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One last look at LSU's showdown with the South Carolina Gamecocks Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
If you're my age, your formative age as a football fan largely involved the belief that Steve Spurrier was evil incarnate.
Spurrier threw out 50-point blowouts in league play with less effort than a Jay Leno monologue, and did it with a smirk on his face and a one-line reminder of just how much better he was than you. And I don't know if anything united the other 11 teams in this conference in the 1990s more, than the dream of being the team that just might wipe that smirk off that visor-wearin' bastard's face.
In hindsight, I appreciate him more. Maybe it's aging (both mine and his), maybe it's the way he helped to bring the league forward offensively (say what you want, SEC offenses are still miles ahead of where they were back then), or maybe it's just that I've come to appreciate the need for everybody to have a favorite villain in college football, and as villains go, Spurrier at least made things fun. Besides, if you've followed him through the last few years, you learn that it's not really personal, he just likes to have fun (except maybe when it's Georgia -- that one might be personal).
His second act at South Carolina hasn't hurt either. In fact, you can certainly make the argument that he's doing a better job in Columbia than he ever did in Gainesville. The Gamecocks were at the bottom of the league's bottom-feeders for most of my life, but between a solid foundation layed by Lou Holtz, dynamite recruiting and a willingness to change his philosophy to fit his talent and the times, Spurrier has made South Carolina nationally relevant in each of the last three seasons, something that has rarely, if ever, been said in the program's history.
And now he comes into Tiger Stadium with a top-ten team and the Tigers trying to rally from a particularly crushing defeat. But this damn sure ain't the 1990s.
What to Watch For on Saturday
Once upon a time, this was the interwebz nickname for Darren McFadden during his time at Arkansas, and I think it's a pretty fair one for South Carolina's defensive star. There are two types of SEC fans this season: those that are scared of Jadeveon Clowney, and those that don't have South Carolina on their team's schedule.
People like to talk about football players as "freaks," usually anybody that just seems remarkably gifted in one area, usually size/speed ratio. I like to talk about prototypes. Every position on the field has their ideal, the type of body that, if a coach could grow the player in a lab, would perfectly encapsulate every physical trait they want. At quarterback, this is somebody like Cam Newton -- tall, well-built, with a big arm to throw from the pocket and the legs to make something happen out of it. For a wide receiver, it's Calvin Johnson, for cornerback Patrick Peterson and for a safety, it would probably be the late Sean Taylor -- a linebacker's size with a cornerback's speed and quickness.
For the modern defensive end, it is Clowney. A tall athlete with long arms. Incredible speed off the edge -- so much that he dabbled at running back at high school (seriously, it's possible that the prospect of tackling him had to at least be as scary as blocking him for a high school kid, right?). The athleticism and coordination to put that speed to its proper use in defensive line technique, plus, the natural size and strength to stand toe-to-toe with offensive linemen that likely outweigh him by at least 40 pounds. Simply put, he is the perfect defensive end talent.
As it got said once upon a time about Michael Jordan, you cannot stop him, you can only hope to contain him. If he is dialed in and motivated to play, there is nobody in this country that can block him on a down-in-down out basis. Certainly not one of LSU's current left tackles (even if Chris Faulk were still around, this would still be true).
McFadden was the last player I've seen LSU go up against that was close to this level. When he was in Arkansas' backfield there was always a nagging feeling that no matter how much success the defense was having, he was only one play away from going the distance. Nine out of 10 carries could be stonewalled, and that tenth one could still go for 80 yards and a touchdown. Likewise, even on the downs where LSU somehow find a way to block Clowney, the next one can always be a game-changer.
And if that's not enough, four of his mates in the Gamecock front seven have at least 4 tackles for loss on the season, three with 2.5 sacks or better (fellow end Chaz Sutton has 4 himself). Overall, this team sacks a quarterback once every 8.3 pass attempts. These Gamecocks are a testament that, other than quarterback, defensive line is the premium position for recruiting in this conference.
So what's LSU to do in this situation?
Yes, I know this was the theme song for Triple-H's lame Horsemen rip-off. Don't care, haz Lemmy.
