Excuse me for a second...
Thank God it's finally time to suit up and see some actual game action. Could we all use some good LSU news? Between the NCAA ruling, Steve Kragthorpe's health, Russell Shepard and Shadygate, this has been one of the roughest Augusts in terms of football news in some time.
And so we depart for Dallas and the Jerradome, as the Tigers prepare for one of its highest-profile season openers in history against the No. 3, and 2010 BCS runner-up Oregon Ducks.
This will be our weekly breakdown of what you should, and shouldn't, expect to see on Saturday.
What to Watch For on Saturday
And with that shameless plug over with, it's been a frequent knock against LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis that his teams struggle against spread-option-type attacks, of at least offenses that use some of the principles. It's not totally untrue, but like most "coach X always does Y" bits, it's somewhat overstated. Since he came to LSU, Chavis' defense has averaged about 287 yards allowed in 10 games against spread-option teams. Actually a lower number than the Tigers have allowed in all games since the start of 2009 (313 ypg). The bitch of it has been the outliers -- 327 yards and 36:30 of possession to Florida in '09, a 526-yard scorching by Auburn and Cam Newton and of course 420 yards and a season-high 36 points to a crapulent Ole Miss team season. When the defense has struggled, it has really struggled.
What do those three teams have in common? Skilled and athletic quarterbacks. Tim Tebow, Newton and Jeremiah Masolli, who might not have put up dominant numbers at Ole Miss but was an all-conference player at Oregon and accounted for half of the Rebels' offensive yards single-handedly last year. Players like those have been the problem, not the scheme itself (because players make schemes, duh).
Of course, the problem here is that the Ducks have a hell of a quarterback in Darron Thomas, who accounted for more than 3,300 yards of total offense in 2010 and 35 touchdowns, including 30 passing TDs. He's brought more of a passing dimension to Chip Kelly's offense than his previous QBs, something reflected in the highest yardage and efficiency numbers of the Kelly era in '10. But what differentiates him from players like Tebow, Newton and Masolli is that he's not nearly the same type of the bell-cow runner. Thomas is certainly an athletic scrambler -- he rushed for 486 yards and 5 TDs last season -- but the offense isn't nearly as built around his running talents the way Auburn's was last year or Florida's with Tebow. In fact, Oregon was at its best with Thomas spreading the ball around on the option and in the passing game. The team rushing average in the five games in which Thomas had eight or more rushing attempts last year was 243 yards, compared to 332 yards per game in the other six (Note: I didn't count FCS Portland State game for these purposes). LaMichael James is the far more valuable runner in this attack. The Ducks' three worst games (Arizona State, Cal and Auburn) were also the only three games in which James was held under the 100-yard barrier.
As I noted in the defensive line matchup preview:
The key is to keep the offense moving in the direction it doesn't want to go -- horizontal, rather than vertical.
The other part of that key, is keeping the ball in the hands of the right person. Thomas is a talented runner that can still hurt a defense, but in the Oregon pecking order he's still third behind James and Kenjon Barner.
Look for LSU to use a lot of the classic nickel defense look, with four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. On paper, this probably keeps the Tigers' best defensive players on the field, especially its best blitzers in nickelback Tyrann Mathieu and Ryan Baker. As for the Ducks' frenetic pace, the defense should be fairly prepared. In addition to the extra conditioning (not to mention punishment runs), the team set up a special series of speed drills, starting last spring, in which the defense would have to go for long stretches against an offense running a play once every six to seven seconds, with two offensive units (including the first team O) working on alternate plays in order to try and simulate Kelly's vaunted style.
Keeping the offense contained and limiting big plays will be as important as making them for the Tiger front seven. As noted before, the teams that have done the best job slowing down the Ducks bogged the offense down, avoiding big plays and forcing long drives. Third-and-long passing situations will be a premium, as Thomas struggled in converting them a year ago (less than 30-percent conversion rate on third-and-seven yards or longer). Attack and contain will be equally important at times, and, of course, winning the line of scrimmage. Watch the play of the Tiger defensive ends in particular. Their struggles with a disciplined pass-rush were an issue against Auburn last season, but the return of Sam Montgomery, and the thought of our Steampunk Emperor Mingo sprinting on artificial turf could spell some bad news for Thomas.
