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LSU vs. Texas A&M: What to Watch For

It's Tigers vs. Aggies in the 11 a.m. morning death slot (GROAN).

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

Who's geeked up to roll outta bed for a football game on Saturday morning, mansome B1G style? Up top! C'mon...anybody...?

What To Watch For On Saturday

Kegs & Eggs

God this 11 a.m. kickoff blows, but hey, we oughta be used to the ol' Jefferson Pilot slot, right? What do you mean this is the post-Gameday former Pam Ward slot?

Well I'm sure ESPN had a good reason, I mean, the day's slate of game must be crazy...

/checks TV schedule

What the hell, ESPN? Seriously? Watching Alabama hold Derek Dooley's head under water for three hours sounds like primetime programming? Or anything involving Lane Kiffin and his three-ring circus of underachievement, never mind the fact that Colorado is pretty much the poster child of the whole college football relegation idea.

Who even calls these games anymore? Dave Pasch? What the hell is a Dave Pasch? Brian Griese? What, Joe Germaine or Darnell Autry not available? Jenn Brown...wait...Jenn Brown?







What was I talking about?

Survive and Advance

On a serious note, I do sincerely hate early kickoffs, especially on the road. LSU's never really seemed to attack them as zealously as we would hope, and in general I prefer for the Tigers to be on a more normal schedule on road trips. Yeah, other stadiums are more hostile at night, but it's the routine the team is used to, and I'm of the opinion that college kids work best under those circumstances.

That said, can't worry about that which is beyond control, and that includes game times. Never mind the facts that Texas A&M is certainly a quality team, and that even with last week's big win none of us should feel like LSU is bulletproof.

This team is still dealing with a huge amount of attrition and an inconsistent passing game -- plus, the mental struggles that we saw against Auburn, Towson and Florida don't just disappear in a week. Right now this team needs to find a way to get through this game and then use the much-needed bye week to rest, regroup and recharge for a November stretch that, Bama game aside, looks tougher by the week.

Approach every week like a one-game season, and LSU can make it through. The big-picture goals are still out there, but right now only this week matters.

Familiar Formula

Last week the LSU offense got back to basics, and I'm not so sure we'll see that change all that much this week. For one, all the execution kinks still aren't worked out yet, particularly in terms of Zach Mettenberger's passing. But on top of that, with an offense as explosive as Texas A&M's has been at times this season, the Tigers will be better off trying to grind out long drives that keep them off of the field. Though LSU has to start turning those red zone trips into touchdowns.

The Aggie secondary has really been struggling in recent weeks, and there may be some temptation to lean pass a bit, but this offense needs to stick with what it does best right now and grow from there. If the passing inconsistency weren't enough of a reason, A&M bring one of the nation's top sack artists to the table in Damontre Moore, the current league leader with 8.5. He also put up one of the more impressive stat lines I've ever seen from any defensive linemen in this league last week, with 17 combined tackles. He's also had at least two tackles for loss in each game this season and leads the league in that category as well.

Moore is the leader of a slightly undersized front that alternates between 4-3 and 3-4 for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, somewhat similar to Florida's defense. They'll also use some 3-3-5 nickel looks in passing situations. Moore has been the breakout star, despite a lot of preseason hype for linebacker Sean Porter, who has just 33 tackles and two tackles for loss on the year.

Surprisingly, that LB corps has looked a little slow and hesitant at times, and teams like Ole Miss and Louisiana Tech took advantage wide runs, misdirection and the screen game. Granted, LSU is still going to do what they do with regards to the inside and power runs, but look for some more of the screen looks that we saw last week. It's another way to keep the ball in the hands of the best players on the field (LSU's backs), keeps the ball away from Moore and they're plays Mettenberger is executing well right now. Watch for Terrance Magee to be active in the outside screen game as well from the slot. Ditto for Jarvis Landry, if the Aggies leave him uncovered in some of LSU's twin-WR looks. Snyder has played his corners off of the line at times, and if LSU gets handed an easy completion, this team will take it (again, provided the receivers catch the ball). This defense likes to bring pressure, but teams have had some luck diagnosing and running away from it, so don't be surprised if we also see more of the toss-sweeps that worked so well last week, especially out of two-TE "wing" sets. LSU might not run La. Tech's "Big Bone" formation, but they do run a lot of the sweeps and powers that the Bulldogs had success with last week out of that set.

On the other side, first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin comes from the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Air-Raid coaching tree, and his offenses at Houston not only broke records, they also helped to spawn the career of Dana Holgorsen on to Oklahoma State and West Virginia. In terms of the core passing concepts, we've covered most of them in the past when talking about Holgorsen's attack at West Virginia. But what makes Sumlin and offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury's attack at A&M different is how they have crafted it to their personnel, particularly freshman sensation quarterback Johnny Manziel.

One Man Gang

When he arrived in College Station, Sumlin inherited a couple of talented running backs in Christine Michael, Ben Malena and stud recruit Trey Williams; two very good tackles in Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews; and two very experienced, very productive receivers in Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu. But I doubt he had any idea that he also had the SEC's breakout playmaker in Manziel.

He's currently leading the league in both total offense (he's accounted for 72 percent of the Aggies' team total) and rushing, while having one of the 10 best passer ratings in the whole country. Manziel reminds me a lot of what Steve Young would have looked like in a wide-open spread attack: playmaking speed and quickness combined with an accurate arm and a mind for improvisation in a package that maybe isn't as tall as the ideal.

