The SEC doesn't get a lot of things right from our point of view, but if there's been one thing that's been pretty great in the last 25ish years or so, it's been the LSU-Auburn rivalry. The two programs had only met 24 times prior to the famous 1988 Earthquake Game, but we've been making up for lost time ever since. It's truly a rivalry that has developed on the field, born of some hard-fought divisional matchups that have decided championships with a healthy amount of crazy sprinkled in.
You know about the Earthquake. How about fire? You can take your pick between buildings outside the stadium or cigars on the field. Those aren't the only disasters. Five fourth-quarter interceptions. Five missed field goals. Penn Wagers. Magic has come back. Byrds have taken flight. There have been penalties never seen before, or since, and kickers picking fights with band members.
Hell, even LSU's last trip to Jordan Hare to take on the whatever-the-hell-they-wanna-call-themselves featured a 12-10 win over a 3-9 Auburn team -- a game that literally did not make one lick of sense. And now the 15th-ranked Tigers are coming into this year underdogs and starting a true freshman quarterback. Not just a freshman, but one making his first career start, on the road, against a top-five team in one of the conference's loudest stadiums, at night.
Buckle up y'all.
What to Watch For on Saturday
The King of Pain
Why? Well, for one, this song has been stuck in my head all week. But on top of that, it feels like this is Brandon Harris' fate for this weekend.
It's just a question of which team he inflicts that pain upon.
If he continues to do the things that he has done to this point, and LSU can supply him with enough support, he could be more than enough to keep pace with Auburn's offense. WarTigerPlainsmeagles (contractually obligated to make that joke at least once) fans drive home wondering how in the hell a freshman quarterback just came in and beat them. Or the moment could be too big for him. Jordan-Hare is a tough place to play, and it always has been. Never mind for a 19-year-old making his very first collegiate start. The defense puts him in a hole, he presses to make a play and the problem compounds itself and suddenly the snowball is rolling downhill. As it is, I think too many fans are heaping "savior" expectations up Harris, which is something that I've been worrying about ever since Jennings' struggles really began.
The worst part of this whole scenario is the question marks regarding LSU's defense. Ideally, with a newbie quarterback like this, your goal is to start slow. Just try and string together a drive that gets a few first downs and gets him in a rhythm. If you score right out the gate that's awesome, but just get something going. But if your defense can't stop the other team you can wind up in a hole really quick.
We'll talk about the defense later, but the first job for Cam Cameron and the offensive staff is going to be keeping Harris in favorable situations. Use some simple throws on early downs, get the running game established and do everything you can to stay on schedule. LSU has scored touchdowns on nine of Harris' last 10 possessions, and a simple approach has been a huge part of that. Even if LSU falls down quickly, they need to maintain that, and LSU's talent will take over.
Auburn's defense has improved a lot under Ellis Johnson. He runs an aggressive 4-2-5 style of defense that likes to bring pressure, but will bluff it a lot as well, especially in third-down, long-yardage situations. The defensive line is pretty athletic with Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and DaVonte Lambert, but at the second level, the linebackers are a little stiff. Plus, starters Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost will be limited if they play at all. There's going to be some room on the edge if the offensive line can set it up front.
The safeties are aggressive and love to fly up the field, but the corners are allowing a 58.7-percent completion rate, in the lower half of the conference. That should create some nice play-action opportunities down the field. This might be a good time to get Leonoard Fournette a little involved in the passing game as well.
One short-yardage concept that could be useful is something that we've seen each of the last two weeks -- John Gruden's favorite play.
Yep, Spider-2 Y-Banana. Harris threw a touchdown to Melvin Jones on it a week ago, and Jennings misread it versus Mississippi State (if you listen to Gruden, the fullback is almost always the read on this play).
The offense was much more balanced last week in the tune-up with New Mexico. Not necessarily in terms of run-pass calls, but in terms of formations and play-calling. LSU gave Harris some easy throws on first down, they spread the field and they hit their assignments well along the offensive line. The key is to build on that this week.
Also, I don't have enough here to give it its own bullet-point, but watch out for special teams. Auburn's allowed 16 yards per punt return to date, rotated punters and is just a little bit shaky at kicker.
Hunter Becomes the Hunted
In terms of stopping Auburn, John Chavis and the LSU defense know what they have to do. Win the line of scrimmage and be disciplined in your responsibilities even as Malzahn's offense throws every sort of fake, misdirection and form of football window-dressing you could imagine.
People wonder why stuff like that works, and this tweet from New England Patriots beat writer clued me in to a tremendously succinct explanation from Bill Belichick:
Q: When a team uses misdirection on trick plays, how does that dictate the defensive call? Is there a relationship between the two?