The Fast and the Feathered
Speed is the word that defines Oregon's program. As clichéd as it sounds, it really is a state of mind for Chip Kelly & Co., and that also applies to the defense, led by longtime coordinator Nick Aliotti. His side of the ball likes to turn up the heat just like the offense.
The Duck defense plays fast and hard, with an old-school scheme 4-3 that employs the ol' roverback position at strong safety. Oregon will stack the line of scrimmage, man their corners up outside and bring pressure early and often. They'll even switch their front up every now and then, bringing the Sam (strongside) linebacker down into a 6 or 9-technique position outside of the tackle/tight end and standing up the weakside defensive end to create a 3-4 front.
It complements the offense well because the pressure can slow down an offense early, and once the Duck attack has built a nice lead the other team can become more one-dimensional. They were 34th nationally in yards allowed last season, but 11th in yards-per-play (4.7 compared to 4.9 for LSU) and seventh in pass-defense efficiency. Expect them to attack early and often, even without Cliff Harris and a rebuilding front. Which brings us to...
One sure thing for this game will be new faces galore for both teams. There's a lot of experience returning to be sure -- even some of the newbies have seen the field -- but this year will mark the first time a lot of them will be asked to start and/or contribute significantly.
For LSU this means new starters like Chris Faulk, Kevin Minter, Michael Brockers, Spencer Ware, Kadron Boone and James Wright, who will all be asked to make major contributions and lead the team for the first time since they've arrived on campus. And let's not forget a quarterback that will be making his first start since November of 2009. All have seen the field, but this is their team now. And let's not forget about freshmen like Odell Beckham, Anthony Johnson, La'El Collins, Brad Wing and possibly Terrance Magee. The play of Collins, who may very well get the start at left guard in place of Josh Dworaczyk, and Johnson will go a long way in deciding this game. Both were the highest of highly touted recruits, but this isn't a dress rehearsal.
On the Oregon side, the Ducks will have plenty of newbies of their own, with new starters on both lines, at linebacker, in the secondary and at receiver. Redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu will get his first start at center, with classmate Terrance Mitchell taking over at corner in place of the suspended All-American Cliff Harris. Grasu will be joined by two other new starters on the Oregon o-line, though Darrion Weems and Ryan Clanton are both upperclassmen.
The defensive line returns just one starter in end Terrell Turner (5.5 TFLs in '10, 2.5 sacks), and Josh Kaddu is the only other front-seven returnee. And while there's some experienced backups on hand in Brandon Hanna, Ricky Heimuli and Michael Clay, the team is still replacing approximately half of its sack total from last year, and 54 of a nation-leading 102 pass break-ups.
On offense, receivers like Lavasier Tuinei and Josh Huff have made their share of plays (Huff is also dangerous in the Duck run game), but will have to step up in place of the ultra-steady Jeff Maehl and D.J. Davis, who combined for 20 of the Ducks' 31 first-down conversion receptions last year. Don't be surprised if tight end David Paulson is Thomas' top target in the possession passing game.
The Beast King?
As I've mentioned before, I don't know if I've ever been as excited to see a new starting running back at LSU as I am Spencer Ware. The sophomore from Cincinnati has a chance to be one of the most complete running backs the Tigers have had in some time. I've compared him to Kevin Faulk and Mark Ingram, stocky, nimble backs that run behind their pads but have the athleticism to move well in traffic and the speed to break into the open field. As a true freshman, Ware showed excellent athleticism as a packaged pass-catching fullback, making some athletic catches on pass plays. Oh, and then there was the 10-carry, 102-yard outburst against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, which also happened to be underneath the YEEHAW-o-tron.
He has the potential to give this offense the workhorse power that Stevan Ridley did a year ago with some more big-play ability. A former high school quarterback, there's even a chance he and true frosh Terrance Magee could see time in the *gasp* Wildcat formation. Remember, Ware threw a 39-yard touchdown against Auburn last season.
