What to Watch For on Saturday
Night Afternoon (dammit.)
Allow me, if you will, to provide a metaphor for the Florida offense.
Will Muschamp is relatively popular head coach among Florida fans, but the acclaim isn't as universal as you might think for a guy coming off a BCS Bowl appearance. And part of the reason is that Florida is a program that's gotten used to winning with exciting, dynamic offenses in the last 20 years. The Spurrier Fun-&-Gun gave away to the Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow juggernaut. Hell, even the Ron Zook teams played exciting offense at times.
But these Gators have a dedication to asphyxiation that is almost...admirable. Yeah, defense is the preferred method of strangulation for this team, but the offense gets into the act too, dragging opponents deeper and deeper into the muck and giving them even less time to dig out. Florida doesn't just lead the nation in time of possession at 37:39 per game -- they lead the SEC by nearly three minutes (No. 2 Mississippi State comes in at 34 minutes even). The average Gator possession lasts just over three minutes, even as it typically only covers about 33 yards.
And here's the weird thing: it's still an incredibly efficient offense on a per-drive basis. Gator quarterbacks have completed 70 percent of their passes this season, a number that's gone up only slightly since Tyler Murphy took over for Jeff Driskel. They average 8.8 yards per pass attempt, 192 yards rushing a game and they convert a very respectable 49.3 percent of their third-down opportunities.
If you would have given me those numbers for the LSU offense coming into this season, I would have gladly taken them. And yet this is a team that's scoring just 25 points a game. The problems appear to be some major red-zone struggles; just a 69-percent scoring percentage, with less than half resulting in touchdowns. Plus, the team's just 5-9 on field goals this season. Additionally, the Gators are dead last in the league in big plays, with just 66 of 10 yards or more this season. LSU, by comparison, has 114. Even Tennessee has more than 70.
These numbers have begun to trend upwards in recent weeks since Murphy has taken over. The Gators were six for six in the red zone in their last two games, and Murphy turned in the two highest passer ratings of the season for Florida. In fact, his 209.37 number last week was the highest any UF QB has turned in since Rex Grossman (against LSU, in 2001...in a 2:30 CBS kickoff). What's more, Murphy's averaging 5.6 per carry on the ground. He doesn't have Driskel's size or breakaway speed, but Murphy's a classic scrambler that can buy time and make guys miss. His over-the-top delivery is a tad slow, but Florida's not going to test that delivery any more than they have to. And LSU's pass-rush hasn't exactly been swarming to quarterbacks all that quickly anyway.
Oh, and by the way, this is still a quarterback making his third start, his second on the road. In Tiger Stadium. Day game, shmay game. Get loud y'all. Stay loud.
Defense needs all the help it can get.
Offensive coordinator Brent Pease came down from Boise State two years ago, and while the average fan might have expected that to come with a high-octane passing attack, the backbone of all that success on the blue turf has been much more tied to a commitment to a running game that is not only built on powerful, physical running, but inventive formations, groupings and blocking schemes.
That running game and willingness to get creative has fit into the way Muschamp wants to run this program. The passing game is improving, and should continue as the talent in the passing game does.
Last year, we saw Florida use a series of unbalanced line looks with extra tackles to grind the LSU defense down, especially while Kevin Minter was sidelined with injury. The Gators ran the classic power-O mostly out of a one-back look, and they still will, although fullback Hunter Joyner is a heck of a lead blocker as well. Florida will pull guards and tackles for power, trap and counter plays. Old school ideas, but ones that still work the same way against modern defenses. Give a gap in one area, create another one for an opponent to defend in the direction you want the ball to go.
We'll look at the power play because that was the one that Pease ran over, and over, and over and over last year (Pease has an almost refreshing commitment to sticking with whatever's working as a play caller). Defending it puts a premium on defensive tackle penetration disrupting the pull -- any way that you can knock a pulling lineman off track helps. At the second level, it puts a premium on linebackers reacting quickly and hitting the hole hard -- if there's a time to maybe give Kendell Beckwith an extended look at middle linebacker, it may be Saturday.
Two of the most common defensive counters include spilling and squeezing.
Spilling versus a power play involves almost a stunt by the middle and strong-side linebackers. The playside defensive end needs to squeeze inside, get across the face of the tight end and slow him getting to the next level. From there, the outside ‘backer will attack the line of scrimmage hard and take on the first blocker he sees, while the middle linebacker loops around outside of him. If everybody does their job, the Mike should be unblocked and in position to make the tackle.
