**Ed. Note: Sorry about the lateness on this, but a long Sunday kept me from giving this one a proper review.**
When LSU got hammered in Auburn, a couple of us talked about the game just getting away from the Tigers. The snowball rolling downhill metaphor and all that.
The Tigers were finally the ones rolling the ball Saturday night. Special teams helped LSU build a quick 17-0 lead, and from there they could throw body blows and let Kentucky tire itself out trying to dig out of the hole it was already in. LSU threw for more than 100 of its 120 passing yards in that first half and ran for nearly 200 in the second half. The defense won the line of scrimmage, closed on the ball quickly and made Kentucky's already one-dimensional offense even more so. But if I'm being honest, just as I don't think Auburn was really 34-points better than LSU on the whole, the Tigers probably aren't 38 points better than Kentucky. That's a very solid Wildcats team.
People can be all the mad they want to be about it, but it was a step forward for a young team that a lot of people were predicting would go 0-for-the-SEC two weeks ago. And now they get to try it against the toughest month of the schedule.
- Box score review: huge step forward for LSU on the efficiency stats: 6.4 yards per play, a 54-percent conversion rate on third down (7/13) and perfect on red-zone opportunities with two touchdowns. The Tigers now rank third in the league in their red-zone touchdown percentage, better than Mississippi State, Alabama, Auburn and Ole Miss. Just one turnover as well, a very late, ultimately meaningless interception from Brandon Harris.
Conversely the defense held Kentucky to just 217 total offensive yards and just 3.4 per play. Eight tackles for loss were a big step in the right direction as well.
- So how about those Tiger special teams? It's comforting that after an uncustomary breakdown and lots of promises to focus on it during the week we saw some very clear results. Granted, Kentucky helped a bit.
For starters, Kentucky tries an opening fake-onside kick that even Mark Stoops admits now seemed "too cute" in hindsight. On a play like that you're gambling on your coverage getting down quickly before the blocks with the return team moving into a the safe position, but the kick's a bit too low and hard, Terrance Magee gets a head of steam and some nice blocks from D.J. Welter (I think, didn't get a clear look) and Kenny Hilliard to spring him for a nice return.
Those low kicks were a theme as well. Tre'davious White had a lot of room on this first 17-yard return, and then there was the touchdown. Kentucky's just ridiculously bunched up. Jamal Adams makes that unreal block, but once White cut right four Wildcats are all but out of the play. A Debo Jones block gets him to the sideline and then he's got the convoy of blockers all to the endzone.
- Oh and then there was the accidental onside kick. LSU's thinking squib with under a minute to go, and for whatever reasons the entire Wildcat second level was looking to block people, while nobody except the guys in the endzone were moving towards the ball. Nice hustle by Lewis Neal to get there and get on the ball.
- But once LSU had that 17-point lead in the first 10 minutes, you could see Patrick Towles and the Wildcats' eyes get a bit big. But LSU's sagging a bit in the second quarter gave them enough of a window to get their tempo and packaged plays going a bit, using the misdirection a little to make some things happen. Credit the Tiger defense for holding them to a field goal, and later making a big stop on fourth-and-two.
- Danielle Hunter made the play there, slicing right inside the tight end as Kentucky's tackle blocked down and meeting the running back and the pulling guard in the backfield together.
- In general, Hunter and Rasco were active as hell in this game. They still miss some tackles in the backfield and sack opportunities every now and then, and that needs to get cleaned up, but they're making so many plays hustling down the line in pursuit. Case-and-point making the tackles on third-down screen plays to force punts on consecutive drives in the third quarter.
- Defensive line play in general continues to improve. Both Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux are taking turns occupying blockers and causing havoc in the backfield. Maquedius Bain continues to give the team some depth snaps off the bench as well. Nothing flashy, but doing enough to keep the middle closed up, particularly in some of the very obvious situations such as when Kentucky went Wildcat.
- Interesting twist John Chavis trotted out: Sione Teuhema playing over the nose in the third-and-long Mustang package situations. He's shown some real speed off the edge in spurts this year, so it's good to see him getting on the field more. Hopefully that will extend to more opportunities from the edge as well.
- Alright, now to the offense. LSU's approach coming in was a little different from what we've seen, starting out with some 12 personnel on the first few snaps (one back, two tight ends). From Cam Cameron's postgame interview, I don't think they expected quite as many overload pressure and mixed coverages as Kentucky wound up showing, and in the second quarter, you saw LSU get back to more of the I-looks with a lot of play-action and double move routes to try and back Kentucky off of the line of scrimmage. On the one hand, that's not a bad way to try and manipulate the defense, but on the other, it puts more pressure on Anthony Jennings to make low-percentage throws.
- Still, I think that on the whole the night represented some progress for 10. Not much mind you, but baby steps still count. In general, the offense had a better flow, with fewer gaffs getting the plays in and nothing resembling any of the bad snaps we saw last week.
- The good: he stayed calm and collected on a couple of third downs, converting one to Travin Dural on a shallow cross from the backside, another on a deep cross to Travis Dickson and two more on check-downs to Magee. His 32-yard touchdown to Dural was a very nice rainbow on an out-and-up route. Laid it right out there for Dural to run to. He also made the right read and run check on Magee's 38-yarder, spotting a safety rotating down strong side and switching the play to weak side. Once Magee found his crease he had a lot of open space.
