Well now here's a game nobody really thought they'd care about a couple months ago. Kentucky, unranked, but an impressive 5-1 -- realistically a couple seconds from 6-0 -- comes to Tiger Stadium looking to pull off the most significant victory of the Mark Stoops Era, with an LSU team that, despite a much-needed victory last week, needs to keep some positive momentum going.
LSU needs to get this win for bowl eligibility (and yes, that matters -- don't think about the location, think about the 10 days of practices for it) before back-to-back showdowns with top-10 Ole Miss and Alabama programs. Thing is, so does Kentucky before they face the likes of No. 1 Mississippi State (2014 everybody!), Georgia, road trips to Mizzouri and Tennessee and a rivalry matchup with Louisville.
What's more, there's just three more home games left this season y'all.
What to Watch For On Saturday
The two teams have somewhat similar stat profiles. Kentucky is certainly more prolific through the air, but the efficiency has been close with LSU more effective on the ground. Defensively, both squads have been incredibly efficient in the air overall with some notable struggles at times, but while Kentucky's run defense numbers have been better the two figures align much more closely versus conference opponents. Tackles for loss and third-down rates as well.
Give Mark Stoops a lot of credit. He came to Kentucky with a plan to put them on the path to the league's top half and he's done the things he's said he'd do to date. Kentucky's beefed up their recruiting in Florida, where Stoops has long ties due to stints at Miami and Florida State, and in Ohio -- one of the nation's better recruiting hot beds that some forget is just across the border from Kentucky.
Stoops is, of course, the younger brother to Bob and Mike Stoops, and while I don't see much of a family resemblance, he opens his mouth and that depressing, rust-soaked Ohio accent comes right out. I joke, but he's done a phenomenal job in Lexington, enough that you have to think he could be considered for some higher-profile gigs that could be coming open soon.
One of the smarter things he's done is run an offense that harkens back to one of the more exciting eras of Kentucky football back in the late 90s.
Kentucky's offensive coordinator is Neal Brown, a young (age 34) up-and-comer that LSU saw before in the infamous 2008 Troy heart-attack game. He's a former Wildcat receiver that made his name largely at Troy and later at Texas Tech in the very brief Tommy Tuberville Era, running one of the newer variants of the offense that put Kentucky on the football map in the later years of last century: the Air Raid.
Now, most people just associate that word with any sort of gimmicky passing attack, but as usual, there's more to it. The Air Raid specifically refers to an offense that Hal Mumme and Mike Leach developed during stops at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State based on the classic pro-style passing game of LaVell Edwards' BYU Cougars.
As he usually does, Chris Brown is far more eloquent on the topic in a long and very extensive history lesson that explains the roots and evolution of the offense through Mumme and Leach's time at Kentucky, Leach's at Texas Tech and through some of the current purveyors of the style like Tony Franklin, Dana Holgorsen, Kevin Sumlin, Kliff Kingsbury and, of course, Brown. This quote sums up the underlying ideas nicely:
"the Air Raid is something more akin to an idea, or at least several related ones: that to get an advantage in modern football you need to be particularly good at something, and to be good at something you have to commit to that something, and if you're going to commit to something it might as well be different. And thus the principles underlying the Air Raid exist externally from the many coaches who have taught it: a diligent, many-reps approach to practice; a pass-first and spread the wealth philosophy; and, above all else, a willingness to live in the extremes, to do things just a bit differently, to be willing, in a game where conformity is king, to be just a little bit weird."
The biggest thing that people probably misunderstand about the offense itself is that the core concepts are a part of just about every passing game from high school to the NFL. Four Verticals? LSU ran that on the big third-and-25 conversion to Travin Dural last week. Nevermind plays like Y-Said/Y-Cross, which we also know as "levels" or "flood" concepts. Mumme and Leach backed the BYU offense back into the shotgun, spread the field a bit more and incorporated receiver screens and what we now see as the typical spread running game, and approached every game with a willingness to take those core plays and try them out of new formations and personnel groupings every week. Because at the end of the day if your X-receiver knows his route on a certain play versus any coverage he might see, it's no big adjustment to just change where he lines up on the field.
Over the years, the family tree of the offense has incorporated more elements like increased emphasis on the play-action game, option concepts to take advantage of more mobile quarterbacks, and of course, no-huddle tempo to further put a defense on its heels.