The playside end and outside linebacker will use what's known as a "wrong shoulder" technique. Typically, at the line of scrimmage a defender is taught to always keep his outside shoulder free to make a tackle. Get push inside, tackle out. Here, the defender attacks a blocker with his outside shoulder, aiming to keep that inside shoulder free and try to compress the blocking inward.
Squeezing is the more common method of defending the power, because it works more with the typical defensive responsibilities and is therefore a bit sounder if the offense goes with a constraint play like a play-action pass.
Defensive end attacks the outside shoulder of his guy and maintains leverage to containment. Playside OLB attacks the C-gap and again, engages a blocker with outside leverage. Mike attacks the hole, again, planning to hit any blockers with outside leverage and to try to compress the hole. Puts a big premium on a middle ‘backer that can really thump. Again, a good time to use Beckwith.
Look for John Chavis to use a bear front on occasions, with the linebackers out wide and a safety down in the box when Florida uses 21 or 12 personnel. Corey Thompson, if Craig Loston is still gimpy, showed a real physical presence last week near the line and over the middle of the field. Jerqwinick Sandolph is a name that's resurfaced this week after being M.I.A. this season. He was apparently serving some sort of suspension, which I had no idea about. Of course, after this many weeks if he's just back at practice now, you'd have to think he won't be in game shape yet.
The passing game revolves around a lot of possession and yard-after-catch routes, and Murphy's shown a talent for spreading the ball around. Despite the passing game not being all that productive, it's the only one in the entire country with three different wide receivers with more than 270 yards.
Some may recognize Trey Burton, the leader in catches, as he's roughly been at Florida since the Spurrier era or so. He seems to have finally found a home as a wideout after spending time as a running back, tight end, fullback and occasional wildcat/option quarterback. He'll still line up in that spot on occasion, and can be a dangerous runner. Quinton Dunbar is the most veteran of the group. Not terribly explosive, but he's a smart player that can move the chains. Solomon Patton has really emerged as a big play threat in recent weeks, very similar to Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis. He's the classic short, quick slot receiver that might not go deep too often, is hell to cover on an option route.
Florida wants to live in the bigger sets with two backs or two tight ends, but they'll spread things out if need be, especially near the goal line. Like any good coordinator, Pease will use misdirection to constrain all those power plays, especially with jet sweeps and other receiver running plays. Given LSU's trouble with stopping those wide running plays, there might be a little more of them if push comes to shove.
LSU will almost certainly use Tre'davious White and Rashard Robinson outside at corner, with Jalen Mills in the slot on Patton. Ideally, the safeties can think run support first, while the corners man up. When LSU does use zone in long-yardage situations, they can't afford to miss tackles. Just because this offense hasn't made many big plays this year, doesn't mean they won't try.
Irresistible, Immovable, Blah Blah Blah
I'll spare you the clichés about forces and objects. We know where the rubber meets the road in this game (what? I already spared you one cliché).
I don't know if LSU has the best offense in the SEC. They have a good case, but do does Texas A&M and Georgia (Mizzou will have a shot to be heard on Saturday as well). But there is absolutely no doubt that Florida has the league's best defense.
They lead in just about every category: scoring, rushing yards and yards per carry, pass yards and efficiency. And in most cases, they lead by comfortable margins. They are currently, the only outfit holding opponents under 250 yards per game (217 -- No. 2 is Alabama allows 299) and under four yards per play (3.8). They are only defense allowing less than 3 yards per carry, or holding opposing quarterbacks under 50-percent passing. The average drive against Florida's defense 4.8 plays, travels just 18 yards and lasts all of 22 seconds.
Granted, the spate of offenses aren't great (Miami would be the highest ranked, and aside from Duke Johnson and Stephen Morris I'm not sure their personnel can match LSU's) -- but then neither are the ones on LSU's schedule either, aside from Georgia.
We're all familiar with Will Muschamp's background. The former Nick Saban Paduwan has applied what he learned from the Short Lord of the Sith, along with Tommy Tuberville, and crafted a 4-3 hybrid style that will occasionally stand up one of the ends to make an odd front, typically Dante Fowler Jr. Aside from some elaborate coverage schemes it's not a terribly complex defense. Just a smart, aggressive unit that reads and reacts quickly and swarms the football.
