We may have our complaints with the 2012 bowl process, but let it not be said that we aren't excited about this matchup. LSU and Clemson have more juice than two of the BCS bowls this postseason. It features two ranked, 10-win squads that are fairly evenly matched with some complementary strengths and weaknesses and coaches known for their..."colorful" personalities.
And besides, New Year's Eve is a party night anyway, we might as well make the best of it with a great football game, right?
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The Georgia Dome fast track could have a whole lot more mileage on it after this one.
Both of these teams can put a whole lot of speed on the field. Clemson's big-play credentials are known. DeAndre Hopkins was one of the best deep-threat wideouts in the country this year, averaging 17.5 yards per catch and find the endzone 16 times. Andre Ellington averaged over five yards per carry, and Sammy Watkins, despite struggling with some injuries and discipline issues this season, is a threat to go long any time he touches the ball.
Tahj Boyd has executed this offense exceptionally well this season, with about 4,000 yards or total offense and 42 combined touchdowns. We've discussed the Chad Morris running game, but the passing game has to be a major concern, especially given how LSU's defense closed out the season. The Tigers allowed 1,144 passing yards in the month of November -- that's just 44 yards less than they allowed in September and October combined.
Morris' passing game relies on a lot of the Air Raid standards we're used to watching now and even got to see LSU employ this season. Vertical, stick and drag concepts and an interesting variant on the "smash" corner-route concept known as the three-man snag. FIGUREFOUR from Shakin' the Southland illustrated it to demonstrate a big play Sammy Watkins made versus Auburn.
It's a play primarily designed to conflict zone defenders, though it can work just as well versus man coverage with the right matchup. The quarterback can read short-to-deep, starting in the flat then moving on to the curl and corner, depending on his pre-snap coverage read. The corner route is such a great deep throw because it has a low interception probability if the route and throw are executed correctly. As long as the defense doesn't have outside position, the throw should either be completed or have the ball sail out of everybody's reach.
Additionally, I expect a lot of double-moves and other passing misdirections to try and take advantage of LSU's younger corners and the safeties' aggressiveness. Ole Miss had a ton of success with hitch-n-go routes against Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, and Tharold Simon has shown a tendency to fall asleep versus those short hitch routes as well. Eric Reid will need to break a very bad tendency to jump on playfakes, because Morris, like Malzahn will not only make heavy use of them, but of double-fakes with the tailback and a sweeping slot man.
And of course, once Clemson gets on the move, Morris will try to compound LSU's problems with their fast pace. This isn't anything new for LSU and John Chavis, they just have to be ready and equipped to deal with it.
Luckily, the Clemson secondary should have its hands just as full with Zach Mettenberger and the LSU passing attack. The ACC Tigers have allowed more than 250 yards passing to five opponents this season and ranked 62nd nationally in pass defense efficiency.
Coordinator Brent Venables spent a long time with Bob Stoops at Oklahoma, and like Stoops he favors combination coverages behind a zone-blitzing front. But film study suggests he doesn't quite have the defensive line talent to be as aggressive as he'd like, and the result is that he has to take more chances to generate pressure.
This can play into LSU hands because, frankly, they don't really have to change much of what they do in the passing game to take advantage: flood and vertical concepts on standard downs, with a mix of quick throws and heavier protection schemes for downs where Clemson brings pressure. The key is for Mettenberger and Co. to continue to execute as well as they did through the season's final stretch. Not only to get that 11th win, but to continue to progress towards next season.
Watch for Jarvis Landry to get a lot of looks on stick, curl and comeback routes. Clemson struggled to defend those plays and make the tackle after the catch against South Carolina. Passes to Spencer Ware and Jeremy Hill out of the backfield could be another way to take advantage of this deficiency.
LSU will have its own speed and quickness advantages on that FieldTurf, and remember -- with last year's notable exception, Tiger quarterbacks have excelled when it comes to indoor bowl games under Les Miles. Matt Flynn in '05 and '07, Jamarcus Russell in '06, hell, even [redacted] had two of the best games of his career in the 2008 Peach Bowl and the Cotton Bowl following the 2010 season.
One more potentially explosive X-factor: special teams. Yes, LSU will be without Brad Wing, though honestly, I'm not all that worried about Jamie Keehn. Clemson was in the bottom third nationally in kick return yardage average, and only punted about once or twice a game on average. Odell Beckham Jr. doesn't need much room to make something happen, and the other Tigers only averaged 36 net yards per punt.
