What to Watch For on Saturday
Well, here we are. LSU's coming off a huge, emotional loss that has left the fanbase reeling (overreaction or not), heading to everybody's favorite road trip -- Starkvegas -- to take on the program's favorite punching bag, Mississippi State.
Harsh? Probably. But honest. I mean LSU has won 20 out of the last 21. For the last two decades, the Bulldogs have been the Washington Generals to LSU's Harlem Globetrotters. The Cameron Frye to our Ferris Bueller. The Robin Ventura to our Nolan Ryan.
Anybody else get a chill? Look, winning streaks end. If Kentucky can beat Tennessee, or Navy finally catch Notre Dame, then Tiger fans should prepare themselves for the day this streak ends. That isn't to say it's going to happen Saturday night in Starkville, but you can bet your ass that Dan Mullen is going to throw everything he's got into trying.
There's no question that Mullen has done a lot of good things at State. But the thought has to be creeping in, that maybe he's the Gerry DiNardo of this program. He's done a lot of good. Won a lot of games. But things have plateaued. Ole Miss appears to have the upper hand in the rivalry, and certainly on the recruiting trail. Mullen has yet to win that big, marquee game against one of the SEC's upper crust.
I expect full CLANGA and a Bulldog team ready to pull out all of the stops. Trick plays, onside kicks, more CLANGA, you name it. LSU won't have time to feel sorry for itself about losing to Georgia last week.
And Mullen's already drawn a few groans out of State fans with the announcement that fifth-year senior Tyler Russell is back as the starting quarterback after missing the last three games with injuries suffered in the season-opening loss to Oklahoma State. In Russell's absence, sophomore Dak Prescott has caught fire to the tune of about 275 yards of total offense a game. Prescott is a big, athletic guy with a nice arm. Kind of a midpoint between Russell and predecessor Chris Relf. Chances are, both will play -- this whole thing screams gamesmanship on Mullen's behalf. And there's no doubt that Prescott has shown a lot of promise for the future.
Of course, Russell was a pretty efficient passer in 2012, and coming off last week's struggles, there could be an argument that he's the better matchup against this LSU defense. But in my opinion, Prescott will still wind up being the guy taking most of the snaps. He's a powerful, athletic runner and he's just enough of a passer to play well off his running strengths. And frankly, a two-way QB in a run-based spread offense like State's plays right to the weaknesses of LSU.
State's offense is a known commodity at this point. The zone-read, speed-option and power-running principles will put a lot of pressure on LSU's defensive ends and linebackers. And the play-action looks off of that will put even more on the linebackers and safeties. Jameon Lewis, the top wideout, is an undersized, speedy slot receiver in the tradition of Chad Bumphis and Arceto Clark the last few seasons.
We'll delve into LSU's defensive issues later on, but solving the first one means fixing the communications in the secondary to avoid the obvious, gaping coverage busts we saw in Athens.
One thing's for sure, is that LSU has got to start working in some more new faces, especially on defense. I don't know about out-and-out benching starters yet, but this defense won't make it through the season at all if John Chavis & Co. don't start trusting more of the younger players to rotate in for some significant playing time.
Christian LaCouture, Rickey Jefferson and Tashawn Bower all drew rave reviews this past August. And they've seen the field, but not to the extent that many of us expected. LaCouture in particular really needs to start seeing time, because Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson have been wearing down in games seeing 65-plus snaps a game. The defensive ends have really struggled, especially in getting a pass-rush. That's not only contributing to the wear-&-tear on the tackles (seriously, at times people are openly double-teaming BOTH at the same time), but it's adding to the secondary issues as well. Frankly, even if LSU completely cleans up the back end, it's not going to matter if the quarterback has all day. Bower has shown the most promise among the freshman. Classmate Lewis Neal is another quick guy that could do well against an option team like State that will often look to put the defensive end in conflict.
Safety play appears to be the main culprit in last week's struggles, particularly Craig Loston, Ronald Martin and Micah Eugene. That doesn't leave many alternatives besides Corey Thompson, so if Jefferson's ever going to get on the field, it would be a good time to start. Rashard Robinson is another youngster that could benefit from more time on the field, though corner is not nearly as big a need as safety right now.
