Has Justified both raised and lowered your opinion of the state of Kentucky too?
I know we're not supposed to say this sort of thing about a conference game, but finally, a break.
After three road games against ranked opponents (and three of the top offensive minds in coaching), the Tigers get a (groan) morning kickoff against a Kentucky team that will likely spend the rest of the fall locked in a thumb-wrestling match with Ole Miss to decide who gets stuck on the bottom rung of the Southeastern Conference ladder.
What to Watch For on Saturday
Typically, I would be talking about how this is still an SEC game and how it sets up as a perfect letdown game in a lot of ways (morning kickoff, sandwiched between two big games, team a little banged up), but the reality is simply that Kentucky is not a good football team. They're 2-2 this season and it's taken some good fortune because every single opponent has outgained the Wildcats this season. That includes the likes of Western Kentucky and Central Michigan (by 44 and 39 yards respectively), Kentucky's two wins.
On offense, the team is undergoing a tough rebuild without Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke and Mike Hartline, and in the bottom three of the SEC in total offense, rushing, passing and scoring. Junior quarterback Morgan Newton has borne the brunt of the blame, with his 102.79 passer rating (53-percent completions at 5.4 per attempt, 5 TDs and 6 INTs), but he's not getting much help from the running game either. True freshman Josh Clemons has managed 200 yards in four games, and Newton is the second leading rusher with just 100 yards (2.5 ypc). La'Rod King is a decent receiver with some size, but overall his group has struggled with drops as well, which has contributed to Kentucky's 28-percent conversion rate on third down.
The defense is solid, and has been the Wildcats' saving grace this season, with 10 returning starters from last season, and the top 11 in total tackles. New coordinator Rick Minter is an old pro that preaches a fundamentally sound approach and the tape reflects that. Kentucky's managed to have the sixth-rated scoring defense in the league largely due to some solid redzone play (two touchdowns allowed in eight trips by opponents), and a solid pass defense. Kentucky is fourth in the SEC in pass defense efficiency (and a few points better than LSU actually), though it should be noted that those numbers have come against the likes of Kawaun Jakes, Ryan Radcliff, John Brantley and this guy:
The big issue has been run defense. Linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy are legit all-conference caliber defenders, but they can only do so much against teams with strong running games (Florida rushed for 405 yards last week). Minter will swap his fronts back and forth between four- and three-man lines, and walk Guy (41 tackles, 4.5 TFLs this season) up to the line of scrimmage in a bandit position similar to West Virginia last week. Trevathan is a tackling machine -- 11 per game average in his last 17 -- and may be the conference's best linebacker.
Excellence of Execution
Anybody else think this was the Hitman's best theme song?
The Northwestern State game showed that this team is capable of focusing on a bad opponent and hammering them the way you would expect a top-five team to do. It would be nice to see that again Saturday morning.
And of course, there's still a lot of room for improvement, as 350 yards of total offense still isn't a total you want to brag about. LSU has been efficient with the ball, converting third downs, stringing together long drives (especially in the fourth quarter) and cashing in on red-zone appearances. Those little things need to start leading to the big things, and Saturday morning would be as good a time as any to start seeing more big plays.
On defense, I hate to sound so hokey but after all the talk about the struggles against West Virginia, don't be surprised if this is one pissed off unit. The bad tackling, the blown assignments, I fully expect those to return to form.
I know this whole Honey Badger meme seems to be taking off, but Tyrann Matheiu's new do reminds me of one of the more unintentionally funny villains of the 1990s. Demolition Man anyone?
Anyways, Mathieu and Co. will get their first look at an offense not entirely based on the spread. Kentucky's offense will still use spread formations and principles, but offensive coordinator Randy Sanders (along with Phillips and assistant coach Tee Martin) are rooted in what we've come to think of as the classic "pro-style" (I'm really starting to hate this phrase by the way) offense, i.e. based around running the football and throwing off of play-action. It'll be a positive to get a look at those principles and concepts in game action with Florida and Tennessee coming up and Bama looming in the background.
Look for the defense to get more of the base sets on the field, which a shaky linebacking corps can certainly use. Karnell Hatcher's struggling, especially in coverage, and Kevin Minter's looked good at times, especially in run defense. Ryan Baker needs to continue to work on keeping himself under control, reading his keys and flowing to the football. Luke Muncie, Lamin Barrow and Stefoin Francois will all rotate in as well, and all three can use the reps.
