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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What to Watch For


Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, Mississippi State. The Washington Generals to LSU's Harlem Globetrotters. The 2014 Tigers will open SEC play against the Bulldogs riding the following numbers:

  • A 14-game winning streak;
  • A 21-game streak in Baton Rouge -- State hasn't won in Baton Rouge since 1991;
  • And a 26-6 record in my lifetime.

Seriously, Curley Hallman was 3-1 against Mississippi State. And not much has changed under Les Miles and Dan Mullen. Oh, State's certainly better -- Mullen is arguably the best coach in the history of the program. But under Les Miles the average score in this series is 37-14, and since a nail-biter in his first season (the 2009 mess that needed Chad Jones' [WOOOO!] heroics on special teams and the goal line to preserve), Mullen & Co. haven't come within 13 points of the Tigers. Even last season's game, which was pretty nip/tuck for about a quarter and a half, was truncated with 28-consecutive points by LSU in the fourth quarter.

But none of that will matter on Saturday night.

What to Watch For on Saturday

A Day for These Dogs?

There's no doubt this isn't the Mississippi State of Sylvester Croom or Jackie Sherrill. The Bulldogs are coming into Baton Rouge undefeated for the first time since 1919. They're just barely missing the top 25 and they're led by a junior quarterback that, for better or worse, has been hyped as a Heisman Trophy candidate.

This is something of a bellwether year for this program. They completed an expansion to Davis Wade Stadium and a brand new football complex -- the kind of things Mullen has talked about as necessary to compete for titles in Starkville since he arrived. And that means that one or two things is about to happen -- not this season per se, but soon -- either Mississippi State is going to break into the SEC's top half on a regular basis, or Dan Mullen will be crushed under the weight of the expectations that he has created.

Does that make this some kind of must-win game? No, but a win would truly be a landmark event for the Bulldogs. You can bet that's not lost on Mullen or his players. Yeah, Mullen is right when he says that the past doesn't really matter here. The players on this team don't care about what's happened the last 14 years, they care about what happens on Saturday. That goes for LSU's players as well. Guys like Anthony Jennings or Leonard Fournette have no reason to feel like THEY own Mississippi State. It's something that other LSU teams have done, but not their team. But what Prescott and Co. DO know is that LSU is the kind of team they want to be, and they won't ever be that until they start beating LSU or teams like them.

Expect the Bulldogs to come in to Tiger Stadium sky-high, and get ready for their best effort. Don't even be surprised if we see some form of trickeration early on, like maybe a surprise onside kick. There's going to be pressure on the Tigers to try and jump on this one early, get a lead and let the enormity of that new shiny Tiger Stadium look down upon the visiting team.

Power Spread

People used to give this moniker to Bobby Petrino's Arkansas teams, but I've always felt it was better applied to Mullen's offenses at State. He, of course, made his name calling plays and coaching quarterbacks for Urban Meyer at Utah and Florida, but when Mullen arrived in Starkvegas he took out the warp drive that powered the Gators' offense and replaced it with a diesel engine.

State's offense still relies on a lot of the principles we got used to watching Tim Tebow & Co. run, but Mullen has adopted it to a more power-based approach, in order to adjust to the talent that typically wind up at Mississippi State. This team pulls guards, uses fullbacks and tight ends and has typically had bigger, stronger running backs like Anthony Dixon, Vick Ballard and now Josh Robinson.

Of course, the guy that makes it all run is Prescott. He's a big, fast athlete that seems to be progressing pretty well as a passer to date, completing right at 60 percent of his passes at 9.7 yards per attempt with nine touchdowns to just two picks. He's averaging right around 200 yards passing per game with another 100 on the ground and he's even managed to catch a touchdown pass this year.

State relies heavily on the zone-read and variants, such as the inverted veer and midline read. For a refresh, on and inverted veer read, the quarterback serves as the dive in between the tackles, with the give read going outside. On midline, the unblocked read player shifts from a defensive end to a defensive tackle.

The Bulldogs do a nice mix of power and zone blocking in their running game and rely on a lot of misdirection looks. Slot receiver Jameon Lewis (a Baton Rouge kid LSU did not recruit, with a point to prove) will be active in formations and get the ball on handoffs and option pitches -- State's going to put some pressure on LSU's linebackers and safeties/nickel backs in a couple of looks to try and create some open passing windows.

Finding those open windows is going to be a huge key for Prescott. He's shown a bit of a tendency to put the ball up for grabs this season, especially down the field. And I'm not sure that's something you want to do against this LSU secondary. Lewis is a hell of a receiver -- a true slot receiver that's only about 5'9 but with great quickness and speed -- but LSU's size at corner should help with that matchup. They'll move him around a bit, so look for Jalen Mills to cover Lewis quite a bit.

Overall, look for John Chavis to trust his secondary in this matchup, and use a healthy amount of man-to-man coverage, so that the rest of the defense can focus on Prescott and the running game. That's usually not the best idea with a mobile quarterback because that usually means defensive backs have their backs turned when said quarterback breaks the pocket, but with LSU's speed at defensive end, linebacker, and safety there should still be guys in position to contain Prescott. Watch for some quarters coverage as well, or a four-deep zone. It gets associated with "prevent" defense a lot, but when you play it aggressively and your DBs know how to pattern read, they can defend a number of routes the way a man-corner would, while still having their eyes towards the offense should the QB break out. Michigan State's made a living with it as their primary coverage the last few years. State hasn't seen a lot of third-and-long situations to date this year, and I don't think they want to get into too many obvious passing downs.

