Another even-numbered season, another trip to Gainesville with LSU looking to prove something. This time, we're still trying to find out if LSU is the team that laid waste to Washington a month ago, or the one that has sleepwalked through its last two games, and looked ugly in doing so.
Except this time, instead of the typical top-10 powerhouse we're used to seeing in orange and blue, the Tigers are squaring off with a Gator squad looking to break through into the big time and land the first marquee victory of their young coach's career.
What to Watch For on Saturday
It's appropriate that both of these teams come to his game with something to prove, because they are remarkably similar.
LSU and Florida are within a few spots of each other in just about every major statistical ranking, and the profiles are incredibly alike. LSU averages a hair more per game on the ground and in the air (229/224 yards per game rushing, 203/183 passing), Florida is slightly more efficient, with a 154.9 team passer rating to LSU's 148.0. Both teams like to mix up their rushing attacks with zone and man blocking -- inside/stretch running with powers, traps and counters mixed in -- as well as structured, managed passing attacks that try not to place too much of the offensive load on the shoulders of inexperienced quarterbacks.
The primary difference is that Florida Offensive Coordinator Brent Pease, being of the Boise State school under Chris Peterson, will use a lot of motions and shifts to try and mask plays and expose defenses pre-snap (somewhat similar to Washington). The Gators will also use the occasional spread-option or Wildcat play to take advantage of Jeff Driskell's mobility and Trey Burton's versatility.
Driskell has done a solid job of managing the game since taking over as Florida's starter. The sophomore is in the top five in the league in pass efficiency, albeit on just 19 attempts per game. Part of that is due to the fact that Florida is rushing the ball fairly well with Mike Gillislee, and the other is that the Gators lack a true go-to guy. Frankie Hammond Jr. has been able to make some big plays, and Jordan Reed is a very good receiving tight end, but neither is the kind of receiver that demands extra attention. Most importantly, Driskell is completing 68 percent of this third down throws.
Mostly, Florida relies on possession throws, similar to LSU, like curls, slants and swing passes, and likes to put Driskell on the move. A favorite play has been using a receiver in motion off a play-action bootleg, an easy way to get the ball to a receiver in the flat with a free release and a head of steam.
This will put pressure on the Tiger linebackers and safeties, and place a premium on tackling. Pease will use these short throws to put Driskell in a rhythm before taking longer shots down the field.
Another note: this offense has been notoriously slow-starting through the first quarter of the season. Driskell averages just 86 yards passing in the first half, with just 46 yards rushing for Gillislee. In fact just 57 of Gillislee's 402 rushing yards have come in the first quarter this season. Florida has done a good job of using probative playcalling to find what works versus an opponent, adjusting and then leaning on what works in the second half. Poke around until he figures out what hurts. But don't be surprised if Pease tries to break tendency or come up with a trick play early to try and get Florida out in front and that Swamp crowd on its feet. If Burton is healthy, look for him on some Wildcat-type plays.
One tendency I've noticed from Driskell through film study is that he has a tendency to hold on to the ball for a while when the throw isn't a quick one, and that's resulted in this offensive line giving up about three sacks per game. The LSU d-line will have to get off of the ball, and Micah Eugene could be very active in blitzing from the mustang dime package. Gillislee is a hard runner, with exceptional balance that makes up for his lack of big-back power. The Tiger linebackers and DBs will have to make sure they can keep him and the other Florida backs and receivers from hen-pecking. Don't let a run that should be three yards get five, because that'll add up in the second half, and the Gators have been a very good second-half rushing team.
Will Muschamp's reputation may be for the whole "COACH BOOM- blitzaholic-real-men-play-man-coverage" deal, but he's actually a fairly well-rounded defensive coach that has learned a lot from some different influences. In addition to his time with Nick Saban here and with the Miami Dolphins, Muschamp learned a lot from Tommy Tuberville during his time at Auburn. Particularly about disguising coverage pre-snap, something his Gator defense does exceptionally well.
Florida puts a lot of pressure on their safety duo, Matt Elam and Josh Evans. On any given play you'll see them moving back and forth from the line of scrimmage, flashing blitz, dropping to the deep middle, to the hash, or over the slot, trying to make sure that the opposing quarterback is unsure whether he's got man or zone coverage. It works particularly well for this team, which lacks the elite pass-rush types on the defensive line. Florida is much more content to try and force quarterbacks to check down, where Elam, Evans or the Gators' extremely athletic group of linebackers can swarm to the ball. Florida is tied for last place in the league in sacks right now, but have six interceptions on the season and are allowing opposing QBs to complete just 51-percent of their throws.
