Note: Experimenting with the format a bit here. The offense I did as I usually do, but I wanted to try hitting some high level thoughts on defense and see how that was received. Let me know what you guys want from these.
Woo boy, this was something. All good things must end. Mississippi State, at some point, had to beat LSU and had to beat LSU at home. They looked like they had a shot to do the former last season, before completing their usual implosion in the 3rd quarter. This year, they did the job.
A loss to State, in and of itself, is not surprising. It's not common, but it's not "Oh dear god, UAB at home!?!" bad (Thanks, Saban!). No, the shocking aspect is how thoroughly State handled LSU in this game. Let's be clear: they were better prepared and better coached. They followed that up by playing better, as well. For the better part of three quarters, MSU looked like the clearly superior team. In fact, I imagine most would have expected the roles to be reversed in this one: LSU jumping out to a hefty lead and then hanging on for dear life.
State's not nearly as bad as they were treated coming in. They deserved to be ranked. They have a ton of experience and a defensive line that's as good as any in the country. They have a dual-threat QB with a big arm that's tough to bring down. Quality defenses with the ability to make opponents to go one dimensional, combined with talented QBs and a solid cast of skill characters is typically a recipe for success.
That said, that doesn't make the loss any easier to swallow. It leaves fans scrambling for answers. Just read through our roundtable and every single writer identified some other seemingly outstanding issue. The hard part here is that the facts don't change, just our perceptions of them. So there's a couple ways to frame this:
A) LSU Played a Bad Game
This is the D.O. route. Yes, it was ugly. Yes, it sucks. Yes, it puts any hope of a playoff berth in serious doubt. But it's one bad game and now we move forward. It can be a galvanizing thing that spurs the team to play at its best.
B) LSU is in for a Long Season
The other side will look not just at this game, but the struggles against Wisconsin and note that similar issues plagued the team in both games. Then they will look forward at the meat of the schedule, note there are at least three, if not four, teams superior to either Wisconsin or State and tremor in fear.
C) A little bit of both
LSU both played bad and is likely due for a down year, but not a wretched one. The middle ground approach.
Those hoping a turn to the tape would unveil that LSU was simply the victim of a couple bad breaks and played better than the box score indicated... well, prepare yourselves.
There's no shortage of experts offering insight into how LSU can solve their offensive problems. Most blame QB Anthony Jennings followed by the offensive line. Both are fair, though a bit over-simplistic. Many question the game plan. It's a credit to Cameron that LSU's failures on offense now equal 430 yards, 341 passing yards, and 22 points scored. We're not too far from the days of grinding out 16-9 victories with passing totals in the sub-three-digit category. We all agree State has a pretty good defense and we took two young QBs and put up over 300 yards passing and a pair of passing TDs. Admittedly, a large chunk of that came when State "checked out" but that doesn't mean it doesn't count. My point here is that there may be more reason for optimism in the QB play than many think.
The real problem here is the offensive line, particularly the interior. Frankly, it doesn't matter what scheme you run, nor what plays you call, when you don't block. LSU's tackles are probably as good as we thought they were in the preseason. The trouble is, LSU can't seem to solve the center and right guard issues. Both spots, no matter who tasked with the job, continue to under-perform. LSU continues to try and work in Pocic, though he found himself on the bench for the 4th quarter of this one. Porter, since returning, has been a nightmare. Hoko found himself on the bench behind Pocic. Washington has also rotated in, and while I didn't think he played poorly, there's a reason the coaches don't feel he should be in the mix to start.
When Greg Studrawa was fired last season, most let out a hearty "FINALLY," as LSU's struggled to put OL in the NFL and largely underperformed up front during his tenure. Jeff Grimes was brought in with a strong reputation as a technician with good recruiting chops. He's credited with recruiting most of the guys that dotted Auburn's dominant line from last season and again this year. The players raved about his attention to detail and emphasis on detail, a stark turn away from Stud's more aggressive, yelling approach. Yet, the line seems to have regressed. The "Grimes is the problem" murmurings have already begun. Four games is far too early to tell, but I do wonder if the shifting in styles is proving more difficult than initially anticipated. Stud's lines typically fared well in run blocking, but struggled in pass protection (see: last year). Could the new emphasis on technique have turned these guys from maulers to trying to be too perfect, thus affecting their run blocking? Pass protection doesn't seem near as much of an issue as last year, while LSU consistently fails to get a push up front.
