It's high time we bring this series back to ATVS. I had a piece for Oregon prepped, but due to internet/travel restrictions I was unable to get it up in a timely fashion, until it was essentially irrelevant. This is a little late as well, but at least with enough space before West Virginia that it still has some relevance (right??).
Overall, this game was about like I expected. Slow paced (stylistically, not game time), physical and low scoring. Mississippi State is a quality opponent and while playing at Starkvegas isn't exactly the Swamp, it's no easy environment either. The fans were rowdy and raucous and stayed that way most of the game due to the close score. With just 2:00 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, the game was even tied up at 6-6, yet I never got the feeling Mississippi State really had a chance. Why? Largely because our defensive line set up a tea party in their backfield and returned for frequent re-fills. 16 TFLS! That's a good month for some teams. The offense was solid but unspectacular. Yet, they seem to be making strides. What else did the tape show? More after the jump.
What I saw on Thursday from Lee is a guy who is gaining confidence and command. He's not dynamic, but as Jesse Palmer said, "he's a good operator." He was distributing the ball to a variety of targets (8 different receivers to be exact, 3 of them true freshmen). Lee's decision making, for the most part, was extremely sound. He was decisive with the football, generally progressing through reads and not holding on to the ball too long (actually got rid of it too fast on two occasions). Though he still struggled with ball placement on a few throws, his receivers did a good job of bailing him out (Beckham, in particular, made a superb hands catch diving backward on a throw well behind him).
But let's make this clear: LSU's success does not depend on Jarrett Lee. Or Jordan Jefferson. Or Zach Mettenberger. Craig James actually made a good point during the game (shocker), that he was doubting LSU a lot heading into the Cotton Bowl, but when he had a chance to put on the tape and see all the talent surrounding the QBs, he realized it's not about the QB... almost that the QB is irrelevant. This team is so loaded on offense, that if we can merely get the ball into the hands of our playmakers, the offense will be productive enough for this team to be successful (considering how fierce this defense is).
Speaking of the defense, I remember after time feeling frustrated and timid. It was a case of in-game emotion getting the better of me, because sans one drive, Mississippi State had done nothing. By the 2nd half, our fingers were firmly wrapped around their throats (sans one penalty-aided drive that resulted in 3 points). Really, this was nothing short of a dominant performance. We turn a couple of those FGs into TDs, and we're looking at a healthy blowout.
Special teams are still a work in progress at this point. Kickoffs are still landing extremely short. I'd be surprised if Wing or even James Hairston didn't get a chance at these duties. Alleman has looked studly on FGs, but his KOs continue to land outside the 10, which is just not good distance. The coverage units also need to raise their game. Mississippi State came within inches of ripping some pay-off kick returns, but still put up very good numbers. Additionally, we've yet to see any real damage on punt returns, and while the loss of Peterson doesn't help, Mathieu is being swallowed up quickly on most returns. Miles diligently works on the special teams though, so I suspect this will improve.
Now let's take a look at some of the individual performers:
Lee: Best game of his LSU career. Decisive, accurate and controlled. Ball placement and mechanics still need work, but you can tell he's gaining confidence by the week. Started him early with easy pitch and catch. I like that. He needs those confidence builders. He found Randle three times for 20+ yard gains. He has instant chemistry with Beckham, and checked down to him multiple times for nice gains (including 3 or 4 first downs). I have no idea what happened on the INT or whose fault it was, but didn't you know that was going to happen with how much they popped that stat up there about successive attempts without an INT? Overall, a really sound effort from Lee. We did see two delay of games, and our first issue with personnel confusion, but I'm happy that's 1 in 3 games, not 3 in every game.
Ware: Frankly, Ware may be the best back we've had since Faulk. I'm sure I'll take heat for that, but everything about this guy screams elite from his toughness to his vision to his footwork. Ware rarely goes down on first contact. He had multiple plays on Thursday that looked like no-gainers or losses only to be turned into 3, 4, 5 yard gains. He brings a thud when he runs and he's got a burst to explode through holes. This kid is special.
