What To Watch For Saturday Night
Season nine of the Les Miles Era at LSU opens up, once again, on one of the biggest stages in the game. The JonesMahall, the JerraDome itself, Cowboys Stadium, in the Cowboys Classic versus TCU.
The stage is nothing new to the Tigers, though the opponent is. There are so many unknowns about this team. A new offensive coordinator. New faces on defense. Hell, right now none of us really know what kind of LSU team this is going to be.
Beyond the obvious, I'm very curious to see what kind of attitude this group shows. The 2012 team entered the season seemingly entitled, like a team that expected 2011 to repeat for the first few weeks. The awakening was pretty rude in those first couple of games. Hopefully, this team has learned those lessons, and moved on from the past and just focused on themselves and the next game. One thing that we do know is that we're not going to see a finished product -- we never do when it comes to LSU openers under Les Miles. There will be sloppiness and rough spots to finish and sand out.
The opponent in question will almost certainly have a say in that.
TCU will have present an intriguing challenge for LSU. The Horned Frogs play a very unique, defined style of defense under Gary Patterson and Dick Bumphas, defined by an aggressive 4-2-5 set. Patterson adapted the style as a coordinator in the 90s in reaction to the rise of spread offenses. The idea being, of course, to get as much speed on the field as possible, while still maintaining numbers against the run. The Frogs virtually never leave this defensive set, as it allows them to keep multiple defensive backs on the field against multi-wideout sets, with eight men near the line of scrimmage to defend the run.
The defining characteristic of Patterson's brand of defenses versus other bandit safety looks is that:
1. Patterson and Bumphas almost run this unit like two separate units. The front and the secondary receive different calls and operate independently from one another.
2. The secondary uses a "split-field" principle, which is to say that the field is divided in half, with the free and weak safeties making different coverage calls based on the offensive formation.
It should surprise none of you (certainly those of you that are veterans of my work here), that Patterson has found a way to make the complex simple. TCU only uses about three types of zone coverage, but with the field split, they can use two looks at the same time. That can create multiple combinations and really allow the Frogs to give quarterbacks hell after the snap with some tricky reads.
The corners will play off, and while receivers won't see much jamming at the line, TCU plays a really aggressive style of zone coverage and really preach pattern reading. And the split principles allow for the coverage specifics to actually change mid-play. The short version (and you can the long version here or here), is that one of the safeties (the free, or deep safety, or the weak safety) reads the offensive strength. If the call is for cover two and the offensive strength is to, say, the defensive left, the free safety will make his call for the strong safety, corner and strong-side linebacker, while the weak safety makes his for the linebacker and corner on his side. The Frogs' favorite two looks involve cover-two robber and what they call "cover blue" -- which can turn that cover-two look into a quarters look across the entire field. What can be interesting though, is that based on the formation, personnel or route combination, that cover-two look can shift among those four players as to who has the deep, robber or flat responsibilities.
Those back-seven players may play off, but they want to attack, and be aggressive. They may allow a hitch or a slant a couple of times before they start jumping throws, so look for LSU to try and work some double-moves later on in the game to try and take advantage.
Obviously the goal for the Frogs is to extend drives by forcing a lot of plays together. Eventually, there's a third-and-long situation, and then they can unleash some man- or zone-blitzes out of this cover-two look, with some occasional cover-three behind it.
Up front, the Frogs are a smaller, quicker group. Devonte Fields is obviously the headliner, but without him that spotlight shifts to a couple of Louisiana boys that LSU passed on in James McFarland and Chucky Hunter (both of West Monroe High School, at that). Hunter, in particular is a stumpy, fireplug of a nose tackle that should be a challenge for the Tiger interior.
Still, quick defensive linemen are nothing LSU hasn't seen before, and it doesn't mean the Tigers can't push them around. In fact, the biggest weakness of this style of defense can be against a bigger, more physical, power-running team. Sound familiar?
Patterson's defense is, to a degree, built upon a specific proposition when it comes to two-back style teams: that the big guy is gonna wear down first.
The Frogs are gambling that their numbers and speed will still be fresh in the fourth quarter against a team that will just keep swinging the ol' sledgehammer of a big back behind a big, strong line. LSU has to be willing to take that bet.