There's no way of knowing, but the clearest thing to me on re-watch is that if LSU doesn't solve it's OL problems, it doesn't matter what scheme they play, what plays they run, nor which QB they start: the offense won't progress. But hey, we won T.O.P.!
Jennings: More maligned than he should be. No, he did not play great. But yet again, there were key mistakes that could have swung the pendulum of his game more favorably. Travin Dural dropped a long deep ball that hit him in the hands. Travis Dickson failed to get a foot in bounds on another long pass. That's 80 some yards passing and two trips to the red zone lost.
That said, there's some ugly too. Jennings air-mailed a couple of balls and threw one particularly ugly ball into the feet of Malachi Dupre. He's so concerned with turning the ball over that he'll rarely try higher-risk throws, which turns into him holding the ball too long. There were multiple chances for him to run that he didn't take, waiting for plays to develop. I get the mentality of not bailing on the pocket at a moment's notice, but when a wide open rushing lane presents itself with 15 yards of open field: take it. He completely missed a wide open Melvin Jones on a bootleg play, that could have put LSU in the end zone or very close, instead opting to try a tough throw to Dillon Gordon in the corner of the end zone.
So there's an interesting mix here. He's risk adverse when he shouldn't be, risk taking when he shouldn't be and generally not just letting the game come to him. It's easy to forget he's still young. Very young. He's thinking too much.
Harris: Looked great, but everyone will toss a Barry Bonds' sized asterisk next to it since he entered when State had the game in hand and more or less checking out. Still, Harris showed major glimpses of that talent that's so often talked about. It helped that State was already beginning to celebrate their victory internally, but a good number of their starters were still in the mix when Harris came in.
Even more encouraging than the runs and throws is that Harris came in and confidently ran the offense, didn't both play calls and navigated LSU down the field in a hurry-up pace. This raises the question of whether LSU should shift to more HUNH looks, which they seem to have excelled at all season. In many ways, it reduces the stress on the QBs to "think" so much and forces them to just play. Harris looked tremendous in this environment.
His arm is as good as advertised, and he's simply able to make throws Jennings cannot. The burgeoning deep ball threat to Dupre will be a beauty to watch the next several years. But that's not all he did. He nailed Quinn on a skinny post. Fielded a poor snap in the endzone, picked it up and scrambled for positive yards. Felt pressure and checked down to Williams on one play. Scrambled and threw the ball away when pressured. Those may not sound like things worth popping bubbly over, but they are great early indications that he's learning.
Hilliard: Other than a single 9-yard run, really nothing of note here. There are times when holes show up and Hilliard simply doesn't, or can't, cut into them. He is what he is. A good, solid, downhill back with very little wiggle.
Magee: Magee is essentially devolved into a pass blocking specialist. We did utilize him on a trick play where he showed off his arm. Thrown better it's a touchdown, but I won't fault a guy in that situation for still getting the ball there. We did get a couple screens to him, as well, but nothing notable. We used him several times in jet sweep motion when running the inverted veer, first I've seen that.
Fournette: 20-yard run showed the promise we're all waiting for. It was pretty-well blocked, but his burst through the hole and explosion into the next level are what we're waiting for. We tried the play a couple more times and never could get it blocked as well for various reasons. Then, we just sorta gave up. Fournette didn't touch the ball until near the end of the 1st quarter, then didn't really touch it at all in the second half. That's not a good thing.
Williams: Played late. Only two carries, but showed he can catch with a pair for 38 yards, including a nice checkdown.
Neighbors: A good block here and there, but I still insist our best looks are with him on the sidelines, no matter how great a human being he may be.