This means that for Zach Mettenberger, challenge one is the pre-snap read, and making sure that the offense is running the right play, and in the case of run plays moving in the right direction. When he drops back, Florida more than likely rely on the tendency towards holding on to the ball that Mettenberger has shown thus far. If you know the QB will take his time back there, there's little reason to risk exposing your secondary. This could play into LSU's hands though, as the Gators have had some tackling issues at cornerback.
On run downs, Florida will try to stack the gaps with Jonathan Bostic and Jelani Jenkins (depending on his health -- he is currently expected to play in limited capacity), but the Gator d-line has been a bit susceptible to zone blocking. They're a big, strong group but seem to struggle when an offensive line can get them moving laterally -- less than half of Florida's 20 tackles-for-loss come from the d-line, whereas LSU has that many from the front four alone. But that will also mean identifying where the linebackers are coming, and running away from it.
Florida will likely stack the box on first down, or at least show it, but the Tigers can't be afraid to stick with the right running calls. Stretch plays out of some of LSU's one-back looks might be the best way to go if J.C. Copeland isn't 100-percent, and if the Tiger o-line plays up to their ability, they might be able to get this Gator front on skates and moving. If Copeland is as good to go as he tells us, the inside zone and draw-plays out of the I-formation could be very productive on first down. And staying on schedule is going to be crucial here -- four yards or better on first down, and positive second downs that avoid third-and-long situations. Mettenberger is currently completing just 57 percent of his third down throws, and both of his interceptions have come in third and seven-plus yardage situations. When the Gators do get LSU in those situations, look for the blitzes to involve safeties and corners, rather than linebackers.
Quick throws can be valuable here, provided the receivers can hold their blocks on plays like the bubble and tunnel screens. Spencer Ware could also have some value here as well. He might not have great speed, but if LSU can get him matched up on the Gator DBs he'll gain some yards after contact more often than not. And when Florida does provide him with an open target down the field, Mettenberger can't afford to miss.
In both of their last two games, the Gator staff has done a fantastic job of second-half adjustments. Versus Kentucky, they realized that, well, they were playing Morgan Newton, and clamped down on what had been a moderately successful Kentucky running game (having a comfortable lead also reduced the Wildcats' ability to run). Against Texas A&M, they clamped down on the spread running game with a short-zone attack and forced Johnny Manziel to make plays down the field, from the pocket. That just puts a further impetus on LSU to try and get out in front early and affect the Gator offensive gameplan. If LSU can establish one style of play well enough, run or pass, that should open up the other when Florida adjusts.
How's It Gonna Be?
Ed. Note: Okay, so maybe the news about these guys playing Towson's homecoming last week got me remembering how much I loved this album. I regret nothing.
It's not that LSU played a bad game last week against Towson. Bad games happen, especially with regards to cupcake opponents. If it were easy to keep college kids at maximum intensity for 12 games every year, the elite programs would rarely lose and college football would be a whole lot less interesting.
It's that LSU struggled royally with an Auburn team that most suspect isn't very good, and then wasted what could've been a prime opportunity to work on the issues that Auburn game exposed. It's that the game intensity was less than zero in a situation where it should've at least been at the level you would expect in practice. That's what has us worried about this team.
We've seen LSU go into Gainesville in situations similar to this before. In 2010, the program was reeling after the ending of the Tennessee game. The difference then is, nearly all of the questions were centered on Les Miles himself following the clock-management gaff. The players had a built-in rally point, to win one for their leader and shut the outsiders up. This is a bit different. The players themselves are getting some of the questions now. Yeah, Miles will always ultimately get the blame, but people wonder if this team is good enough. Did last season spoil them? Were they overhyped this summer?
One game doesn't answer those questions, but it starts. This is Florida. Top-ten opponent. On the road. National television. It shouldn't be hard to bring a basic level of intensity. But can they hit that next step? That realm where the blocks get finished, the tackles wrapped up, the balls get caught -- where the plays that make the difference between winning and losing, happen? We've seen some of these players do it, but we've never seen this team do it. The Tigers don't have to be perfect. Effort penalties, those are gonna happen. But play like LSU. Play like the team we've been used to watching the last few seasons. Play for victory, as the man in the white hat likes to say.