clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

LSU vs. West Virginia: What to Watch For

What is best in life?

That is my message to fearless leader and the rest of the horde en route to Morgantown.

Meanwhile, the Tigers face not only their third game on the road against a ranked opponent in the No. 16 West Virginia Mountaineers, but yet another top-shelf offensive mastermind in Dana Holgorsen. Some background on WVU's skulleted, Red Bull (among other liquids)-chugging leader, check this out.

Holgo is slightly different from the last two gurus the Tigers dined on, both in style and substance. He's got mentor Mike Leach's laid back personal demeanor, rather than the high-energy, short-fused New England gruffness of Chip Kelly and Dan Mullen. And whereas the Oregon and Mississippi State offenses were much more run-oriented, West Virginia will go take to the air much more often.

But after some 2,000 words on exactly what West Virginia wants to do on offense, I should probably get some thoughts on how LSU will go about defending them, right? For that, I turn to one of the preeminent X's O's bloggers on the interwebz, Chris Brown of the ever-essential Smart Football. Chris was good enough to answer some questions, and he also has this awesome piece on the game up over at ESPN's

1.        Dana Holgorsen's roots in the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach coaching family tree are well-documented. Personally, I think it can be argued that he may have perfected the Air Raid through his additions of a run and play-action game. What say you?

Chris Brown: No, I think Holgorsen has taken that framework and is really going someplace slightly different with it. I agree with his changes -- though I think using an H-back would be as effective as using a second RB and would be more useful in the run game -- but what's good about his offense is that he's taken the practice methods and practice framework of the offense. He's using different plays and concepts. Maybe it's being nitpicky but the reason I say he hasn't perfected the Air-Raid is because, although that's what it came from, I don't think he's really running the true "Air-Raid."

2.        What would be a defensive coordinator's core concepts for defending this offense?

CB: The big things are, first, defensive linemen have to win one-on-one blocks with the offensive linemen in both the run game and pass game. 

The offense relies on a lot of one-on-one blocking up front, and the defensive line can't get tired from all the quick screens and sideline plays. Second, the defense has to cover the receivers closely -- just running your mom and pop's "spot drop" zones will get you killed because their receivers are going to be coached up to find the open voids wherever they are. Finally, and this is more to Holgorsen's offense than Leach's, is you have to be able to stop the run with your seven man or reduced front, because they're not going to be a run-first team but if they can run it will really wreak havoc with your ability to stop the run and pass.

3.        Specifically, based on what you've seen from LSU's defense this year, how do you think John Chavis will gameplan for it?

CB: Holgo's teams have run the ball better than Leach, but so far West Virginia has had issues with the run game, particularly with their line finishing blocks and their young stable of running backs being able to hit the holes that are there -- too often they have cut back into the teeth of the defense when there are four or five positive yards to be had. But they can certainly throw it, and Geno Smith is a very good quarterback. As a result I expect Chavis to use a lot of his "mustang" package with three down linemen, two linebackers, and six defensive backs, both to match up with the receivers and to disrespect the West Virginia run game.

I think the initial plan will basically be to play man on the receivers and bring stunts inside, figuring they'll either get to the quarterback or stuff the run. A big question is how West Virginia handles this kind of speed and pressure early. My personal view is that West Virginia will actually do better against this than maybe many -- including Chavis -- will think, in which case you'll see him still use the "Mustang" and play plenty of man, but will mix in zone blitzes and other defensive concepts to disguise things for Geno Smith. Smith is allowed to call essentially any play in the offense at the line, so disguise and shifting from Chavis's D will be key. The X factor is if WVU can run the ball: If yes, you might see a big day from WVU's O. If not, they may get some passing yards but I think they'll have a hard time scoring 30 or more -- what it would probably take to win.

The final thought is that, for obvious reasons, there are similarities between Bo Pellini's defense at Nebraska and what Chavis currently does at LSU -- four man front, lots of man pressure, etc. Last season, Pellini played Oklahoma State and gave up 41 points, though quarterback Brandon Weeden did not have a great game. Nebraska played a lot of man coverage and brought pressure; Oklahoma State's best response to this (like, LSU, Nebraska's secondary had several NFL guys, including Prince Amukamara who went in the first round to the Giants) was to have men better than the man across from them, namely RB Kendall Hunter and WR Justin Blackmon. (Hunter is now with the 49ers and Blackmon is a likely first round pick.) I'm not sure West Virginia has any individuals on its offense as talented as either of them, and when you play a talented team you need some guys to win one-on-one matchups. This is one reason why I think LSU will likely win.

4.        The weakness of LSU's defense thus far has been linebacker play. How might West Virginia look to exploit that?

CB: Again, the position that really has to step up for WVU is running back. They have used three true freshman and a junior (who just returned from injury), and no one has stood out yet. When his offense is rolling, Holgorsen likes to use lots of screens, quick flare passes, and so on, all of which are designed to work on the opposing team's linebackers. But if they can't mature and make big time plays, I think WVU will have a hard time exposing LSU's linebackers.

