the A and B gaps, and also provide the speed guys like Russell Shepard and Odell Beckham, Jr., the ball with some room to operate. More running out of the spread sets might force the defense to give Spencer Ware and Michael Ford a little more room as well. Will Jordan Jefferson's return help shake that up? We saw a little of that last week, maybe we will again. Given Florida's tendency to stand up Powell in an overhang position, look for a lot of two-TE sets.

With Jarrett Lee, I have a feeling that the coaching staff is still trying figure out just how they want to incorporate him fully. Against Kentucky you saw the gameplan try and work in a few more crossing routes and roll-out passes, which was a slight departure from the previous games. My guess is, that was probably a way of seeing how to expand the playbook a little, but it didn't work out so well. Lee's best throws remain have always been the three-step game, where he can get the ball out of his hand quickly. It plays to his arm strength and his quick release, and away from his weaknesses.

So how does Lee rebound from last week? Go back to what's been working, and go back to it early. Throw the ball on first down -- where Lee has completed 20-29 passes. Get back to the bubble screen game out of spread sets, and go away from those single-WR screens. Those won't work so long as defenses are still manning up on both WR's. Work DeAngelo Peterson on some of those flat routes (I really wish Lee could execute those motion passes better because plays like that can be money to TEs, but his footwork was just a mess last week against Kentucky), and get the running backs involved in the passing game as well.

As far as the down-the-field throws, I would work Lee up to those. For most of his career Lee's tended to be a streak passer (Jefferson fits this description as well), and while that's not ideal it is something that can be worked around pretty easily. Older school QB coaches like Al Borges and David Cutcliffe used to do a great job of this at Auburn and Tennessee. Start the game off with high-percentage throws, like quick slants, screens, curls and swing passes. As the completions pile up, work your way into the intermediate and deep passes as the quarterback gets in a rhythm. The 2004 Auburn team in particular used to live on this, especially with Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown catching balls out of the backfield. The few times Jason Campbell went deep early, it was off of a play-fake in a clear one-on-one situation.

What will Jordan Jefferson's role be? Well, I thought there was no way in hell he'd play last week and we all know how that turned out. But I still feel like that will primarily depend on how the offense gets rolling and how Lee manages the game. He can definitely present some different options (no pun intended) in the spread-running game, and while he hasn't attempted a pass yet it only takes one or two completed ones to back a defense off. If LSU can't blow Florida off the ball in base sets, trying to spread them out might be a potential solution. Alabama had a lot of success running out of those sets last week.

Do NOT Expect

Special Teams Action

LSU and Florida are the top two teams in the conference in punt return yards allowed, and although teams have had some success on kick returns against Florida, the Gators have eight touchbacks on the season. LSU's coverage on kickoffs is actually a little more solid than you think, with the third-lowest average on return yardage in the SEC. Kickoffs themselves have been dead last in yardage, but the average has been rising steadily since James Hairston took over.

The Tigers' punt-return yardage allowed is actually still in the negative figures, and Florida's allowed just 18 through five games. Besides, its not like Tyrann Mathieu has been able to find a lot of room to move.

All of the Answers

Tomorrow marks the halfway point of the season, and while we've certainly learned a lot about this team so far, there's still a long ways to go. Will the ground-and-pound strategy continue working on offense? Can Lee be more consistent? What is Jefferson's role? Can the defense continue this blistering pace? Can Tyrann Mathieu play all 11 positions? We don't know.

And we won't find out all those answers against Florida, but we're going to have to start figuring them out. There's a big game looming on Nov. 5, and the path towards it begins against Florida. How does LSU move forward? We'll begin to find out.


ED. Note: Don't forget about the TAF's Relief 4 Blue fund, which is accepting donations for Alfred Blue and family, who lost everything in a house fire last weekend. And in other news, CFBstats.com is also holding a pledge drive for some support -- I can't tell y'all enough about how much easier that site has made my job. It really is an invaluable resource.

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