- Speaking of tight ends, DeSean Smith got on the field early and more often this week. Between that and an actual factual catch for a tight end, it probably doesn't mean much, but it's worth mentioning.
- The bad: the play that everybody's really clinging to is Jennings' first pass attempt. LSU ran a play-action boot off of a stretch play to Leonard Fournette. Jennings appeared to peak at Dural running a post early on, but with a safety in the middle of the field he went to Fournette continuing up the sideline on a wheel route and...just stayed with him while Trey Quinn was open on a dig route. He managed to at least get the ball off, and lucked out with a roughing-the-passer call. There's really no defending it -- Jennings has to move his eyes to his third option there. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Quinn was actually the second option, but with the safety deep Jennings probably thought he could sneak that wheel route on the backside. Can't be that greedy against a better defense.
- In general, Jennings gets a bit happy in the pocket at times, and doesn't always set his feet when he throws. He does it better when he is on the move. That said, when he's comfortable he's capable of a very nice deep ball.
- On to the oft-discussed third-down misfire to Connor Neighbors near the goal-line. The play call is a "spider Y-banana" play-action, designed to be a quick misdirection pass to the fullback. So if he's open right away, which Neighbors was, the QB is supposed to make that throw. Yes, Logan Stokes did break open on a corner route in the endzone, but by the time he's making his cut Jennings has already started his throwing motion -- really the only way he could have made that throw would be if he pre-determines the read in the huddle, which is really not the design of that play.
Now, all of that said, he just barely misses Neighbors, and I think you can argue that Melvin Jones probably makes the catch. But overall it's a relatively meaningless play because honestly, even if Jennings makes that throw and gets the extra touchdown, I don't think it changes the overall quality of his performance, which wasn't high.
- Now if we're going to talk missed plays, the drop by Malachi Dupre on a second-down comeback route and his misplayed jump ball in the endzone were more significant. Jennings also missed Dupre on a scramble play near the sideline.
- Speaking of fullbacks, Neighbors had a rough first half but picked up his play, along with the rest of the offensive line in the second. Jones continues to be an absolute pile-driver though, and should continue to see more and more time.
- One last note on receivers: Dural needs to work on adjusting his speed on some of those double moves. Doesn't do the best job of setting up his break or exploding out of it to get by the corner. But that's a nuance that comes with more experience.
- Offensive line: rough start, but continued to get stronger as the game went on. Vadal Alexander probably exemplified its play best, whiffing on a few blocks on the first drive or two, but absolutely mauling Wildcats from the second quarter on. On both big plays by Magee in the third, Alexander had his man a good 10 yards down the field.
- Speaking of Magee, he truly looked like his 2013 self for the first time all season, with the biggest all-purpose game of his career: 127 yards rushing, 44 receiving on three catches and the 49-yard kickoff return. He saw the holes great on zone runs in the second half and just burst right through them. His first touchdown featured a fantastic backside cut behind Jerald Hawkins, who had his man about 10 yards down the field. And that stocky frame is still not something most cornerbacks want to tackle at full speed.
- Wide and tight zone plays continue to be this team's bread and butter, but Elliot Porter's been the key. Kentucky's nose guard was able to ride him down the line on a few plays and throw off the timing. That can't happen next week.
- Give Kentucky's defense some credit though. Josh Forrest runs really well at middle linebacker, and Bud Dupree did something no other pass-rusher has done this season: man-handle La'el Collins with a club move and get by him quick enough to draw a holding penalty.
- Rest of the defense: Kendell Beckwith made another very nice step forward, with nine tackles and a tackle for loss. He seemed to get better as the game went on, with a couple of really nice pursuit plays outside of the tackles in the third quarter. He still struggles making a tackle in the backfield on some inside runs when he has a chance though.
- Safety play made a very nice leap, with Ronald Martin, Jalen Mills and Ricky Jefferson all doing a great job of swarming Kentucky's quick throws in the flats. Jefferson also batted away Kentucky's fourth-down touchdown attempt early in the fourth.
- Oh and yeah...Jamal Adams. I don't throw this term around often, but his play was...Mathieu-esque. He was just everywhere. If he wasn't involved directly in making the play on defense or special teams, it seemed like he was within a few steps of it. Eight tackles, 1.5 for loss with a sack doesn't even begin to illustrate just how present he was. Blocks on both of White's big punt returns, and I believe he was even out there on Magee's kickoff run. Everywhere. What's more, he plays with that kind of attitude that can be contagious.
- Brandon Harris got in with about 10 minutes left. I think it was maybe a few plays late, but like it or not, Jennings still needs work too. The drive was a little uneven, but likewise with Jennings, there was progress. He made a couple of nice zone reads before a poor one and a substitution foul set up a third and long. His interception was a classic case of staring down the deep throw to John Diarse and letting the free safety jump the route.
- One extra note -- LSU's last drive before the half: I've seen some question the decision to call the timeout and kick the field goal, but I understand Miles' rationale. His team had just gotten a gift of a possession recovering that squib kick, with a rough sack taken by Jennings on an overload blitz. A well-timed, and executed, screen play had gotten the offense back in range, and yeah, you could try one more shot to the endzone, but with an opportunistic Kentucky secondary, a very good pass-rusher in Dupree and a shaky quarterback and a fairly reliable kicker, I can't fault him for taking the gift of three points while it's there.