5.        Do you have any thoughts on LSU's offense through the first quarter of the season?

CB: I think it's a much better fit for this year's team than what they had the past few seasons under Crowton. Steve Kragthorpe installed his system and, while he's not calling the plays, it's a simpler, more coherent approach for a team that doesn't need to play lights out offense week in and week out. The basic approach this year is to pound away inside until the defense overreacts to stop the run, and then LSU has some good weapons and Jarrett Lee has played solid this season. 

WVU's defense is fast but undersized; it's a real question whether they will be able to stop LSU's downhill running game in the fourth quarter. It's certainly not a high flying attack, but I think it fits LSU's personality -- and Miles's personality -- much better, at least when the defense is as talented as it is this season.

What to Watch For on Saturday

Balancing Act

Make no mistake, thus far this season the ‘Eers have been a much better passing team than rushing one this season. But that won't stop them from attempting to run the football. As I pointed out in the Study Session, their first-down playcalling this season has been a near 50-50 split. And as Chris pointed out, Holgorsen will do anything he can to move the football.

Plus, I'm pretty sure he's seen what LSU's defensive line can do if the game becomes one-dimensional.

More of the Same

If there's a second mantra I've tried to impart, aside from the genius of simplicity, it's that players make schemes. If you have better players than the other guy, the chances of your plan working will go up exponentially. While the 3-3-5 stack defense has been largely developed specifically to counteract the spread-to-run offense, its proliferation isn't because it's a "gimmick defense."

It gives a team the freedom to keep eight players near the line of scrimmage, with enough players in two-point stances to bring any number of odd-angled blitzes (which is what attracts so many coaches to the 3-4 these days). In Jeff Casteel's near 10-years as defensive coordinator in Morgantown, he's had a lot of success with the scheme, including last year's outfit, which finished No. 2 nationally in rushing defense.

Where it becomes a problem is in the personnel department. The average size of the WVU defensive line is 259 pounds. Yes, this team wants to overwhelm an offense with numbers and speed, but if your line can't get some push against the opposing offense, it won't work. Big, space-eating nose tackles are so important on three-man lines, and Jorge Wright is just 281 pounds. Look for LSU to play this game very similar to the last two, with a heavy dose of straight-ahead inside running and a passing game that works off of that. The Mountaineers will move around and flash a lot of different looks pre-snap, in an effort to try and make Jarrett Lee second-guess the playcall. He can't fall for it.

Last season, LSU threw the ball 23 times against WVU despite a running game that was dramatically more effective. I highly doubt that will repeat this year.

Jarrett Lee

As Hov says, it's all about progression. And that remains Lee's goal for this week. Keep doing the things he's been doing well -- keeping the offense in the right play (extremely important against this defense) and distributing the football quickly when asked. The progression? Do a better job of looking off defenders, especially on the short, quick throws outside. Lee can look off a deep safety, his problem is more when he's throwing that quick slant or curl. He can't keep staring down that primary read, because eventually the better defensive backs he'll face will jump those.

Teams are going to continue to try and clamp down on the run early, and get into cover-2 on passing downs and force Lee to throw to those second and third reads underneath. But that means that when he has the chance to throw those intermediate and deep routes against single coverage, he has to connect. It would also be nice to see some of the misdirection passing game, such as bootlegs and rollout passes as well. Lee might not be a runner, but he doesn't have to be. Those plays can be used as another way to keep a defense from pinching inside too much.

Russell Shepard

Prodigal son No. 1 returns.

Everyone's favorite former No. 1 recruit returns to the lineup this week, though he may find his No. 2 wide receiver spot filled by Odell Beckham. So what is Shepard's place in this attack? That's a pretty good question, and I have a pretty good answer. In fact, it's a mind-blowing answer. One that will shake you to your absolute core and make you question all that you consider holy.

I don't know.

ODB has already flashed better hands and more polish as a wideout than Shepard ever did, and he deserves to keep his spot. But that still leaves the slot position, and special teams. Kick returns in particular could absolutely use a shot in the arm. Morris Claiborne hasn't been quite the explosive runner that we figured. And this may be wishful thinking, but I would still love to see Shepard involved in the rushing offense. He did have 27 yards rushing on three attempts in the spring game, and could make for another outside back to compliment Michael Ford. Ware has the inside gig on a nice lockdown, but as I mentioned earlier this week, a little speed to help create some big plays would be nice. There's always the slot sweep, which is a play that ODB would be killer on as well.

Do NOT Expect

Scoreboard Fireworks

Call it a hunch, but I think Brent will be breaking open a cold one sometime in the third quarter.



That isn't to say I don't think this game will be competitive. Just that I don't see West Virginia making a ton of hay against LSU's defense, nor will the Tigers be scorching up the turf. Look for the gameplan to be very similar to last week, with the offense trying to grind up as many long drives as they can, preferably with a capping touchdown. If this offense can continue to do the little things well that have worked thus far, the big plays will grow organically.