Brown's version of the offense now at Kentucky relies heavily on the use of the "packaged" concept, which is, basically, combining two plays into one, such as a zone-read with the option to throw a bubble-screen, determined pre-snap. Brown explains it here in pretty cool cut-ups series from the UK video department.
Other packaged concepts include a strong-side Y-Stick with a backside screen:
or this zone-stretch play with a simple two-man out/go combo on the back side:
Coach J Bird's blog has a few more diagrams here. In short, take what the defense gives you, run or pass, man-to-man coverage or zone, blitz or coverage.
Brown's triggerman is redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles, a 6-5 pocket passer with some surprising mobility, currently completing 62.5 percent of his passes right at 8.0 yards per attempt with 10 touchdowns and just four picks. He's throwing to a group of receivers that are stereotypically smaller for a spread offense like this, but Towles distributes things well. Five different wideouts are catching at least two balls per game, with four over the 200-yard mark. Sophomore Ryan Timmons is the favorite with 27 catches for 315 yards (nobody else has more than 20 catches or 300 yards). Brown and Towles aren't afraid to dink and dunk their way down the field with screens and short throws, but they're hoping that will open up the deep stuff eventually.
In the running game, Kentucky uses three backs that are all similar runners -- one-cut speed players that create big plays off of missed tackles. But it's been a very boom/bust running game for the Wildcats, with Jojo Kemp, Braylon Heard and Stanley "Boom" Williams largely breaking long runs or getting stopped near the line. Using Kemp in some Wildcat-style direct snap plays has been particularly useful in recent weeks. Kemp picked up 125 yards out of that set in Kentucky's big win over South Carolina two weeks ago, and that's pretty much been Brown's go-to call in short-yardage situations. The staff hasn't been afraid to rely heavily on that Wildcat look because well...it's what works for them.
Now, spread running attacks like this have been something of a struggle for LSU this season, but Kentucky being so Wildcat heavy gives me a little bit of hope. It's one thing when a spread attack has a quarterback and a running back to give them a passing threat. But when Towles motions out wide with Kemp in the backfield, LSU shouldn't be afraid to roll the safeties down and man-up on the other players. If Kemp does make a play throwing the ball, well...I think you take that chance.
Plus, the Kentucky offensive line isn't exactly what you'd call a dominating group. If the Tiger defensive tackles can build on the progress they showed last week and Kendell Beckwith can make some plays in one-on-one situations, I think LSU has a good chance to contain the running game. They can't miss tackles though, especially when Boom Williams has the ball.
The bigger challenge will be for LSU's nickel corners, linebackers and safeties. Kentucky will use a lot of motion and misdirection and try to get the ball in space quickly. Missed tackles have been an issue there. LSU's corners will need to be physical against those plays as well, particularly in defeating blocks and trying to funnel runners back inside. Tre'davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins have been pretty good in coverage save for a few miscues, but they haven't been nearly as effective in run support in recent weeks.
Two things to watch with Towles: his mobility, not only to extend plays but also to flat out make them -- he doesn't have great rushing numbers but he's shown the ability to pick up 10-15 yards on occasion; he's also shown a slight tendency to try to squeeze tight throws in, especially on the sidelines.
If there's a ball up for grabs, LSU needs to make a play.
The average fans that hated the offense they saw against Florida will most likely still be bitching when this one's over, even if LSU should win. Why? Because the game plan isn't likely to change.
And guess what? It shouldn't.
Kentucky comes in with an up-tempo spread attack that thrives on creating big, chunk plays in the passing and running games, led by a pretty good quarterback. LSU is coming off a breakout performance from its marquee running back, with an uncertain quarterback situation and a shaky defense. The Tigers' best strategy in this game will be ball control. String together long, drawn-out drives. Convert third-down opportunities, and turn red-zone opportunities into touchdowns. Protect the defense by keeping it off the field, and use the game clock to make Kentucky as one-dimensional as possible. Ideally, about five minutes into the second quarter, Kentucky's players are looking up at a healthy two-score deficit and thinking "damn...and we've only had the ball once."