Look for Ware and his backfield cohorts to see a ton of work. It will be extremely important for LSU to establish the run in this, and every game, until the passing attack has shown what it's capable of. Time of possession has never been extremely important to Oregon (they weren't even in the top 100 a year ago) due to the offense's big-play ability. But no matter what type of offense you have, big plays are easier to come by when an offense doesn't have to press to create them.
That being said, Greg Studrawa and Steve Kragthorpe will have to balance ball-control with aggressiveness, and keep the pressure up if the offense can get established. The Ducks made quick work of deficits last season against offenses that were a lot better than LSU,s including spotting Stanford a 21-3 lead and then exploding in the second half for a 52-31 win.
One other tidbit to watch is for one of Chip Kelly's trademarks, flashing the swinging gate routine on extra points. If LSU's special teams aren't prepared, Oregon will go for the two points when it's there.
And while the Ducks will be without the incredible return talents of Harris (4 touchdowns and a 18-yard average last season), Barner averaged 12 yards per return and scored a touchdown himself.
Do NOT Expect
Hold your nose ‘cause here goes the cold water...
The idea of Jarrett Lee's redemption is a great one, and I can't stress enough how awesome of a story it would really be (as much as I hate it has to come at Jordan Jefferson's expense), but to all of the people out there proclaiming Lee as some sort of savior of the offense (or General, as it would seem)...please stop.
Besides, if we're going to use historical figures, we can damn sure do better based on facial hair alone.
The chances of Lee coming in and completing 25 of 33 passes for 300 yards and four touchdowns are nearly as slim as the last two weeks being an elaborate episode of Jordan Jefferson's Punk'd. Is Lee capable? Maybe. We've damn sure seen the good and the bad over the last three seasons. The last thing he needs is that kind of pressure. If Lee can let the game come to him, distribute the ball when asked and just keep it away from the other team, this offense CAN go to the next level. But it's important to remember that this offense is going to be built almost completely around the run until the passing game shows it can be consistently effective. That won't change this week, and it might not change at all depending on how Lee plays.
Hopefully, Studrawa and Kragthorpe will approach this game somewhat similar as to the way they would have approached it with Jefferson still playing, at least in regards to the passing game. Start with throws like the quick slant, playaction bootleg throws to the tight end and screens. As Lee gets his rhythm, work your way down the field. Granted, the flow of the game will play a role in dictating this, but if Lee can be kept in the situations that allow him to do the things he does well, he can be successful. He has a tremendous arm and a quick release, and has shown a real talent for pound the ball in to receivers on the slant. Deeper sideline throws have been successful for him as well, and he's dramatically better in the screen game than Jefferson. But let him wade into the game, not dive into the deep end. Also, as Chris Brown explained last week, there may still be a limited role for the occasional speed option in the attack.
None of us are 100-percent sure how the offense will work, especially with Kragthorpe's health situation, but if it can focus on doing the little things consistently, the big things will come.
Ducks in a Barrel
The general mood around this game from most LSU fans is a bit surprising to me. The assumption of victory is kind of stunning given that the Tigers are facing the No. 3 team in the entire country. Last year's national runner up. Make no mistake, this is going to be one tough game, and whomever gets out of the Jerradome victorious on Saturday will have earned it. Never mind the fact that LSU is without it's starting quarterback, a starting receiver and one of its best interior offensive linemen. Nevermind that weird shit can happen in LSU season openers. Remember last year's insane rally from North Carolina? How about two touchdowns on blocked kicks, followed by a miracle throw by Jamarcus Russell against Arizona State?
That isn't to poo-poo the Tigers' chance of winning. I damn sure believe that they can. But just remember folks, Oregon is really good.
Here's to a Merry GameDay-mass to us all, and a happy tailgate. I know mine will be. I probably won't be too active on the comments here, as Friday is driving day for me and the wife to get to Dallas. If you're in one of the RV lots and notice a 6-4, devastatingly handsome young man enjoying himself, come on by and say hi.