What to Watch For on Saturday
Revenge spot for LSU after last season. Don't be surprised if they're extra jazzed up for an early kickoff.
Their Own Medicine?
It was one of the leading narratives in the SEC this summer. Auburn's new (old) defensive coordinator, Coach Boom Motherfucker himself, Will Muschamp. With his magic wand he would turn around Auburn's woebegone defense and help the Gus Bus run over the rest of the West.
Through two games, the Other Tigers are allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground and 4.2 per carry, and worse yet they're dead last in the conference in third down defense after allowing Louisville and Jacksonville State to convert a combined 48 percent of their opportunities. Gus Bus can't shift into drive if it can't get on the field, y'all.
Truth is, the changeover from Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 style to Muschamp's modified 4-3 is going to take some time and he just doesn't have enough of the athletes to operate right now. Ironically, it's been one of the Malzahn offense staples that has given the Tigers so much grief thus far: zone and power read plays.
I'll assume most readers are familiar with the zone read by now. Power read is the same concept with a different blocking style -- it's blocked like a classic Power-O play, with the play-side guard and tackle blocking down and a backside guard pulling as a lead blocker. Quarterback reads the unblocked defensive end and either hands it off to a running back or keeps and follows the puller. LSU has run the zone style more, but has used the power in the past a few times. Against Mississippi State the offense had some limited success with the zone-read, although it's not clear how often Brandon Harris actually had the option of making the mesh read.
Defensive end Carl Lawson's status will likely affect how often LSU runs the play, and there's still some balance Cam Cameron needs to seek here. When it comes to carries for Harris, quality and maximizing his effectiveness is far more important than quantity. Plus keepers mean fewer carries for No. 7.
LSU was in shotgun/one-back looks more than any other set last week, but you can still expect a healthy dose of the I-formation, especially if the Tigers can get a lead early and establish the run. Spread plays have had a lot of success against Auburn this season, but they've also only really faced two spread offenses.
Stick and Move
Defensively, Auburn's got some talent up front. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams is capable of being a pest inside, and linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are steady, if not occasionally dynamic. Where the Other Tigers are really weak is on the back end. Cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess were dreadful in man-to-man coverage versus JSU, and safeties Johnathan Ford and Nick Ruffin (depending on the status of Tray Matthews) don't seem ready for all the scheme requires.
Muschamp has always asked a lot of his safeties. They need to be fast enough to start near the line of scrimmage pre-snap and then bail into deep coverage, or fly up quickly in a run-fit. He may favor man-to-man coverage in general, but he wants to be active before the snap and try to hide things for the opposing quarterback. Against JSU, which has a well-coached and experienced passing attack, he tried to protect his guys a bit by playing off and giving up a lot of underneath stuff, particularly inside. The Gamecocks ate up the Auburn backfield in the flats and with slants and stick routes.
What that means is that the Tigers will have to try a few high-percentage throws on run downs, something we didn't see much of last week. Watch for Malachi Dupre on some of the aforementioned stick routes, especially with Auburn down a starting nickelback. There's also the smoke screens to Travin Dural (which were THIS close to working against Mississippi State) and maybe even a waggle or two. Auburn hasn't looked like a defense that is 100-percent confident in their assignments yet, so anything to make them take an extra half a step is something that's going to create more room for Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams. A couple of jet sweep runs could also accomplish the same thing.
There's going to be some opportunities down the field as well, as Countess and Jones really struggle with the ball in the air. Watch for some jump-ball type throws to Dupre and Dural if Harris can successfully spot man-to-man coverage and make the right check.
Whether it's the gameplan or not, Auburn's preseason Heisman dark horse quarterback is going to have to be the focus for them to win this week. His struggles have been documented, and to date film study shows that Johnson's big issue seems more with decision making than anything else. He's accurate enough, and Auburn's wideouts, unpolished as they might be, are a big and athletic group. But Johnson has struggled with reads, both in the option game and on defenses. Despite a 60 percent completion rate, an astounding 52 percent of his incompletions have been defended successfully. That means he's putting a lot of balls up for grabs where defenders can get a hand on it. One thing in particular that's really jumped out is an issue with seeing underneath zone defenders -- four of his five interceptions this season were picked by underneath defenders. That's what's likely led to some pundits openly questioning his eyesight.
Situationally, Johnson is completing just 40 percent of his passes on third down (6-of-15), although all six of those completions have netted a conversion. That means LSU's going to have to bottle up the Auburn rushing attack and try to force third and long.
Auburn will, of course, use that running game. Peyton Barber has been effective, but he's more of a pounder and not much of a big-play threat. Roc Thomas will provide that outside, and don't be surprised if Auburn tries a lot of swing passes and bubble screens on early downs to try and pick up some quick yardage. Kevin Steele will want to consider mixing up his underneath coverage some, which could also put players like Jamal Adams, Dwayne Thomas and Rickey Jefferson in position to be underneath some of those deeper throws.
Whereas last week saw getting the ball out of Dak Prescott's hands on zone-read plays as a priority, this week, LSU's defensive front will probably want to make Johnson hold the ball as much as possible. And call it a hunch, but we may see a few straight keepers by Johnson on early downs as well. He hasn't made the best decisions on read plays, but he's a reasonably athletic, big body and Malzahn may just take the decision aspect out of it and run him on some straight quarterback power plays to try and loosen things up a bit.
Per usual, Auburn WILL put LSU's defensive ends in conflict a good bit with the option and with pulling and trapping guards. The unblocked Tiger will have to make sure he obeys his "block down/step down" rules and either wrong-arm or blow up any pulling blocker he encounters. LSU's linebackers are fast and strong enough to run down a lot of plays, but the line will have to help give them room to operate in.
Do NOT Expect
Change of Pace
For a program that's built around tempo, Auburn's only gone full no-huddle a handful of drives so far this season. Jeremy Johnson's struggles are part of the reason there, but the other is that the big benefit from a tempo offense is after the big play; the ability to run up and get set before the defense on that next play. And through two weeks, Auburn has just two plays from scrimmage longer than 20 yards -- LSU had that many against Mississippi State alone. Gus Malzahn's series style of play calling isn't designed to hen-peck a defense to death exclusively, it's designed to show one thing a couple of times and then use a counter or some other type of misdirection (in concert with the aforementioned tempo) to create those chunk plays. To date, Auburn hasn't been able to do that, and that's what they really need to break into their hurry up mode.
What that means is that there's a real chance for LSU to be the team that sets the pace here. For those who want to see big plays and an air show, remember that Auburn's going to be that much more comfortable with their offense on the field in a back-and-forth shootout. Gus Malzahn may say that time of possession doesn't matter to him, but let LSU force a few punts and put up touchdowns on 7 minute-plus scoring drives and it won't take long for him to have an eye on the clock. If Auburn is struggling to make big plays, force them to do just that and be one-dimensional.
And that's when you realize that no matter how he's played, Johnson's a young quarterback making his very first road start. Be loud y'all. Yes, I know it's hot and yes I know day games suck. Deal with it. Show up, have fun and be loud.
So how does LSU control that pace? By running the football. Does the passing game need to expand? Sure. But that doesn't equate to "more passing." Nor does more passing equate to "trying to win." Leonard Fournette is the best player on this team, so he's going to get the ball plenty. Twenty-eight times again? Maybe. This is an important game (if it's still happening against Syracuse and Eastern Michigan, that's a problem), that can help set the table for the rest of LSU's season. Win, lose or draw, go down firing your biggest gun.