Watch for a wrinkle we've seen in the last few weeks out of nickel and Mustang sets -- one of the two linebackers on the field sliding down on to the line of scrimmage alongside a 30-front defensive line, with a safety sliding into the vacated spot. More speed up front and in pursuit, something that's going to be important versus Prescott and other mobile passers on the schedule.

People always like to talk about the idea of a "spy" in these situations shadowing the quarterback, but fewer and fewer defenses are really dedicating a defender to that type of matchup. There's usually still a defender somewhere in a short/intermediate zone with his eyes in the backfield, but he usually has some coverage responsibilities in case the quarterback is contained in the pocket. And that's the goal -- defensive tackles keep the target in front, defensive ends make sure they pass the quarterback's depth. From there, just close the loop.

LSU will add a little extra speed into the mix to chase the quarterback -- see using the Mustang package versus Johnny Manziel the last two years -- but I'm not sure how much of that we'll see against State. At 230 pounds, I don't think Prescott is the type of quarterback you want to consistently try to tackle with guys like Mills and Dwayne Thomas.

Another matchup in LSU's favor could be Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux on the State interior. Specifically, center Dillon Day, who has had some hiccup moments this year on snaps.

Bombs Away?

On defense, Mississippi State runs an aggressive 4-3 front that likes to bring pressure from the linebackers, especially big bodies like Bernardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown. They currently lead the SEC in tackles for loss, and have seven players with at least two. The size of those linebackers allows them to fill gaps and help free up a defensive line that's pretty big and athletic as well. It's a veteran front as well, with six juniors and seniors in the front seven.

I expected Chris Jones to explode as the group's biggest name, but three weeks in he's been overshadowed by senior defensive end Preston Smith. A 6-5, 270 pound big body with enough athleticism to drop into coverage on zone blitzes (he had an incredibly athletic pick-six versus UAB in which he caught a ball over his shoulder and reversed field to find the endzone), Smith is riding a remarkable three-week stretch in which he's earned defensive player or defensive lineman of the week from the league office. I can't think of any other player that's done that in recent years. In each of State's first three games he's forced some sort of turnover, an interception, fumble or a blocked kick. He's going to be one hell of a challenge for La'el Collins.

State's run defense numbers have been gaudy, but they've also only faced one rushing attack ranked in the top-100, so that might be a bit deceiving. LSU will also mark the first true power team the Bulldogs have seen. Southern Miss, UAB and South Alabama are all up-tempo spread passing teams.

Anthony Jennings and the Tiger passing game should be able to make some plays through the air though. State's secondary is giving up right at 300 yards per game so far this season, albeit with some pretty good efficiency numbers. They've picked off more passes (5) than they've allowed touchdowns (3), and have held their opponents under a 50 percent completion rate. However, film study shows some pretty loose coverage back there. Lots of receivers running free that were missed by their quarterbacks. Particularly on some deep throws. So watch for Travin Dural to have some good opportunities deep, especially if LSU can establish the run and work play-action.

The key, of course, will be keeping the offense on schedule and keeping Jennings out of unfavorable passing situations. Jennings has had his moments on third down, but when LSU's bogged down a bit, like in the first half of the ULM and Wisconsin games, third-and-long has been a prominent feature.

Which brings us to our next point.

Do NOT Expect

Replay of Last Week

Not to say that we're done answering some questions about the LSU offensive line. We'll find out a lot this week against Mississippi State's front.

But it's been surprising to me to see how quickly the first two games were forgotten when LSU came out with a vanilla gameplan that featured a ton of 22 & 21 (two backs and one or two tight ends) personnel groupings. Versus Wisconsin and Sam Houston State, LSU had a lot of success with spread looks, particularly in the running game, and we know that's going to be a big part of this offense going forward. And so will the power personnel groups we saw last weekend. The staff chose to use the ULM game to work on those things specifically, especially with the heavy protections and one- and two-man route combinations. That's not even unusual for Cam Cameron -- last season LSU shredded Mississippi State with those very looks, forcing the Bulldogs to choose between stopping the run game or covering Odell Beckham Jr. one-on-one. Remember the 179 yards and two touchdowns?

The two-back looks we've been seeing with Kenny Hilliard/Darrel Williams at the fullback spot are interesting as well. Look for that to lead to something else besides a fullback belly play at some point, although it's a really tough short-yardage play to defend.

In general, LSU will need to shake up their play-calling somewhat, especially on first down. To date, the Tigers are averaging right at 4.45 yards per carry on first down. That's not a horrible total, but they're really going to want that to get north of 5.0 consistently in order to keep this offense on schedule and avoid those third-down-and-long situations.

So how does LSU do that? By throwing more. The Tigers are currently averaging a very good 13.9 yards per passing attempt on first down. So how does throwing more on first down create lead to a higher per-carry yardage in the running game? Game theory. For our newer readers, it's basically the principle that if you have an advantage on an opponent, press it until he has to give you other advantages to take away the first one. In simpler terms, run it till they stop it. LSU did the inverse in 2011 (or for another example, Auburn last season), pounding away with its running game to create the best possible situations for its limited quarterbacks. If you were around this blog back in those days, or in 2010, this principle was why I consistently screamed for more running and a more simplified attack.

But with Jennings playing well, Cameron shouldn't be afraid to throw the ball more often and keep the defense off balance. They don't all have to be play-action bombs down the field -- although those are great and if Dural's open, I say take the shot. Watch for the bootleg game and the possession routes like slants and curls. Watch for Leonard Fournette in the passing game as well, especially against State's bigger, somewhat slower linebackers.

LSU will never completely abandon the I-formation, nor should they with the backs on this roster. But regardless of personnel, some small adjustments could yield nice dividends against the best defense the Tigers have seen to date.