Hole. Eee. Shit. Does this town need another football game to talk about, or what?
Luckily, LSU gets to follow up a landmark loss with a get-right game. New Mexico State comes for the paycheck, LSU's second Sun Belt visitor of the season. Nobody's going to care too much about this one -- kind of shuddering at the thought of how a half-empty stadium's going to look on the SEC Network telecast -- but the fact is, progress for this team is going to have to start Saturday night.
So what does that entail?
What to Watch For on Saturday
The first thing everybody is going to have to accept about this game, is that LSU will not solve all of their problems in one week. That's not really how problems work in football, especially not the kind of problems we've seen out of this Tiger team in the last two weeks.
But there can be steps in the right direction.
Quite frankly, another consistent, sustained ass-kicking in the style we saw in week two would be a nice start. As usual, I watch for some of the smaller numbers over the bigger ones. A yards-per-play figure over 6; a third-down conversion rate over 50; a completion rate north of 60; and some padded stats in rushing yards and the big-play defensive stats like sacks, tackles-for-loss and pass break-ups.
Strategically, LSU isn't about to abandon its offense. This team is still going to run the I-formation, and you're all just going to have to accept that. However, that doesn't have to mean the same gameplan we saw last week. Let's see a few passes on first down -- even if it's just a quick-hitter on a smoke play or a slant every now and then. Hell, how about a waggle or even a screen play to a back? LSU can't keep repeating the same mistakes.
There will be spread sets as well, hopefully more than we saw last week. There's really no value in trying to hold things back at this point, other than some specific plays. After four games, your offense is more or less on tape.
Up front, I'll be watching the mechanics of line play more than anything. The Aggies allow some 300 yards per game on the ground, so LSU's going to be able to run the ball. But are they doing it because nobody on the New Mexico State defense can tackle Leonard Fournette, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee and Darrel Williams, or because LSU's offensive line is opening some big holes. There's a difference.
This is going to be one of those games where you're going to kind of root against things like special teams or defensive touchdowns, so the offense has plenty of opportunities to work.
But the trick for Cam Cameron and Les Miles, with a team this vulnerable in run defense, will be to still focus on giving not only the passing game, but both quarterbacks, a chance to work. Buttoning things up and pounding the ball away may actually be the best way to "secure victory" here, but for the long-term health of this team you HAVE to give your quarterbacks a chance to work.
And of course, that means some more reps for Brandon Harris as well. I don't know what his fourth quarter last week means. Something -- Mississippi State was still playing starters, so I don't necessarily buy the "it was against a prevent defense" narrative. But at the same time, it was still late in a game that, to that point, had been a blowout. So I don't necessarily buy into the idea that it was a sign of obvious greatness.
Either way, he's earned a chance to try and take control of this job. Again, like it or not, Anthony Jennings is going to have a role on this team going forward. If Harris continues to improve and progress to the job, he still has to be able to serve as a viable backup. Harris has hardly done anything to prove he can handle the remaining eight games solo, and there's still the possibility of injury. Hell, even beyond this season, if one of these two quarterbacks transfers, you're looking at second-consecutive year with a true freshman in a backup role there.
Both guys are going to serve important roles for LSU in 2014. It's just a question of amount.
Strictly as an armchair quarterback coach -- I don't like swapping starters out until you're ready to make it a relatively permanent move. So Jennings starts again. From there, I give him a chance to get one good drive in before I give Harris about two. From there, I alternate as they need.
I just hope that if LSU jumps out to a big lead early, Miles at least lets the passing game get a full half of good work in.
Sometimes you just have to move sideways to go forward. New Mexico State understands that, and will be yet another up-tempo, spread passing attack for LSU to work against on defense.
The aforementioned Tiger defense just has to focus on getting back to some fundamentals. Use man-to-man coverage, numbers versus the run, force third-and-long, passing situations and attack from the Mustang package.
I feel pretty comfortable saying that this defense will still find its level in between the dominance it's shown at times versus the big plays it allowed last week. I really hate referring to anything Mississippi State did as flukey, because they damn well earned everything they took from LSU. That said, they made just about every single 50/50 play in that ball game. They pulled down every jump ball. They broke almost every one-on-one tackle, or at least pushed for extra yards. Honestly, that goes beyond the law of averages even when one team is ridiculously overmatched against another. Sometimes, it's just your day. Nothing illustrates that more than the 5-of-14 third-down statistic that featured three touchdowns. If you can find something similar to that in another game, I'll buy you a beer.
The truth is, we won't find out much about this defense until next weekend on the plains of Alabama.
But LSU could stand to learn a few things from the Aggies. Again, no, not abandoning the I-formation, and frankly this team does need to work on its technique and assignments in the running game. But either by varying its formations, or varying it's first-down playcalling, LSU will have to try and get sideways a bit to get down the field.
Running the football and play-action passes down the field are great, when you can pull both off consistently. Right now, that's not this team. Use some outside runs and high-percentage passes. Throw on first down a little.
Do NOT Expect
The Magic Bullet
Back to my first point on What to Watch For -- everything will not be fixed this week. Brandon Harris isn't getting the start this week. The offense isn't going to turn into Oregon's. More importantly, LSU isn't suddenly going to become a dominant line-of-scrimmage football team.
The issues that Mississippi State exposed aren't the kind of things you just wave a magic wand over. They take time. They take development. Things that certainly take longer than seven days. What happens this week will tell us some things, and not others. It may set up an amazing victory next week at Auburn, or another agonizing loss. We just don't know yet. And that's okay.
The destination of this LSU team isn't set yet, and there are still eight more games on the journey. Call me crazy, but how about we try to enjoy them for once? I know that there will be just three more LSU home games this season. Hell, I may not even make any of them.
But I plan on enjoying them before football goes away again dammit.