We've all more or less spent the week talking about it -- how can this LSU offense get over the struggles it's been experiencing for the last month. And the most frustrating thing about it is, there isn't one thing that has to get fixed here. Everybody has to step their game up, from the 11 players on the field to the entire offensive coaching staff, if things are going to improve, or at least get to a level where they can function well enough to ride the defense's coattails.
In terms of how to deal with Clowney and the rest of Sakerlina's beastly pass-rush? The truth is, there isn't that much hope for this particular LSU offensive line regardless of how it's constituted, to completely stonewall this front. They're going to need some help in mitigating it. The most common sense ways would be to: option A -- limit the Gamecocks' pass-rushing opportunities; option B -- put the pass-rushers in conflict as often as possible, because a defensive player that is thinking about his responsibilities is a defensive player moving slower; and, of course, option C -- give linemen help with extra blockers.
A can be accomplished by running the football and avoiding obvious passing situations, such as third-and-long, as often as possible. Frankly, LSU needs to be doing more of these two things anyway right now, but if the offense struggles early and falls behind, the running game will be minimized. LSU cannot let that happen.
LSU can only afford to do option C so much, but B ties into A, insofar as some of the plays that may slow up the pass-rush, such as draws and screens, can also help keep the offense on schedule and out of long-yardage third-downs. Any quick throw, whether it is a hitch out of the shotgun or a quick bubble-screen from under center, could be a good first-down throw that not only gets the ball out quickly, but keeps the throwing lane away from the 6-6 Clowney and 6-8 Devin Taylor's massive wingspans (you know, assuming that the passes get caught). Likewise, using more of the running backs in the passing game -- particularly Spencer Ware. He might not have the speed to break a lot of big plays, but he probably has the best hands on this team. Thinking players, not plays, would be a good mind-set for the staff. And right now, the best playmakers on this offense are Ware and Kenny Hilliard. Mixing things up on the ground with fullback runs on occasion, along with some counters and draws will also the ends from exploding up the field on every snap.
South Carolina has been a bit vulnerable to misdirection plays at times, but LSU will have to establish some sort of inside running presence in order to set those plays up, as this just isn't a great wide-running team down-in and down-out. How Alex Hurst's absence may affect that, I'm just not sure. He's been a fantastic run-blocker in the past, but has really been struggling in his last seven games. One thing's for sure, though, this offensive line is only getting younger.
But on that note, LSU is going to have to grow and evolve. Like I said earlier this week, the openings of games, when the drives are scripted, have functioned fairly well. The problems arise when things start going wrong -- and they inevitably do against good defenses. Greg Studrawa and the rest of the offensive coaches can't be afraid to go back to basics with this team, even when a play breaks down, and these players have, HAVE, to keep their heads up and know that every mistake isn't the end of the world, and that the big plays don't start coming until you get the little plays working.
If LSU can establish a steady script, that will allow them to choose their shots well with the deep passing game, where they can use the tight ends and backs to help with Clowney and Taylor. This Gamecock secondary is coming off of back-to-back big-time performances, including an absolute domination of Georgia's Aaron Murray, but they have played loose at times and coordinator Lorenzo Ward is completely unafraid to bring a safety in for run support and leave his corners singled up.
Also, CATCH THE MUTHAPHUKKIN' FOOTBALL PLEASE!!!!
Lattimore, Rinse, Repeat
When Darth Visor had his thing going at Florida in the 90s, his offense was, as is typical by the Humanoids, chalked up to an advanced playbook beyond the grasp of mere mortals. But like any college offense, the truth revolved around simple pro-style route combinations with a keen eye for attacking defenses and, of course, better talent than 90 percent of the teams he faced. The NFL was a hard lesson for the OBC, ditto his first few seasons in Columbia. But credit the man for adapting, not only to the changing climate of the league, but also to the talent on hand in the Gamecocks' current offensive style, which looks a lot more like a Rich Rodriguez or Urban Meyer-style spread running attack built around athletic quarterback Connor Shaw and stud running back Marcus Lattimore.
It's a testament to the talent of Clowney that it's taken me this long to even mention Lattimore in this preview, but don't mistake that for lack of respect. He's the most talented runner in this conference and almost certainly a future first-round draft choice this spring. Size, speed, quickness and a very good set of hands -- the guy has it all.