Ironically, he's found more of a connection with classmate Mike Evans, who is third in the league in receiving yards and recently moved on to the Biletnikoff Award watch list. Swope and Nwachukwu have seen their numbers decline but the passing game is more balanced overall, as is the offense with a near 50/50 pass/run ratio.

Though A&M does work under center occasionally, they've incorporated a lot of spread-option and QB-run looks to take advantage of Manziel's speed, including the use of a new concept popping up more and more with spread teams, the packaged-concept. Chris Brown detailed the ideas at Smart Football and Grantland, based on their use for teams like Oklahoma State and Notre Dame. Houston used this style at times under Sumlin, with the roots going back to the Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriguez spread teams that combined the zone-read with the third option of throwing a bubble screen. In short, the packaged concept is a way of combining two plays into one, typically the zone-read with a specific passing concept. The offensive line zone-blocks, with the idea being that if the play is a pass the ball will be out quick enough to prevent an ineligible-man-down-the-field penalty, and the quarterback has three options: give the ball to the running back, keep it, or throw one of the passing routes. It puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback to make the right call, but, for example, with Oklahoma State it usually came down to reading a single defender.



Here, we see the fairly common passing concept Y-stick combined with a draw play. Brandon Wheeden reads the strong-side linebacker. If he plays run first, throw the stick-route to the Y receiver, if he drops, hand the ball off.

Here are a couple of ways Oregon has packaged plays around the zone-read and bubble screens, with the ability to adjust to how the defense defends either play.





The goal is to make a defense guess and allow the offense to press the action to them, and with a quarterback like Manziel it's a little easier to trust him to make the right mental call because if he doesn't, his speed will bail him out often enough. And of course as defenses focus more on his running ability the pass plays open up that much more.

Additionally, the Aggies will use tempo to try and get a defense on its heels, which puts a premium on first down for the LSU defense. You can also bet Sumlin will call a trick play or two to try and get that Kyle Field crowd jazzed up and gain some momentum early.

Luckily, LSU got a bit of a preview of what it's like to defend Manziel last week with Connor Shaw and South Carolina. Shaw and Manziel are even built similarly, but there are some key differences: Manziel is a faster, more dangerous runner, and he has much better receiving targets than Shaw, however he does not have Marcus Lattimore to hand the ball of to. Malena and Michael are solid backs, but most defenses are probably going to be more willing to put the ball in their hands compared to Manziel's, a 180-degree turn from the Shaw-Lattimore combination.

John Chavis will have to mix things up a little bit to defend Manziel, in addition to the usual scrape-exchange on zone-read plays. The defensive line did a great job of staying under control and keeping Shaw in the pocket, yet still under pressure last week, and that'll need to be the case again, LSU has to make sure he doesn't have too many open running lanes. Watch for some A-gap pressures out of Kevin Minter, which could help to drive Manziel into the defensive ends.

There's been a lot of talk about "spies" this week, but really that's an old trope that never really gets used a whole lot versus the modern athletic quarterback for a variety of reasons. For one, rarely is the "spy" as fast as the guy he's supposed to be watching. Secondly, it's one less player in coverage against a passing team. LSU's had more success as of late using a more controlled pass rush to keep a mobile QB in the pocket, where they can close on him. Maintain gap responsibility at the guard-center triangle, while the ends loop around to and try to close the circle. You never want to see the pass rush fly past the QB with a lot of open space in front.

Manziel is still prone to the usual freshman gaffes, and will at times try to do a bit too much to make a play. He's at his best running on third down, and Sumlin and Kingsbury have done a very good job of avoiding those passing situations. LSU has to stop the run on early downs and mix up coverages to keep Aggy guessing. Plus, early stops will keep them out of their tempo package. And of course, if the offense can grind out some long touchdown drives and keep LSU in the pole position, it could also help force A&M and Manziel into taking some chances.

Do NOT Expect

The Jeremy Hill Show

He looked like as good of an all-around back as any on the LSU roster last weekend, and once he got in the groove, the staff kept feeding him. Hill has a good size-speed combination, and he reminds me a bit of Stevan Ridley with a little more speed. But I'm not so sure we'll see him do it two weeks in a row.

For starters, Spencer Ware is still probably the starter, in so much as that means anything. He's still got the most well-rounded skill set with regards to running, blocking and catching (I, for one, would still like to see him used more in the passing game). And if we've seen anything out of LSU in the last two and a half seasons, it's that the hot back will get the carries. That could mean more for Hill, but don't be surprised if Ware or Hilliard get in on the act. Watch out for Michael Ford as well. His speed might be a good matchup versus these linebackers.

Greased Hinges

Like I said earlier, LSU's goal for this week needs to be to get the win, get home and use the bye week to rest up. As much as I would like to think that the offense is well on the road to recovery, there are still some issues to work through. The red zone issues and a passing game that is still inconsistent, even when it does function semi-efficiently. Establishing the running game, and leaning on it, will provide the best avenue to fixing those things, but can LSU do that two weeks in a row? We'll find out.

Do that, hold the ball, and let the passing game come to Mettenberger and the receivers, and LSU can win this game handily.