Ford: His least productive game of the season. Missed badly on a blitz pickup that lead to MSU's only sack of the night. Chipped in a few nice runs, but otherwise a quiet night.
Hilliard: One catch. Like the wrinkle. Doubt he sees a ton of time unless we get an injury, but I like seeing him running routes as a FB and getting looks there.
Stampley: Stamp has always brought the pain with blocks, trouble is, in the past he would often launch himself into people without looking and totally whiff. No more. He's a heat-seeking missile that is absolutely destroying whatever comes into his path right now.
Copeland: He's still learning how to play FB, but lordy, when he gets his body on people, it gets messy. He drove a LB 15 yards down field on one run. Plowed another LB on another guy.
Faulk: Looked good early on till he went down. Glad to know his injury is nothing major.
Shaw: Not the punishing run blocker that Faulk is. I was impressed with his pass blocking. He held up really well, and was only noticeably beat by a blitzing corner, who he still managed to get onto the ground, albeit it near Lee's feet. He was a capable fill in. Couldn't ask for much more.
T-Bob: Missed badly on one play that lead to Ware getting stuck in the backfield. He battles, but he's nothing special. I'm wondering how long he can hold Collins off, at this point.
P.J.: Not his best effort. Whiffed on a few blocks and didn't sustain some others. Nothing else stood out to me.
Blackwell: Played average until being benched in the 3rd quarter after a miserable series where he chop blocked, false started and then whiffed on a block.
Williford: Filled in for Blackwell from the late 3rd quarter on, but nothing noteworthy. Got downfield on a block once, which I liked seeing. Tends to lean too much on his blocks. Needs to keep his balance to be more effective.
Hurst: Best game of any of the lineman. Dominating as a run blocker at times. Solid in pass pro. all night.
Randle: Nice game. He's healthy, which is nice. He wins his one on ones. That's what we need from him. Dropped an easy 1st down, but other than that played flawlessly. Easy TD on a nice pass dropped in by Lee. It was made easy after we set up the slant and go all night and Randle ran a beautiful route. Moved the sticks a couple times on slants. Showed solid routes and hands.
Beckham: We have yet to see the "big play" that we know he's capable of, but he's emerging as a legitimate threat in this offense. 8 catches for a true freshman, really impressive. He's zoomed past James Wright and Kadron Boone to assume the no. 2 WR spot, and I don't even think Shep's return will change that. OBJ has earned his keep. He's running strong routes and catching the ball with his hands extremely well. In particular, one thrown behind him where he dove and caught it with his hands. Love seeing that. This kid is special.
Landry: Two catches, one down the seam for a big gain and another on a WR screen (which we still have yet to figure out how to run). Landry is still healing up, but you can see the potential. He's going to be a part of this offense all year.
Wright: One catch, but I really liked how he stuck his hands out, put his foot into the ground and got up field (making a defender miss). We haven't seen that from Kadron Boone yet this year.
Clement: Really nice block late in the game to spring a Ware run. Another nice block on a run play. Didn't notice anything else.
D-Lo: Quiet game, though they talked about him all night.
Mitch: Didn't notice him.
Mont: Brought pressure all night. One impressive play where he was cut by the RB, used his hands to keep his balance and stay on his feet, kept pursuit and nailed Relf for a loss. Great hustle play. His pursuit is endless.
Adams: Coming into the year, Adams struck me as a meh player. Nothing wrong with him, but nothing got me excited about him either. He's proven me wrong. Adams is, by far, our most disciplined, sound DE. He will rarely end up with the sacks and big hits, etc. but it's the plays he "doesn't make" that stand out on tape. For instance, Mingo is in the game, he uses his speed to get up field, shooting past the pulling guard (who he should have taken on), MSU burns us and runs underneath him, Relf gets about 13 yards and a 1st. We sub him for Adams, MSU runs the exact same play. Adams gets low and cleans out the pulling guard, forcing Relf to dance it outside, the play is cleaned up for about a 2 yard gain. Quietly effective. Time and again, he was just always in the right position. He does a great job of stringing out run plays as well, so that our speedy guys can mow down ball carriers. Very happy to see him.