The State offense has looked a little better with Prescott, but it's still not a dominating group. The overall numbers are nice, but really go down if you take out the big wins over Alcorn State and Troy. State hasn't topped 55 percent in completion percentage in any other game but those two cupcakes, plus, if LSU can maybe find a way to get them behind the chains, State's converting just 36 percent on third down. And that number drops to 29 if you take out Troy/Alcorn.
LaDarius Perkins is a solid back and a very good receiver out of the backfield. Given the struggles of this linebacking corps, watch for State to try and take advantage there. LSU needs to pick it's poison in the read option game. Against Auburn, LSU chose to funnel the ball to Tre Mason and it cost them. This week, I would mix that up, because Prescott is probably a more dangerous runner than Nick Marshall right now.
Of course, LSU's offense could also help to pick up the slack for the defense as well. Lord knows this is a team that knows what it's like for one side of the ball to have to carry the other. Just a little different to see the offense be what's doing it.
Defensively, State's trying a more aggressive style this year under new coordinator Geoff Collins. He's brought back more of a zone-blitz style similar to what the Bulldogs ran a couple of years ago under Manny Diaz. There are a couple of strong players -- freshman defensive end Chris Jones looks like a stud and linebacker Benardrick McKinney would definitely be starting for LSU. But again, the overall results are skewed by the Troy and Alcorn games. Oklahoma State and Auburn completed a combined 60 percent of their passes, converted 46 percent or better on third down and rushed for 406 of the 481 rushing yards that State has allowed. The other two games (28 and 47 yards allowed, respectively) make this unit look a lot better than it probably is.
LSU should definitely be able to string together drives and move the football. And that's before we get into the idea of Zach Mettenberger repeating last weekend's performance. Keep throwing darts like that, and there won't be many defenses that can hold up for long.
State will occasionally use something of an "Amoeba" or "Psycho" front, where the line and linebackers all stay up in two-point stances and move around. The rub for that style of defense is that quarterbacks tend to get psyched out and try to find the perfect play, when for that style the best move is usually to just go straight at them. Defenses in a two-point stance rarely anchor well against a downhill running game, especially if pursuit is taken out of the equation. Mettenberger has been incredibly good at diagnosing plays at the line, but he needs to be willing to stick with the running plays sometimes. Yeah, he's absolutely shredding defenses with ODB and Jarvis Landry, and big plays are great. But when you're trying to choke out a loud, boisterous crowd and a sky-high team, some long, sustained drives mixed in with those big pass plays can take the oxygen out of the stadium real quick.
Use Jeremy Hill. See if Kenny Hilliard can build on the flashes he showed last week. Come out firing to Beckham and Landry, and then use the running game to keep State's offense off the field and maybe protect that vulnerable secondary.
Do NOT Expect
A Nice Bow
LSU should rebound from last week's heartbreak. Going on the road is probably a good thing, because it gives the team a chance to internalize whatever questions they have in the face of what should be a raucous atmosphere.
In terms of what that means for this defense, I'm not sure. At this point, the Tigers need to work on:
- Coverage assignments and communication in the secondary;
- Confidence & experience;
- Continuing to develop depth in the front seven and improving the pass rush.
On that list, I just don't think everything can get fixed in a week. Especially that last one. Point one is a good place to start. With problems last week, if we're taking the players words for it, were more about communication than lack of knowledge. That's a fixable issue. This defensive backfield may not turn into a dominating unit in seven days, but they can at least cut down on the wide receivers running free behind everybody. State will put some pressure on with the playfakes -- I definitely expect some option passes -- and other fakes, such as fake screens to try and suck the safeties up. But Russell and Prescott are most definitely not Aaron Murray. And this group of receivers are not Michael Bennett, Arthur Lynch, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley. LSU can contain this passing game.
Everybody will have their own standard of what constitutes improvement or success for the defense this week. But even if LSU pitches a shutout, it's just one game. The ceiling for this defense, most likely, won't be a top 20 outfit. But they can definitely get better after last week. Maybe it's another strong start while the offense builds a big lead. Maybe it's some red-zone stands that force the Bulldogs to settle for field goals.
But it's not going to solve everything, and this unit will have to keep working. So don't be surprised if there are still some points of frustration on Sunday.