The offense desperately needs the offensive line to take another step forward after what we saw last week in Florida. A simple gameplan heavy on the inside zone and stretch plays that worked so well last week needs to be the focus. Not only do those plays fit Leonard Fournette's running style incredibly well, but they dovetail with a passing game that Anthony Jennings (and, should he be ready, Brandon Harris), both can operate well with a healthy diet of bootlegs and other motion passes.
Last week we saw a lot of involvement from the fullback in the passing game through Spider Y-Banana plays. This week, it'd be a good idea if that could extend to the rest of the backfield as well. One thing that Florida did a great job of was getting their backs in space with a simple swing pass. That play would look very good, not only on Fournette but also on Terrance Magee, who has quietly started to rediscover his 2013 form after a slow start.
Whoever the quarterback is, Cam Cameron needs to let him start small. Pair the running game with a short, high-percentage, possession passing game. Stay on schedule and avoid obvious passing situations. Force Kentucky's defensive backs to keep their eyes in the backfield and near the line of scrimmage and that can set up big plays later on -- or through broken tackles after the catch.
LSU's already doing a pretty good job of avoiding turnovers. Start to clean up the smaller mistakes like the personal fouls and early snaps. Put Jennings in position to get the ball out quickly and avoid bad passing situations on third down, and the Tigers will not only move the ball but put points up.
And if they take their sweet time doing it, the Wildcats will have to press to try and create big plays in the passing game. Give the LSU defense a more one-dimensional opponent, and get the snowball rolling downhill for this team instead of against it, as we've seen in the two losses this year.
Odds & Ends
On the other side of the ball, Kentucky hasn't been dominant on defense, but they've been opportunistic. Florida and South Carolina both gained more than 500 yards of offense, including 200-plus rushing. But Kentucky's 11 interceptions are second in the SEC and what's more they've been timely, with pick-sixes to take the lead against South Carolina and even last week against ULM.
Stoops runs a zone-heavy defense with a big of a funky front. It's a 3-4 nominally, but defensive end/linebackers Bud Dupree and Jason Hatcher will both drop into coverage and occasionally almost form a five-man defensive line. Between those two, defensive end Za'Darius Smith and middle linebacker Josh Forrest, there are a couple of playmakers in this defensive front. Watch to see if LSU can force Dupree into dropping into coverage some when the Tigers do spread the field.
The Tiger offensive line seemed to get over its phobia of odd-front defensive lines last week, but between 320-pound nose tackle Melvin Smith and human oil drum Matt Elam, the matchup with Elliot Porter is a bit of a concern. The good news there is that if LSU can work its zone game, and Vadal Alexander and Ethan Pocic can play the way they did last week, all he has to do is get his man turned the right way. Forrest will blitz the A-gap in versus some spread looks, something that the Porter will have to spot and adjust the protection to.
On the back end, safety A.J. Stamps is the ring leader of a group that plays a bit off of the line of scrimmage, but has done a pretty good job of keeping plays in front of them and getting hands on the ball when it is up for grabs.
The dink-and-dunk passing game hasn't exactly worked for LSU much this year, but it hasn't been tried much either. Kentucky may present the best opportunity with some cushion outside. Trey Quinn could find some room on slants and hitches, although Malachi Dupre and John Diarse might be better options with their size advantage. Diarse in particular could be tough to tackle for the Wildcat corners, which both run south of 180 pounds. If LSU does get stuck in third-and-long situations, then you'll see the nickel/dime defenders creep up to combine to take away the hot throws behind the blitz.
But the running game, especially with Fournette, needs to sit front and center again. As for Brandon Harris, his role will likely depend on how the rest of the LSU offense performs. When you look at the whole picture of his season, his success has come late facing a huge deficit in a game that most had all but given up on, or with a 14-point lead against an overmatched opponent when the starter had been all but booed out of the game. His first taste of pressure yielded what we saw against Auburn. If LSU can find a way to jump out in front in this one, Cameron should consider giving him a series and see how he works in. Regardless of how Jennings plays going forward, Harris is going to have to get over the jitters we saw in Jordan-Hare at some point.
Kentucky's going to come into this game sky-high and confident. A strong start for LSU to get a crowd -- that let's face it, will be on the brink -- dialed in early will be crucial. Kentucky's proven that they can erase deficits quickly, but they've needed help from their opponents in the form of turnovers. Keep steady, win the line of scrimmage, and LSU can take care of business here and keep moving forward.