Mingo: Not the game for him. Once MSU got down and was throwing, then you got to see him do what he does, when forced the fumble. But otherwise, he was being bullied and pushed around and over running plays all day. Big, power-run oriented type of teams will give him fits until he is able to bulk up more. But against teams who throw more, or in obvious passing situations, look out.
Edwards: Played solidly. Believe he was one of many to get a TFL. Nothing else standsout. Pretty disciplined player, like Adams.
Logan: 3 TFLs, SEC DL of the Week. Nice game for him. On tape, he doesn't look overly explosive, but he was using his power to shuck guys around and cleaning up plays in the backfield. I'm surprised he's holding Freak off, even with a good performance here.
Brockers: Commands a lot of attention. They were clearly worried about him, which allowed Logan to make plays. Brockers is a load, and his pad level has improved this year. Got a sack on Relf as a result of coverage. Nice game all around.
Freak: His athleticism just screams at you from the television. He's blowing by people, pushing over upper classmen SEC linemen and just generally wreaking havoc every time he comes in the game. He needs to reign himself in a bit, but the physical talent is off the charts. Got a TFL (maybe 2?). Just an unbelievable talent and yet another special true freshman.
Dennis Johnson: Played some garbage snaps. Good for him.
Baker: Got the sack after being mowed down. Nice effort. Came with heavy pressure on the very next play and forced a poor throw that Mo picked. Gobbled up in the run game a few times. Needs to get off blocks better.
Barrow: Played a ton. I didn't see Francois out there once (I could have missed him). Nothing stood out really.
Hatcher: Up and down game. Made one play that really got me excited. 3rd and short, they are running a bit of a slow-developing read play (which I think was just a QB dive) with some complicated motion in the formation. Hatcher blitzes the A-Game, blows up the lead blocker which causes Relf to bubble and hesitate and ultimately come down for a loss. Great play! Fell offside and gave them a free 1st down. Dumb play. Made a shoestring tackle on Ballard to save a huge run. He's spotty.
Mathieu: Couple of nice tackles, but otherwise he was quiet.
Simon: Got beat a few times, but never badly. Once the WR just made a nice catch, and walled him off. The other time it was just a short route, that he closed on and tackled extremely well. Solid, quiet game. That's good news.
Claiborne: Great game. The first pick is one of the most athletic you'll ever see. The second was pure fortune (which favors the bold), but he'll take it. 4 picks in 2 games vs. Mississippi State. Mo may comeback next year just to play them again. Mo is stellar. They kept challenging him too, and he kept rising up. Silly Bulldogs, Mo is not for kids.
Brooks: Didn't notice anything. One solid KR.
Reid: Kinda quiet. Huge hit on a WR that got a lot of oohs and ahhhs. Beat in coverage by a RB, who then dropped the pass. Got a personal foul but they were offsetting. I don't mind mixing it up every now and again.
Taylor: He seemed like he was everywhere. Made a tremendous play adjusting his blitz route to tip a pass to the flats. Made multiple huge tackles. Defensed the last pass of the game. Taylor is kinda the heart and soul of the defense. He never really gets the credit that Mathieu, Montgomery or even Baker get. But he just quietly makes play after play and never lets LSU get in bad position.
Overall, a solid effort. The offense is still building, but I like what Stud is doing. He knows we butter our bread with power running. He knows Lee is limited, but can be effective if used correctly. Our offensive numbers may not show it yet, but our offense is a million miles better than the previous three years under Gary. There is coherence and identity. What we do, for the most part (J.C. Copeland DIVE! YIKES!) makes sense. We set up plays for later. This game we handled Lee very nicely, allowing him to have easy completions to get rolling. I like that. Keep building his confidence. Fortunately, we have the defense to ride that out. It's going to be a fun season.