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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What to Watch For

The season opener is reset, and the Tigers are on the road.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Y’all know what that means.

What to Watch for On Saturday


So, LSU goes from opening with an FCS opponent, at home, to basically doing it on the road, in Starkville. At 8 o’clock at night.

How big of a disadvantage is it? Honestly, we probably won’t be able to tell without hindsight. Does it put LSU in some kind of hole they can’t pull themselves out of? Not at all.

It’s problematic because there are some members of this team that don’t really know full game speed yet, and that’s going to be an adjustment against Mississippi State. That can happen pretty quickly, the key is that LSU doesn’t fall behind making that adjustment in what is sure to be a very loud, raucous Davis-Wade Stadium.

It’s an SEC road game. A fast start and a lead that can maybe deflate the crowd a little is always a good thing.

Les Miles has mentioned some extra team periods this week to rep some situations, but that’s still somewhat limited on contact. Plus, it has to be balanced against working the players too hard.

This will be the home opener for the Bulldogs themselves, coming off of a 34-16 win against Southern Miss in Hattiesburg that could, at best, be described as lackluster. USM kind of threw the sink at State – onside kicks, reverse flea-flickers, etc…, but that’s easy to justify for that program, which is trying to gain any traction it can under Todd Monken. What’s discouraging, if you’re a State fan, is that you allowed more than 5 yards per play and kind of struggled at the line of scrimmage early on.

But then that might have just been the Bulldogs getting through their own first game jitters.

Smoke Signals

I’ll start with the offense, because that’s how we usually roll around here, and it was probably the most frustrating aspect of last season’s ugly loss.

LSU’s definitely going to be judicious with its passing game as Brandon Harris becomes more comfortable, but that can’t mean a repeat of what we saw last year in this game, when the Tigers essentially sat in the I-formation and thudded away ineffectively. Anthony Jennings never saw a third down under five yards in the first three quarters, and it’s no surprise he couldn’t convert them.

Mississippi State has a new (old) defensive coordinator this season in Manny Diaz, but what hasn’t changed is they’re not really much of a bump-and-run type of team. They’re going to give the Tiger receivers some room and when they do, Cam Cameron and Harris have got to make them pay for that. Use some quick pulls, or "smoke" routes on early downs -- if the corner is playing too far off, or the linebacker is giving the slot receiver some room, just take the snap and throw a quick strike. Let the receiver (whomever it is) try and gain three or four yards.

That will keep the offense on schedule in terms of first/second/third down and avoid too many obvious passing downs. That’s what Diaz will want to force.

Now, it’s still dependent on the receiver making a one-on-one play, or one of his mates maybe making a block on a bubble screen (LSU really struggled with this last season), but it can help decongest the middle of the defense.

Diaz ran a vanilla game plan against Southern Miss, who is more spread focused than LSU, but his style is heavy on the zone coverage to try and force turnovers, with a heavy focus on run defense. In fact, that’s where he believes turnovers start. Our advanced metrics guys disagree on the nature of the relationship, but it seems fairly intuitive to me. Stop the run and you force teams into obvious passing situations, and without the benefit of that unpredictability, teams can mix up their coverages and have their eyes in the air, which creates a better opportunity for turnovers.

Diaz, in particular, likes to attack with fire-zone pressure, which is more of the classic "replace a lineman with a linebacker/DB" type of zone-blitz people are used to. It’s designed to keep a quarterback, and the offensive line, guessing as to who’s coming from which direction in the front seven. But if you can establish the running game, you can not only eliminate the opportunities, but also put the defense on its heels by getting the defensive line playing backwards while the offensive line is coming right at them.

In 2 Deep

I haven’t been able to watch much of State’s first game, but going off of the recaps from FWTCT, Diaz used a lot of Tampa-2 style coverage, or a basic cover-two zone.

While I imagine Diaz will mix his looks up a little bit, State’s defense has been fairly two-deep heavy for most of Dan Mullen’s tenure, and it makes sense with the talent they’ve had on hand. Open up the umbrella, tackle, limit big plays and try to make a quarterback be precise over the course of a long drive in order to score. Should LSU find themselves in obvious passing situations, this is probably the look they’ll see.

One of the natural holes in the two-deep zone is, of course, the corner spot between the safety on the hash and the corner up in the flat. So look for some of that smash concept we discussed this summer with Malachi Dupre in the slot. And if that works a few times, watch for DeSean Smith or D.J. Chark down the seam.

Hard Dak

Offense will draw most of the eyes, but chances are this game will be won or lost based on how LSU’s defense and new DC Kevin Steele handle Dak Prescott.

He may very well be the best quarterback the Tigers see this season, and the type of dual-threat runner and thrower that has, per past reports, given Steele the most issues. Honestly, a good, smart quarterback that can beat a defense two ways is always going to be difficult to deal with for any defense. The question will be can Steele find a way to keep Prescott in unfavorable situations, and not let the rest of his supporting cast chip in.

State returns a pretty strong group of receivers, led by big ol’ DeRunya Wilson. But the lack of a Josh Robinson in the backfield may be problematic. Tailbacks Brandon Holloway and Ashton Shumpert took a little time to get going against Southern Miss, and really only found room against the backdrop of Prescott as a constraint. Given the Tigers’ speed at linebacker with Kendell Beckwith and Debo Jones, plus the run support of payers like Dwayne Thomas and Jamal Adams, the best bet may be to make Prescott give the ball up on zone-read and inverted veer plays.

Holloway did have a 100-yard kickoff return against USM though, so LSU doesn’t want to miss any tackles on him (a big problem in last year’s game as well).

Coverage-wise, LSU’s going to single up outside quite a bit, and it remains to be seen if we’ll see any of the pattern-matching and combo coverages Steele has a history with. But keeping Prescott in the pocket and closing on him will be priority one for Ed Orgeron’s charges, and it’s a helluva first task. The one thing we don’t want to see is that pass rush surge past Prescott and give him a lot of green grass.

Do NOT Expect

Air Show

One of the oft-discussed side effects to last week’s cancellation is that State won’t have much on tape out of LSU’s offense aside from the five plays that Tigers ran. And while that’s true, it’s a pretty minor advantage. Dan Mullen knows what to expect from LSU. The Tigers are going to run power and zone and try to attack down the field off of play-action. The rest -- formations, jet sweeps, etc…, are all just constraints and window dressing.

And make no mistake -- while it’s important for LSU to use the pass efficiently -- this team still needs to lean on the run. To say nothing of No. 7 back there, dominating the line of scrimmage, and in turn, time of possession is the best way to control Prescott. USM ran some 80 plays and controlled about 38 minutes of the game in week one. And while LSU isn’t a hurry up team, and likely isn’t going to throw it 40 times, they can control this game with the running game if they set it up properly. Leonard Fournette is still the offense’s best player, and when he’s on the field that means that Mississippi State’s best player is on the sideline.