Along the defensive line, Newton has some mobility but isn't a run-first guy, so there should be chances for some stat-padding. Especially when you consider that Kentucky's allowing 8.5 tackles for loss per game.
In the secondary, I expect a nice rebound from last week's issues. The most important thing I'll be watching for this week (and this goes for the linebackers as well) is tackling. NO MORE MISSED TACKLES.
More Russell Shepard
It was a bit of a mixed bag for Russell Shepard in his return last week, with one outstanding catch on a crossing route and a dropped seam route that was a little too underthrown. Otherwise, he didn't get many looks, which was to be expected. But that should start to shift forward this week. More of a steady on-the-field presence, with an extra play or two designed for him specifically.
This offense still needs to continue to search for big-play opportunities, and I still believe Shepard can play a role in that. I may be beating a dead horse at this point, but I still think he can play a role in the running game.
Prodigal sons Nos. 2 and 3 return this week, and as much as I hate to minimize Josh Johns, let's stick with the elephant in the room...
I've been known to get a little preachy at times, but for the moment I'll stick with the facts of this situation, which are not in dispute. Jordan Jefferson has been reinstated to the LSU football team as a backup quarterback. Jarrett Lee is LSU's starting quarterback. He will remain in that role for as long as he continues to play well and improve (both of which he has done through the first four games of this season), and Jefferson will remain in the backup role. These are the facts, and they are not in dispute.
On the speculation, there's very little point at this time, and even less logic being thrown around.
Will Jefferson have any on-field role as a backup? Who knows. That probably depends on Lee's play. Could he provide another weapon to the offense in a change-up role? Sure. Maybe. But that will probably depend on the continued evolution of Lee as the leader of the offense, and the running game. But Jefferson would be nothing more than another weapon in that scenario.
Will Jefferson be a distraction? Well, an NCAA investigation, Parkinson's disease, a coordinator change the first week of training camp, the barfight incident in the last week of training camp and the suspension of a starting wide receiver a few days before the season opener didn't prove to be distractions, did they? So the return of a teammate that virtually the entire team has supported publicly will create one? Read those two sentences again and think about it. Say it out loud if it helps you realize how stupid it sounds (Oops, got preachy again. Oh well.). I won't even dignify the retarded "Lee's confidence will be shaken by looking over his shoulder at Jefferson" meme, because frankly, as critical as I've been of Lee at times, I damn sure give him more credit than that (and seriously, if the mere presence of Jefferson affects Lee, what will Alabama or Florida do to him?).
As far as Saturday goes, Miles has stated that Jefferson's status is doubtful, as it should be with just a single day of prep -- and Thursday is traditionally a very light day of practice. So he'll likely be nothing more than another body on the sidelines for now, and won't play against Kentucky unless there's an injury disaster or a significant amount of garbage time.
And I would hope that I don't have to mention the general absurdity, asininity, brainlessness or idiocy of booing a player again, so I won't.
Special Bonus Material:
In honor of this week's game getting the Dave, Dave & Dave Memorial Jefferson Pilot time slot (Andre Ware, YOU, sir, are no Dave), and in honor of my complete and total slacking on the Cookin' posts, here is a staple of all Gomila Family morning tailgates -- the Bloody Mary.
My father is a master, so I tend to defer to his judgment on things like mix, but I've had some good experiences with a few of these twists on my own. We tend to mix by eyeball and taste, and mix up a pitcher full the night before to have ready in the morning. But this'll do ya for a nice Dixie cup full.
1 1/2 ounces vodka (Taaka will do you fine, but I've had a few bad experiences with going TOO cheap on the booze. As Christopher Hitchens says, it's a false economy.)
1/2 cup Major Peters Bloody Mary Mix (also had good experiences with Zing Zang and Tabasco's brands)
1/2 tsp lime juice (You can go with lemon juice here as well, but I find the lime juice adds a hint of sweetness. Little tip I picked up from a bartender at Mother's in New Orleans.)
At least 1/2 tsp Worcestshire sauce or more, to taste
At least 1/4 tsp Tabasco sauce, or to taste (I always use more than that, and I've found using the Tabasco Smoked Chipotle sauce adds a hint of smokiness that is excellent.)
A spoonful of ground horseradish, if you've got the gumption.
Combine ingredients, shake or stir as needed. Serve over ice with your choice of garnish -- lemon/lime twists, celery, pickled green beans or olives.