But it's the secondary that really sets the table for this attack. The starting corners and safeties are big, physical and smart and they need to be, because Muschamp asks a lot of them. Corners give cushion at the line then fly up into the flats or in zone coverage. Safeties start at the hashes then break down on to slot receivers, or start near the line before flying back into a deep zone. It's all designed to disguise whether the coverage is man or zone and confuse the quarterback long enough for the pass rush to get there. The Gators will blitz, but mostly in running situations. On third and long they're content to sit in cover two or quarters while the stunts, twists or zone blitzes to confuse the blocking schemes. And these defensive backs do not miss tackles.
Jaylen Watkins, Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy were all known commodities coming in to this season. Super frosh Vernon Hargreaves III put this unit into a whole another league. He's allowed Purifoy to move into the slot in nickel situations, where he was hell for Arkansas as a blitzer.
LSU's offense has done a great job this season of using formation and motion to try and get the defense to declare its coverage pre-snap. From there, Zach Mettenberger has been surgical, something that will have to continue against this backfield. Ball placement will be important, as will finding outlets and checkdowns. Don't want to get behind the chains and face third-and-longs against this bunch.
One interesting subplot to this game will be how the referees call coverage. SEC referees seem to be giving defenses a little more rope and letting them mix it up a bit. Whether they give the Gators that latitude will play a large role in the matchup against Jarvis Landry & Odell Beckham Jr., especially if Landry is hobbled in any way by his ankle injury.
The Gator DBs will pattern read, so LSU may want to mix in some double-moves early to go with the five route that has been so damn effective this season. Mettenberger might want to consider dribbling left-handed so to speak as well, and get the backs and tight ends involved in the passing game a bit more. Florida's linebackers are fast and athletic, but they've still been vulnerable in coverage at times. Screens and misdirection plays haven't been terribly effective, but play-action can be.
The offensive line will need to communicate and be ready for the stunts and dogs that they'll see out of the Gator front. But they might be able to get some push on this line, especially with Dominique Easley out of the lineup. It's a very athletic, quick line, but the bulk isn't there without Easley or Shariff Floyd.
It would be a good time to get Jeremy Hill a little more involved in the passing game early on to draw the linebackers and safeties wide a bit. Florida doesn't necessarily want to bring a safety down on every play, but they will try to blitz from the safety or linebacker spot on obvious run downs. That could leave them vulnerable in the flats. And if the offense stays on schedule, the defense can't use the safeties to help with Landry and Beckham. Sure, Muschamp will trust his corners in man-to-man, but Roberson (if he even plays), Purifoy and Hargreaves haven't seen a wide receiver tandem like this yet.
Overall, LSU will really need to try and mix up playcalling. Florida is a super aggressive outfit when they have a bead on what's going on, but teams that can keep them off-balance had the most success. A fast start will be key as well. Florida's actually been outscored 35-23 in the first quarter. The Tigers are doing that at a clip of 90-26 in the first period. Remembering last year's game, when LSU took a 6-0 lead into halftime, I remember thinking "that's not enough." Florida has excelled in close games as of late, but if you can get ahead of them by two scores, it might take them out of their gameplan a bit. A quarterback making his third start, in a hostile environment, and suddenly taken out of his usual game? That's a good situation even for a questionable defense like LSU's.
Do NOT Expect
Simple Sauce Piquante
I have an odd feeling about this game. Maybe it's the contrast in styles of the only really good defense in the SEC facing the best LSU offense in years. Maybe it's the mojo of reuniting and honoring the 2003 national championship team the weekend the Tigers face the only team that beat said 03 squad. In the same stupid CBS time slot that we all hate, too.
The ingredients are there for Florida's offense to improve and improve quickly. Murphy looks so much better than Jeff Driskel did that I'm kind of stunned nobody outside of Florida had heard of him before the last few weeks. And of course, LSU has its own issues on defense. In some ways, it sets up for the prototypical Gator death roll. Hold opponent to field goals or stall drives out near midfield, hold the ball for two-thirds of the game, and wait for LSU to press and make a mistake.
But by the same token, I also know that Florida hasn't quite seen an offense like this yet. Miami doesn't have a group of receivers like ODB & Juice. Arkansas has been running the ball really well, but damn sure doesn't have a quarterback half as good as Mettenberger (and starter Brandon Allen had a shoulder injury to boot). Kentucky and Toledo are Kentucky and Toledo. And Tennessee had a day so bad at quarterback that I was kind of surprised [quarterbacks redacted] weren't involved somehow. LSU can move the ball on this team, if they're smart about how they do it.
Watch, stay loud, whether you're in Death Valley, home or your favorite watering hole. Win or lose, this game is going to be fun.