Remember when Thursday night used to be the TV night? Back in that mid-to-late-90s heyday of NBC before Matthew Perry discovered prescription pills, Jennifer Anniston started collecting Angelina Jolie voodoo dolls and Jerry Seinfeld got tired of relevancy? Back when George Clooney still had that awesome haircut?
Hey, it's sort of back this week, as LSU travels to Starkville to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs!
Skip Bertman famously once said that Starkville was Native American for "trailer park." Maybe it's just me, but I feel like "bear trap" might be a potentially appropriate translation this week.
What to Watch For on
Make no mistake, even with last week's heartbreaker on the plains, Mississippi State is pushing all the chips in this week. We've all seen the various wild Thursday night upsets over the years, usually by a home team that makes a couple of early plays in front of a rabid crowd. Dan Mullen's seen them too, and he also knows that if his Bulldog program is going to show any progress in year three, it has to start winning SEC West games against teams that aren't Ole Miss. He's 0-9 against LSU, Bama, Arkansas and Auburn, and last week's goal-line snafu didn't exactly instill a ton of confidence amongst the faithful. There's talk of a "whiteout," and texts to almost every major recruit in driving distance to come and watch. Expect Mississippi State to be as sky-high as possible at kickoff.
It's hard for LSU fans to take State seriously sometimes -- 11 wins in a row with 23 out of the last 26 will do that to a fan base -- but keeping an even keel and focused intensity will be incredibly important for the Tigers Thursday night. Trap games like this usually come down to the favored team either seizing the momentum early to silence the hostile crowd, or keeping a clear head and responding when the home team catches some early breaks.
The Same, but Different
The good news for the Tigers, is that even with a short week, the defensive gameplan will seem pretty decently familiar. It's yet another spread-option offense in the crosshairs for John Chavis' crew.
Most SEC fans know Dan Mullen as the former coordinator of Urban Meyer's two national championship offenses at Florida, but he got his start as a member of the "New Hampshire Mafia" with Chip Kelly and Gary Crowton (who must have skipped a few meetings), where the spread-option was partially incubated. Mullen of course integrated those principles with a handful of NFL elements (zone-blocking from Alex Gibbs, passing concepts from Scott Linehan) during his time with Meyer at Utah and Florida into an attack that really seems to have gone from exotic to commonplace in the last five seasons or so. For some refreshers on defensive principles regarding Oregon's version of the spread, check out my four-part preview of the Ducks here, here, here and here. It's also worth noting that Mullen spent a chunk of the offseason in Eugene learning about the Ducks' offensive pace, so don't be surprised if the Bulldogs use a lot of hurry-up on Thursday.
And like any smart offensive coach, Mullen has done a good job of adapting his attack to the personnel on hand. Whereas at Florida, Mullen focused almost exclusively on speed and creating space for athletes like Percy Harvin, Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, the State incarnation of the offense is far more power-oriented. In the Sunshine State 190-pound guys that can run may grow on trees, but for as long as I can remember Mississippi State has always run big running backs behind 300-pound offensive linemen, and Mullen has smartly adapted to that. The Bulldogs have rushed for over 200 yards per game in each of his first two seasons there, and are averaging 321 per contest through two games this season.
Vick Ballard is the workhorse for State, and through just 24 games as a Bulldog this 220-pound former JUCO transfer already has 23 career rushing touchdowns -- the sixth-highest total in school history and well on track to get to second place by the end of the season (Anthony Dixon's record 42 seems a little out of reach). He's off to a fantastic start this season, with four touchdowns and 10 yards per touch heading into this week. Junior LaDarius Perkins serves as a solid Mr. Outside to Ballard's Inside, averaging over five yards per play running and receiving since last season.
At quarterback, Chris Relf has improved a lot over the last few seasons. Another ex-JUCO guy, Relf was originally brought in as something of a "Costco Tebow," i.e. a designated running QB, but really has developed into a strong leader of the Bulldog attack. He completed 62-percent of his passes in the final month of the 2010 season, and posted one of the SEC's five highest fourth-quarter passer ratings. He isn't as efficient or effective as some of the name-brand spread-option quarterbacks that LSU has seen the last few seasons, but he's a solid play-action passer that has shown he can keep the chains moving with both his hands and feet (currently converting roughly 48-percent of third downs when he runs or throws).
State's offense of course revolves around the zone-read, the trap, speed/triple options and other zone plays like the QB wrap and counter. As already mentioned regarding zone-blocking offenses, keeping those Bulldog linemen playing on their side of the line of scrimmage will be a key for the LSU defensive line, along with the linebackers and defensive backs flowing to their gaps in run support. Look out for Kevin Minter, who hasn't exactly been a sideline-to-sideline tackle machine but has done a pretty solid job in up-the-gut run support. He'll likely draw tight end Marcus Green, who the ‘Dawgs like to use as a lead blocker often.