Dural: Came through with another of his long catches. Had one big drop. Had a big mix-up on one red-zone trip where Jennings either over threw him or he ran the wrong route. Still, a nice game all around.
Dupre: Breakout performance -- freshman records for yards and touchdowns receiving. He's the big-play threat we all hoped for. Caught two bombs from Harris for beautiful TDs, once using his size to beat a smaller DB. He's just so fluid and natural. Look for him to play more and more.
Quinn: Made a tough catch on the skinny post that came in hot from Harris. We tried a bubble screen to him without much success.
Diarse: No catches. Ran a route that he gave up on, where apparently an MSU defender ran screaming at him and spooked the sidelines, even. He was upset with himself after the fact and screamed for them to come back to him. Nothing else of note.
Can we just not and say we did?
Gordon: Has regressed tremendously. His blocking was outright bad this game.
Dickson: Take Gordon and multiply him by 10. Yuck. Missed blocks - in the GL stand he dove forward toward three players and didn't hit one of them. Did something similar two plays later. Then the inexplicable non-catch. Why's he playing?
Jeter: He rotated some, but I didn't have any real notes on him.
Stokes: I think I saw him a few times, but no notes.
Collins: Interesting moment came during the foal-line stand where he was visibly upset and demanding they run behind him. It didn't work. He was pretty good, though. At times, just throwing MSU players around like rag dolls. Other times, missed blocks/assignments. One blitz he busted. Not sure if this is a QB call, but we never seem prepared for cornerback blitzes. Overall, a strong game. He can really bury people in the run game.
Vadal: Not bad. He's just so much better down blocking than when he's asked to pull or trap. He's a bull on straight ahead plays, but when asked to zone or pull, he's simply not as dominant. Still, he played pretty well.
Porter: Entirely forgettable performance. Bad snaps. Pushed around at the point. Completely whiffing in pass pro vs. Preston Smith. What he excelled at last year, getting to the second level, he doesn't seem to be doing with similar effectiveness. Maybe Porter's rusty, I dunno, but he hasn't looked at all.
Pocic: Kinda the opposite of Vadal in that he's much better on the move or zone blocking, but struggles to drive men out of the hole. He can reach block, but he can't really drive block. Found the bench late, and no mention of injury. Les said he'll start again.
Hoko: Subbed for Pocic late. Only note I had was that he "moved guy enough" on a four yard gain from Williams.
Hawkins: Might be the best player on our front. Even he didn't play great, but like Collins, at times looks absolutely dominant. He can kinda do it. Pushes people around, can move in space, and can reach across the face of defenders in zone schemes. His pass pro is much improved from last year, and I think he was only "beat" once there all night.
To me, the offense's problems are far less problematic than what the defense faces. I think I'm alone in that regard, and that's okay. I didn't enter this season with near the confidence as others in this unit. A couple dominant performances started to win me over, but Saturday returned the same issues that concerned me all along: green tackles, lack of depth at end, and poor linebackers and safeties.
Saturday bore all those things out in many ways. Couple that with a gameplan that was... questionable... at best, and you have a 600-yard, 34-point performance. I don't have the numbers handy, but I'd wager 250 of State's 302 rushing yards came between the tackles. That's a downright embarrassment up the middle. How'd we get there? Well, State opted to play four and five wide sets all night, which spread our back seven out. Then it was simple numbers up front. 5 on 3/4/5 will almost always go to the offense. I couldn't disagree with Chavis' approach to defending this team any more. Dak and State are most lethal as a downhill running team and we came with a strategy more like something you'd utilize vs. Texas Tech. We stayed almost exclusively in nickel. I get wanting to match DBs on receivers, but what good do they do when you park them outside and leave the middle of the field open.
Instituting a spy wouldn't solve anything as those are mostly only useful for more improvisational runners like Johnny Manziel and Dak only had one, maybe two of those. No, where they killed LSU was in the downhill, straight ahead power game. Dak's 56-yard scamper was right down the pipe. That absolutely should not happen. State looked at things like this, all night:
You shouldn't be shocked to find out that run went for 66 yards.
