It's a fourth straight home game for the Tigers and the final game before the Hunt for Red November begins and we find out just how good this team really is. Homecoming, versus a directional school, right?
What to Watch for on Saturday
People read "Western Kentucky" and they automatically assume rent-a-win. Even when you say things like "no they're pretty good this year, they're 6-1" the talk brings up words like "competitive" and "mid-major."
The reality is the Hilltoppers are a fringe top-25 football team (and 21st in Bill Connelly's S&P+ rankings) with one of the most prolific AND efficient passing games in the country. This is a good football team. Maybe a better one than some of LSU's conference opponents to date. If LSU doesn't bring a focused effort to this game losing is a very real possibility.
What's interesting is that WKU is doing this without the ridiculous attempt numbers you see from the other top passing games in the country. Brandon Doughty averages 38 passers per game, which is a lot, but not what you see out of Air Raid offenses like Washington State, Cal, Texas Tech or Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers will spread the field with three-plus receiver looks, but they'll also use a fullback and multiple tight ends at times as well.
Head coach Jeff Brohm is a former Louisville quarterback that has largely made his name as Bobby Petrino's most successful protégé to date. Petrino, reportedly, took the WKU job following his ouster at Arkansas, partially with an understanding that Brohm would succeed him, and it's resulted in 14 wins in a season and a half, running an aggressive pro-style offense that looks almost exactly like Petrino's Louisville and Arkansas attacks.
Petrino, at least as an offensive coach, was always somebody I've admired because he was never really married to a system the way other gurus like Mike Leach or Rich Rodriguez were. Much like Steve Spurrier (who likewise, hasn't had many true protégés), it was always more about finding the best ways to attack a defense in as many ways as possible. Petrino's best teams were usually just as capable of 300-yard rushing days as they were of 400-yard passing ones. In terms of a "style," it mostly fit whatever kind of defenses he faced.
To date, WKU hasn't run the ball particularly well, averaging just under 130 per game on the ground -- although they have combined for 448 in the last two weeks. The star, obviously, has been Doughty, who is completing 74 percent of his passes for more than 10 yards per attempt with 24 touchdowns in seven games against just FOUR interceptions. Those are numbers that get you in the Heisman discussion even if we just took Western out of the school name.
Yeah, LSU has a talent advantage but the thing about well-coached offensive teams is that they force you to out-execute them. WKU is going to have a smart gameplan for LSU's weaknesses on defense and they're not going to make many mistakes on their own. The top five recievers are all juniors and seniors -- they're going run crisp routes against man coverage and find voids in zone. The Tigers are going to have to win their individual matchups, particularly at the line of scrimmage.
Third Quarter Exam
My high school did the 9-week quarter system (I would like to assume this is common but I have no idea), and the third-quarter exams were always most difficult to really focus on. They didn't matter as much as the second quarter ones, which took the whole first semester into account, and they obviously weren't finals either. If you didn't do great on them, you could always make it up. I was a lazy student for most of those years, so that made it easy to lose focus.
But if you didn't do well, it put you in a hole to climb out of in the final nine weeks. And if you were hoping to carry a grade that could exempt you from the final, those hopes could easily be ruined.
That's kind of what this game is for LSU. Because the reality is, if they take care of business here and beat up on WKU we're going to hear a lot of "well it's just Western Kentucky." They aren't going to get a ton of credit, aside from the metrics folks like Bill C. A tight game, and obviously a loss, will be an infinitely bigger story.
But the good news for LSU is the same thing that was true of those exams. If the Tigers just play their game, it should enough to take care of business.
The Hilltopper defense has allowed more than 200 yards rushing in three games this season, including 284 to their lone Power-5 conference opponent, Indiana. They've allowed 43 runs of 10 yards or more 108th in the country. So in terms of the gameplan, it's business as usual for Cam Cameron: No. 7.
Pound Leonard Fournette, Darrel Williams and Derrius Guice. Wear out that front, keep Doughty off the field and keep LSU's defensive line fresh.
It may not be what some people want to see in terms of throwing the football, but strangulation may be the better option over shootout this week.
Do NOT Expect
I don't think people are going to like the gameplans this week on either side of the ball that much.
On offense, we're talking about a matchup between LSU's running game and a secondary that's absolutely struggled at times against one of the best passing games in the country. So what's the best way to limit Doughty and that offense? Hold on to the ball. Run it, impose will, draw out scoring drives and keep the Hilltoppers on the sidelines.
Scoring, obviously, is paramount, but if LSU can take their time in getting six points a drive it will be that much more effective. Add time constraints to WKU on top of scoring and they'll have to press for the big play. This is an offense that still wants to run the ball and take what a defense gives them. But LSU's offense can help make them a little more one-dimensional.
So if you're the type of person who thinks they should be airing it out more, you might not be too happy after this one.
On the defensive side, in studying up for this game I came across a particularly jarring number via Pro Football Focus: to date Doughty is completing an amazing 80 percent of his passes against the blitz/pressure. Now, success against the blitz is becoming more and more common -- in the NFL guys like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady very rarely see blitzes anymore. But an 80 percent completion rate is outstanding. Jameis Winston did similar things in his Heisman Trophy season (and if you want to read something encouraging, Brandon Harris is completing more than 73 percent of his throws under pressure).
What that means for Kevin Steele and Co. is that LSU has got to win the line of scrimmage and get after Doughty with a four-man rush, while mixing up some coverages on the back end to try and make him go through an extra progression or two. Stop the run, be sound and make tackles. Make WKU earn their yardage, because if you try to cheat to make a big play, Doughty will take it out on the defense.
Schedule, and knocking Doughty off of his usual one, will be huge. One thing I've noticed is that despite an incredible 19-of-26 completion rate on third downs of seven-plus yards, Doughty has only converted five times. What that tells me is that if the defense just opens up the umbrella with a zone, he'll lay it up and take his checkdown underneath (and this will be a problem for him in the NFL -- what separates good QBs at that level is the ability to make throws into tight zones with seven or eight in coverage). That's going to put the onus on LSU's linebackers, which have been inconsistent in coverage, to get deep enough into their drops and then come up and make the tackle.
All in all, running the ball and playing tight zone defense are two of the things people LOVE to complain about in this town. But in this particular instance, it's the perfect recipe for the Tigers to let their talent carry them past their opponent.