Now, that being said, I'm going to stick with both Poseur's and my own refrain from the end of the season. Don't let this newly competent passing game overshadow the running game. Yes, Clemson's secondary has really struggled, but their run defense allowed 4.5 yards per carry or better in five games this season, and allows some 6.6 per carry in third-down, short-yardage rushing situations (three yards or less). Both of the ACC Tigers' losses came to teams similar to LSU in terms of talent on the line of scrimmage, South Carolina and Florida State, and in general, teams were able to grind up their run defense in the second half -- 54 percent of the team's rushing yards were allowed after halftime, for about 4.5 per carry.
Quoting Dr.B and FIGUREFOUR after the South Carolina game:
"Big games are almost invariably decided up front, and our 5 sissy OL got their asses handed to them, and our starting DL got pushed around. That's it."
"We are a cream puff football team that lacks toughness and gets killed at the point of attack. Period."
That sound like a team you try to pass on? LSU, particularly the Tiger offensive line, need to exert themselves and maul this defensive front, the way we're used to seeing but really didn't in the final three games. Inside zone. Power. Stretch and power-sweep. Use Hill, use Ware and keep Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford involved in the running game as well to wear these other Tigers down.
Let the passing game complement that, and we know this offense can put up points. This is still an offense that averages over five yards per carry on first down. Not only can the running game set the tone, it keeps the ball in the hands of the offense's best players (truthfully, Hill and Ford are two I could see really taking advantage of the Georgia Dome fast track, along with Russell Shepard), it can wear down a defense that has been soft at times AND it can keep that high-powered Clemson offense on the sidelines and protect LSU's vulnerable secondary.
Truthfully, as Dr.B explained in our Q&A, I kind of expect Clemson to come out and maybe get an early lead with Boyd and those two receivers. A huge key for Greg Studrawa and the Tiger offense is going to be avoiding panic and sticking with their offensive gameplan. It paid off against Bama and in that tight shootout with Ole Miss. With a really good offense, you have to expect a good opening volley, and be ready to respond. But if the Tigers are properly engaged in this game, I don't doubt that they are capable of doing that on the ground or in the air. But remember, the rushing attack is still this team's best weapon.
Likewise, LSU's defense has to stop Clemson inside-out and front to back. The last time LSU saw a scheme this reliant on pulling linemen, it was the Florida Gators, who largely had success due to attrition and wear-and-tear. But Kevin Minter was able to have a field day shooting the A-gaps, and that should continue Monday evening. The return of Kwon Alexander should be a boon in the run-defense department as well. But it would really help if the defensive tackles can get some push. Bennie Logan, Josh Downs and Freak Johnson are the kind of quick, explosive tackles that can knock pulling guards off schedule; they just have to bring a consistent effort, something that's been a problem at times this season. Which brings us to our next point...
This remains the biggest factor in almost any bowl game. Which team is in Atlanta on business, and which one is there to enjoy itself.
With one very notable exception, Les Miles' LSU squads have approached these bowl trips with a loose yet focused mindset. Ready to play and ready to win. And while I have no real reason to believe this team is any different, it always has to be in the back of your mind. Frankly, consistent focus has been a bit of a problem for this team all season. Few major breakdowns, but few truly complete performances either. And as much fun as it is to read about how the team out-ate Clemson at the Brazillian steakhouse to the tune of 600-plus pounds of meat, that's not exactly the type of victory I'm really looking for LSU to come home with. Ticket sales are down and none of us have been quite as enthused about this game as we typically are for bowl games. Now, there's no reason for the team to have that type of attitude, but in the end these are still college students and there isn't a coach in the country that hasn't seen his team enjoy the bowl trip a little too much and not quite show up ready to play.
Clemson has the talent to play with LSU and a scheme that can give any defense trouble. If our Tigers aren't ready to play with a complete effort, they could easily let this one slip away and we all know how much a final loss can set a shitty tone for the offseason. Is this the team that failed to notch a touchdown in Florida, or the one that topped the 35-point mark six times and executed a near-flawless offensive gameplan versus Alabama's defense? The secondary that held the Heisman Trophy winner without a touchdown, or the one that gave up 300 yards of offense to Bo Wallace.
The stage might not be as big as LSU would like, but there should still be plenty of motivation. For players like Mettenberger and Kevin Minter, this is a chance to play in front of friends and family. For Sam Montgomery, it's an opportunity to compete against them. For seniors like Russell Shepard, Chase Clement, P.J. Lonergan and Lavar Edwards, its one last shot to show off for the NFL scouts. Clemson is a top-20 team, and a program that LSU regularly competes against for recruits. Finish the drill, finish this game and let's finish 2012 right.
I, for one, will be enjoying this one with friends, family and fireworks as a part of a New Year's Eve festivities. And there's no better way to put me in the mood to watch whatever sad disappointment they'll be subbing in for Dick Clark when midnight rolls around. Happy New Year to us all, Geaux Tigers and FUCK CLEMSON!