Why did we play our safeties so far off the ball? We spent all summer praising our DBs and ability to play man coverage and now we're terrified of a decent throwing QB and a decent, but not overly explosive group of WRs beating us over the top?
When LSU did have bodies, they rarely got Prescott or Robinson down on first contact. Credit to State for blocking well and running hard, but the gang tackling that Chavis adamantly preaches as key to his defensive strategies simply didn't exist. That said, I'll give credit to all of the d-line, who routinely hustled down field to make tackles after getting blown of the ball!
The passing game is troublesome because we generate absolutely no pass rush. Our front four simply get no pressure, especially the tackles. I can remember maybe three good pressures all night, and one of those came from a blitz in the Mustang.
Let's talk about this for a moment. I see a lot of posturing already. "Well, LSU didn't get pushed around all night, MSU just hit a couple big plays." "MSU just made a couple big plays and LSU didn't."
The sheer probability of big plays often checks us into "well, that's a fluke" line of thinking. Some big plays are flukes. I would put the 74-yard TD by Jameon Lewis more toward the flukey category. Blackledge praised Dak for doing something that normally would wind up being a tremendous mistake. Everyone was covered, so Dak tucked to run forward, his hole started to collapse, so he went backward and to his left, fortunate to get outside the mess but still with people in pursuit. He then pulled up and lobbed the ball to a wide open player that the coverage unit lost: a predictable outcome on an extended play that includes a wacky scramble. That one, I'm willing to stamp, "Eh, shit happens" on.
The others? Eesh. LSU has now given up the following rushes this season:
I'm only looking as Wisconsin and MSU here. This isn't a "damn, shit happens" thing. These aren't broken plays or improvised scrambles. Not eight plays in two games. LSU is routinely getting gashed up front and these are turning into big plays because the back seven is not tackling. We can close our eyes and pray it goes away, but I don't find it coincidental that both opponents we've played with pulse were able to exploit us for large gains. Teams are running smooth right over LSU.
570 rushing yards allowed to the two BCS opponents LSU has played thus far illustrate that LSU has deep, deep problems on defense, I don't care how well they limited lesser foes.
How Do We Fix?
I don't know. The personnel is pretty well set on the defensive line. Quentin Thomas is now hurt, and Miles mentioned one of the RS Freshman tackles is as well, presumably Gilmore. Deondre Clark is seeing snaps at end, so that gives us maybe four we can play there. There's not much else we can do here.
At linebacker, you can bench Welter and roll Beckwith. It's time. But it likely won't happen. Debo's been wretched. No reason for him to play, in my opinion. Louis hasn't done anything of note. Riley looks solid, he should see more opportunities. But what else can you do here?
In the secondary, Martin should likely find the bench. Mills is... okay. Jefferson hasn't looked great in his time. Adams has struggled and whiffed a tackle when he was in, then didn't play much more. So... that's a troubling question.
I really don't know besides wait and see. You have to hope these guys start improving and rapidly.
Who Gives Me Hope?
Malachi Dupre is gonna win a lot of one-on-ones and make people pay.
Davon Godchaux still looks like a star in the making. He did get plowed on a couple plays, but he fought hard, and he plays with great leverage.
Kwon is up and down but he does make plays. He got the strip that Hunter returned for a TD.
LaCouture flashes, but he's inconsistent.
If you can't tackle and you can't beat blocks, then you can't beat anyone.
If you can't block, you won't beat many.
Fix the lines, fix the problem.
Easier said than done, obviously. We're just young. Poseur and I spent all summer arguing about the quality and experience of our roster, vehemently disagreeing. We threw together starts and games played numbers. I hold fast to my point about this being a ridiculously young, inexperienced team. Those are the types of teams that are going to give us some dramatic swings. We'll take one on the chin from State and then dominate someone we shouldn't. We'll get obliterated at home, then beat someone good on the road. We'll score 40 points one week and 14 the next.
This is going to be that season. And our best bet is to start getting as many troops experience on the battlefield as possible, so we don't run into the same issue next season.