BB: As long as I've ever coached, every defense, you have to take care of those responsibilities. I've never coached a defense where you tell the players, ‘Well, we don't have a reverse on this play if they run it, that would be a touchdown. Or if they run a halfback pass, nobody is responsible for that and that will be a touchdown. Or if they run an end-around, we don't really have that play.' I just don't think you could coach like that. Somebody has to be responsible for plays over, plays over there. If they start over there, then somebody has to be responsible for a play back there. If a guy reverses his field or they run a reverse or they throw a double pass or the quarterback peels out of the backfield. Whatever it is, there are fundamental responsibilities and those plays are part of the responsibilities. You just don't see them as often. I would say that's the thing. I don't think our defense or probably any other defense is designed to say, ‘Well, if that guy runs a post pattern, we're not going to cover that.' Or, ‘If that guy runs a reverse, we don't have that.' Somebody has it, but if you don't see it very often, you aren't thinking about it or maybe you're not respecting it enough and then it comes and it hits you. Then you don't see it again for another year, but the damage is done. That's the way I would characterize those plays. Not that there's not a way to defend them, not that there's a magic to the play, but it's a play you haven't seen that we're not practicing against because I'm sure the ones that they've already run, they're probably less inclined to run those. They're probably more inclined to run a new play that they're working on and that's the one that we'll have to react to in the game. That's the challenge of those plays. The challenge on the other side of it is the execution. Some play that you don't run very much, it's calling it at the right time to get maybe a look that you think will be good against that and then being able to execute it well. But I would say that the Bengals have done a very good job of executing those plays. Like [Mohamed] Sanu's passes. He throws the ball as well as a lot of quarterbacks do. He's very accurate and he's got a great touch and arm, but his accuracy is very good. So, they run those plays and it looks like, you see it's [number] 12 but you kind of think, ‘Is that a quarterback?' ‘No, it's the receiver throwing the ball.' So, they execute them well and they have a good design to them. But I don't think it's a case where you don't - you have the play defended, but you have to actually execute the defense of the play and it's a play you haven't seen or worked on so that sometimes can cause a problem.
This is probably the essence of the problem that Auburn creates. What Malzahn does a fantastic job of, especially with their tempo offense, is call series football. String plays together. Powers, zones and sweeps lead to counters and play-action passes. Short passes lead to fake screens and double-moves. You see the plays out of some different looks, maybe with a little twist or some motion behind them, in succession, quickly, you lose focus for a second and...there goes the big play.
A big concern for LSU's defense has been between the tackles, but I think we're going to see Auburn attack the edges a little bit more, particularly Danielle Hunter and whoever is lining up at nickel/dime back on a given play, be it Jalen Mills, Ricky Jefferson or Jamal Adams. As discussed in the study session piece, Malzahn really likes to target those players for reads, and given that Hunter's LSU's best defensive lineman, it might just be easier to read him off than block him. He's been fantastic in pursuit, so it wouldn't surprise me if he makes them pay for that a few times.
But the other thing that Hunter and the rest of LSU's defensive ends will also have to watch for on those plays where they suddenly find themselves unblocked is the pull or kick-out block coming from a guard or H-back. When Auburn does try and pull, it's going to be important for the defensive lineman in the crosshairs to recognize what's happening and be ready to respond. Execute a block-down-step-down into the hip of the next offensive lineman inside, square to the puller, and then do what's known as "wrong-arming" the blocker.
As a defender, particularly an outside one, you're always taught to keep your outside arm free when you're blocked, so you're in position to try and force a play back inside. "Wrong-arming" is named because it calls for a defensive end or a linebacker to throw his outside shoulder at the inside shoulder of the lead blocker. The goal is to stop the offensive player dead in his tracks and cause a pile-up that allows the pursuit defenders to get to the ball-carrier. Here's a video example courtesy of Coach Hoover:
Stopping this running game is going to be an inside-out, front-to-back job. Cut off each individual lane, and steer the ball where you want it to go. Generally, Chavis has preferred to force Nick Marshall to give the ball up, and that might be the smart play here. Cameron Artis-Payne is a typical Auburn running back -- a thick, hard runner that drops his shoulder well -- but he's definitely not the game-breaker that Tre Mason was last year.
Look for LSU to bring a safety down to help with the run and play a ton of man-to-man coverage, and that's going to probably lead to one of the better physical, individual match-ups between corner and receiver that we've seen in a couple years when Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson are lined up on Auburn's Duke Williams.
A native of my own LaPlace, Williams should have graduated from East St. John High School as a part of the loaded Louisiana class of 2011. You know the one with Odell Beckham Jr., Jeremy Hill, Kenny Hilliard and Jarvis Landry? Williams might have been the highest rated out of any of them had he been eligible in that class.
Instead, a number of factors led to a multi-junior-college journey that eventually landed him on the Plains. He's an imposing, well-built target with good speed. He doesn't look quite as fluid catching the ball as I might have guessed, but you can bet he's going to be dialed in to try and make some plays in this one. Williams versus guys like Collins and Robinson, who can match his size and physicality, might make for some of the best one-on-one battles we've seen since Patrick Peterson versus Julio Jones.
Williams has the headlines, but Auburn's receivers as a whole are improved. Sammie Coates, if healthy, is a hell of a deep threat, and even Quan Bray and Ricardo Louis are vets that understand their roles in this offense incredibly well. Bray's also been very dangerous on punt returns.
Marshall, however, still looks like the same guy he was a year ago. Oh, there are flashes. Every once in a while he'll throw a beautiful ball that makes you think "damn, if he could do that more often he'd be really good," but overall he's playing a lot like he did a year ago. He hasn't turned the ball over much, but he's completing just 56 percent of his passes at a 7.5 YPA clip. If LSU can clamp down on the run enough and force some third-down, long-yardage situations, Auburn should stall a bit.
Keeping Marshall in the pocket and avoiding scramble plays in those situations will be crucial as well. With a six-footish quarterback like him, A-gap pressure is going to be incredibly important, keeping his sight lines crowded and forcing him into the contain guys, be them the defensive ends or blitzing defensive backs in the Mustang package. Watch for a few linebacker blitzes as well in those gaps -- particularly when Kendell Beckwith is in the game.
Do NOT Expect
I have absolutely no idea what to tell you not to expect in this one. The history of this rivalry, the circumstances of LSU's season to date. Auburn's good, but I don't know how good. LSU's better than they've played at times, but I don't know how much. Oh and there's the newbie quarterback factor.
I know this much -- there's seven more games after this one, so win lose or draw, LSU has to be ready to ride the wave and keep on riding to the next one regardless of how bumpy it is.
I just hope the fans can find a way to hang on themselves.