The top two backs on this team are north of the 220-pound mark. The fullback is 270 pounds and two of the top tight ends are over 250. The Tigers should not be afraid to keep pounding away and making those 220-pound linebackers earn their tackles. That this offense can turn three-yard runs in the first quarter into four- and five-yard runs in the third and fourth. It takes patience, something that offensive coordinators can sometimes struggle with. In the 2011 Rose Bowl, Wisconsin ran for well over 200 yards, but had three huge drives stall in incomplete passes, and also had a potential game-tying pass batted down. Michigan State was able to employ this strategy in last December's very ugly 17-16 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. Le'Veon Bell might've been a better overall back than either Alfred Blue or Kenny Hilliard, but LSU will almost certainly field a better passing attack than the Spartans did. The Tigers might not be the kind of power juggernaut that the 2010 Badgers were, either, but you don't see a Les Miles team lose with 200-plus yards rushing very often, do you?
TCU's front is an active, quick unit that will move and shift around a lot pre-snap. Best way to attack that style is usually straight ahead. It also takes away the pursuit factor for the smaller guys behind the line. Blocking on the edges will absolutely be a huge key. Strong safety Sam Carter thrives on funneling plays back inside to the six-man front. Ditto the cornerbacks -- J.C. Copeland, whichever tight end is in the game and the wide receivers have to get a hat on a hat and create room for the running game. If the tight ends are going to be involved in the passing game, this would be a good time to start that. At the very least, set a lot of outside, arc releases, even if the player is just going to get a hat on a safety or a linebacker. If they see a couple of quick throws off of this look, the TCU players might hesitate just long enough to help the Tigers set their blocks and create an alley for the running game. Likewise, LSU's receivers will have to be very physical and ready to block as well. The Frog corners may play off, but they are very active against the run.
On offense, the Frogs have transitioned to a fairly wide-open spread offense after years of a close-to-the-vest, run-heavy style that befits a coach with Patterson's background. It helps when you have a string of quarterbacks like Andy Dalton and now, Casey Pachall.
The running game uses a lot of zone-read with some power-blocking (especially when backup quarterback Trevone Boykin is in), with the core passing concepts primarily built around flood concepts that break down the zone coverage that most defenses use against the spread to one-on-one matchups. The primary concepts include:
The former relies on the two pivot routes creating high-low opportunities against inside DBs, linebackers and safeties, effectively eliminating quality outside corners from the equation. LSU's nickel and dime backs, reportedly Micah Eugene and Dwayne Thomas, will have to make smart decisions and fly to the ball quickly. The latter is a classic "rub" concept, in which receivers create room for each other with natural (because obviously, offensive interference is illegal, right?) picks.
Overall, TCU's passing game looks a lot like Texas A&M's with a lot of motion and quick throws underneath designed to get the ball into open space. LSU's DBs will need to keep their coverage tight and make tackles in space, without making themselves too vulnerable to double-moves, either. Pachall is a strong-armed passer that will take some risks throwing -- although they have generally worked out for him, as he has all of eight career interceptions. He's also got solid mobility. Not enough to break a lot of long runs, but enough to pick up first downs and avoid the pass rush. Additionally, watch out for wide receiver LaDarius Brown. Big, fast target with the size to out-muscle a lot of DBs.
Of course, defending any spread offense is always much easier if the Tigers can get pressure with their four-man front. LSU may be inexperienced there, but so are the Frogs (just 28 career starts returning).
Do NOT Expect
Y'all, the confidence in this game is well-placed and admirable, but TCU is good. This is a team that's allowed all of seven teams to top the 30-point mark the last few seasons, and by and large, the teams that have broken that mark had quarterbacks much more accomplished than Zach Mettenberger. LSU's going to have some tough sledding in this one, and Cam Cameron is going to have to earn his salary in week one against one of the better defensive minds in college football.
LSU is most certainly capable of pushing this team around, and should be able to wear them down with depth and talent. But I wouldn't expect this offense to come out with guns blazing early on.
Of course...if it does...
Guys, we know how openers tend to go under Les Miles. Sloppy, even in dominating wins. I can't really think of any that were truly a smooth ride, even last year against North Texas. Expect penalties and a gaffe or two. Hopefully few, if any turnovers, but overall don't be surprised if there are fits and starts on both sides of the ball.
Center is a position I'm really watching. Elliot Porter hasn't exactly been dominant in camp, and if Ethan Pocic comes in there, he's struggled snapping the ball at times, and that could be an issue against a guy like Hunter that is quick off the ball. How this team improves the next week should say a lot, but there will be some issues in week one. And that's not even getting to the fact that there will be a lot of inexperience on the field.
Two years ago, granted, with a backup quarterback in, the LSU offense sputtered quite a bit, before the offensive line really knuckled down once defense and special teams got the lead on Oregon. The great thing, was that the stage, and the opponent seemed to help raise that team's awareness and sense of purpose in a way that really set a tone for the next few weeks. And once that ball was rolling, it was downhill through the season.
There's no guarantee of that happening this year, but there's definitely a chance. And either way, Tiger football is BACK. What more could we ask for?