And his team knows it. Sakerlina may be a 65-percent rushing team, but that number's been slowly increasing as Lattimore comes back from last season's knee injury. The team will still use some conventional sets I- or Ace formations, but make heavy use of shotgun spread formations and the zone-read with Connor Shaw and Lattimore. Shaw is attempting just 22 passes per game, and on first down the offense runs the ball 72 percent of the time. And about three-quarters of that number comes from Lattimore or Shaw himself. It looks like a busy night for the Tiger ends and linebacker Kevin Minter versus a heavy zone-read team, and look for John Chavis to make a liberal use of the scrape exchange when LSU is in their nickel and dime sets. On the scrape, the unblocked end automatically crashes with the back on the zone-read, while a linebacker swoops around behind him to take the quarterback.
Of course, Shaw will throw out of this look, so LSU will have to mix things up a bit or risk giving up some easy completions. Watch for Eric Reid to be involved in this regard, as he's been spending more and more time near the line of scrimmage in recent weeks. He'll have to brush up on his angles and tackling though, which have been poor.
The Gamecocks may not have an Alshon Jeffery go-to type receiver, but Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and co. have done a solid job of moving the chains when asked, and there's some big-play speed down the field in those small packages. Shaw does most of his passing on second down, with Lattimore heavily involved as well (11 second-down catches on the season). Though he may not have the ideal size, Shaw is a smart player that generally makes good decisions and throws a solid ball in addition to his footspeed. Plus, his coaches do a good job of staying out of undesirable passing situations -- Shaw has more rushes on scrambles and designed draws on third downs than pass attempts.
As with any mobile quarterback, LSU's defense will have to balance up-the-field rushing with containment. Fly past this kid on a rush and he'll take the easy 5-10 yards just about every time. Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson will have to try and keep pressure on the A and B-gaps in order to funnel Shaw towards the defensive ends. Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Lavar Edwards can't afford to miss on sack opportunities. Watch for Micah Eugene to be busy coming off of the edge out of the "mustang" package, in order to get some more speed in the backfield to chase Shaw. Look for a healthy amount of zone-blitzing on passing downs in order to keep eyes on Shaw in case he breaks contain. Eric Reid and the secondary will have to be on point as well, as most of Shaw's bigger pass plays, especially last week versus Georgia, came on scrambles when he was able to find a receiver after a DB pulled off to play the run.
LSU's going to see this all again in a week against Johnny Manziel, so they'd better get used to it. Of course, if the offense can get anything going with a lead, that would increase the opportunity to force Shaw to make throws from the pocket.
The Raggedy Edge
Y'all know that I'm not typically one for predictions when it comes to LSU football. But there's one thing I'm very comfortable saying this week: the Tigers are in for a fight in this game, and they're going to struggle. It's also become very obvious in the last few weeks, that this is a team that struggles with confidence after mistakes. The drops, the fumbles, the screw-ups seem to linger with these players, in ways that they shouldn't but they do sometimes with athletes. And when the players are walking that edge, the fans can either help pull them back, or help push them over. So don't boo.
This isn't the first time I've talked about this topic. Poseur has weighed in. Lord knows I've had my rants, but I'm not gonna do that right now. Don't boo. If you're not happy with the way the game is going, seethe. Walk out of the stadium. Do anything, other than boo. Right now, LSU is a team that, as much as anything, needs to start playing with some confidence and enthusiasm. In a state that allows them to shrug off their mistakes. And 90,000 people piling on to them isn't gonna help. I don't care if you think you're booing the coaches. That's a cop-out, because you're damn sure not doing it when the players are making things happen. But aside from that, the players don't see any difference. Nobody says you can't be mad, nobody says you can scream and curse when something bad happens. But don't boo. Call in to the postgame show and rant to your heart's content. Sell your tickets and write Joe Alleva a letter explaining why you won't set foot in Tiger Stadium until Les Miles is no longer coaching this team. I don't really care what you do.
But don't boo. Support LSU. Stand right up and roar. This team needs it right now.