In the passing game, Mullen's offense relies on five core concepts to work off of:
And H-Option, which has a couple of variations but mainly features the outside receivers each running vertical routes while the inside ones run option routes based on the coverage look. Obviously, play-action plays a role in all of these looks, particularly with Houston -- the running back (and occasionally Chad Bumphis on a jet-sweep action) will usually just continue his path under the outside vertical and hook route. State had a couple of nice gains on this play when the defense lost the back following the fake. Bumphis and Arceto Clark aren't the scariest receivers the Tiger secondary will face this fall, but they have some decent speed and will line up at multiple spots on the field. Last season Patrick Peterson moved all over the defense shadowing Bumphis, but with Tyrann Mathieu growing into one of the best nickelbacks in the country, Chavis will have the freedom leave the outside corners in their natural spots.
For LSU, stopping the run early and forcing long-yardage third downs will obviously be very important, as will tackling. Ballard and Perkins aren't the kind of backs that make you pay for one missed tackle, but they take a toll over time. A few misses early can lead to extended drives, which can lead to a tired defense, which can lead to even more misses late. With State likely starting a redshirt freshman left tackle in place of the injured James Carmon, Sam Montgomery has a chance to have a big showing on national TV.
On defense, State enters this game in the midst of a visible rebuild. A veteran secondary returns, but the front seven is replacing some quality starters in Pernell McPhee, Chris White and K.J. Wright. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are a quality defensive tackle pair, but the rest have struggled through the first two games, particularly against the run (199 yards allowed per game, 4.8 per carry). Although linebacker Cameron Lawrence has flashed some big-play ability early on (3.5 tackles-for-loss through two games). Strong safety Charles Mitchell leads the experienced defensive backfield, along with corners Corey Broomfield and Jonathan Banks and free safety Nickoe Whitley.
The real loss appears to be former co-defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who jumped ship for Texas last January. Chris Wilson takes over the whole job after sharing it last year, and while he appears to have kept the scheme relatively intact, the personnel losses appear to be taking their toll.
Diaz became a hot commodity in the last two seasons for his attacking style of 4-3, which places a premium on bringing pressure from any angle on any down. State's specialty has been the "fire zone," which, in short, stresses overloading one side of the offensive formation while dropping the backside into coverage. It's particularly effective against spread offenses, because it allows the defense to show a hanging defensive end, while still attacking the backside of the formation when the quarterback gives the ball on the zone-read. So basically, you give the QB a look that will force him to hand the ball off into an overloaded front.
Of course, the best way to counteract any type of zone blitz is to either run in the direction of the dropping linemen, or throw behind the blitzing ‘backers/DBs, and that means Jarrett Lee's biggest challenge in this game will be making the correct reads pre-snap, and adjusting the playcall or his primary read accordingly. If he can direct the offense, particularly the run game, in the right direction, they may suddenly find themselves with a lot of room. The no-huddle look that has had success in the first two weeks might work as well, allowing the offense to move before the defense can set itself.
Look for the offense to lean on Michael Ford's speed early in the game, and Spencer Ware's power more as things go on. Throwing with a hand in his face isn't exactly Lee's specialty, but some quick slants and bubble screens (hello Odell Beckham) might slow that pass rush a little. Auburn had some success with those plays at times as well last week, and Lee's thrown them well. But with a pair of veteran corners, it will be very important to avoid telegraphing the shorter sideline routes. Barrett Trotter learned that the hard way last Saturday.
Do NOT Expect
Special Teams Action
The only caveat to this point is to say that it would surprise me if Mullen pulls out a fake or a surprise onside kick somewhere here. He knows the stakes for this game and he knows how big momentum can be early in this Thursday night games.
Both of these teams are averaging right around 41 yards per punt, but while LSU still hasn't even let an opponent get into positive integers on punt returns, Mississippi State has allowed just one of their 11 punts to even be returned through two games. The Tigers do have an edge on kickoffs though. State hasn't surpassed 30 yards on a single return yet, but has allowed three over 30 and one over 40. Morris Claiborne hasn't quite been as explosive as we'd all hoped, although he is averaging 24.7 yards per return at the moment.
Special teams coach Thomas McGaughey has had an interesting first few games. Field goal kicking has been solid, albeit with a missed extra point, and last week's use of Jarvis Landry as a drop-back second punt returner was very interesting. That might be a way to sneak something past State if they try a short directional kick. Or it might set up some type of reverse. Mathieu hasn't exactly had a lot of great punt return opportunities, so it's been difficult to give him much of a grade. Brad Wing appears to be hobbled, which means senior walk-on D.J. Howard will probably handle the punting duties.