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LSU vs. Southern Mississippi: What to Watch For

Finally back at it.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Ed Orgeron has been LSU’s interim head coach for about three weeks now. That feels weird to say, because well…he’s only coached one game. But that will get rectified tomorrow, and made up for in a month or so.

In the meantime, LSU gets something of a rehearsal before a final gauntlet of five straight SEC games as the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles come to town.

There’s some weird symmetry here. USM hasn’t been to Baton Rouge since 1994, when they handed LSU a brutal defeat that led to the firing of a coach…that the Tigers had hired away from them. Twenty-two years later, the Tigers have just fired a coach, and face USM with every game serving as part of a referendum on whether the interim guy will get the job full-time.

Basically, if you coach at LSU and hear we’ve scheduled a game with Southern Miss, be prepared for some change in job status near that game.

What to Watch for On Saturday

Setting the Stage

LSU is a 26-point favorite in this game. Whether they cover that number specifically isn’t so important but how they play definitely is. Starting Sunday, LSU will begin a stretch run of five games over six weeks that will serve as the meat of Ed Orgeron’s audition to be LSU’s next head coach beyond his interim tenure.

This game will serve as another datapoint regarding the implementation of the plan he’s put in place for this team since taking over. The first week was a smashing success against Mizzou, and while week two didn’t feature a game, it did provide an opportunity to focus his team through a host of distractions, and get out on the road to lay a lot of recruiting groundwork.

And, unrelated to Orgeron’s future, it was a key opportunity for this team to rest and recover a little bit, something that is clearly necessary. Leonard Fournette will be sitting out of this one, and LSU could be without two starting offensive linemen, resulting in some shuffling that should put Andy Dodd at center and move Ethan Pocic out to right tackle. And truthfully, Maea Teuhema is less than 100 percent himself. Look for a lot of rotation here, including some possible snaps for true freshman Donovaughn Campbell, to prepare him for a potential bigger role down the stretch.

Spit & Polish

Orgeron and the Tiger coaches can’t really worry about who isn’t playing, because they need to use this game as an opportunity to continue to tune up the offense. Even with 42 points and a school-record for total yardage against Mizzou two weeks ago, this unit needs to continue to find more ways to diversify around Danny Etling, and find more ways to make plays down the field.

This marks yet another opportunity for the Orgeron Regime to differentiate itself. One very legitimate criticism of Les Miles was that his teams never properly took advantage of these opportunities to work on things beyond “securing victory.” Some more work for the passing game, and more reps for other young players, including Brandon Harris, who is still just one play away from being out on the field again and could definitely use work.

The obvious need is to do a better job of stretching the field. Etling has completed just two passes in 16 attempts of 20 yards or more down the field. His decision-making, pocket presence and accuracy on short- and medium-range throws make up the difference well enough, but LSU will need more against better defenses. Even if it’s just a few times per contest.

That may just be a limitation to Etling’s game – it would likely explain why Miles and Cam Cameron preferred Harris, who clearly has the bigger arm. If so, there still might still be ways for Steve Ensminger and Co. can work around it. The most obvious solution might be to use some of the bigger-bodied wide receivers more often. Jazz Ferguson, for one, has begun to assert himself, and part of what got Russell Gage on the field is the fact that he has a reported 40-inch vertical. Throwing high jump balls when you have one-on-one coverage is much easier than trying to float it out there for a speed guy like D.J. Chark or Travin Dural to run under. And sure, this means you won’t throw a ton of 40- or 50-plus-yard bombs, it will help you grab a few more 25-yard completions. Malachi Dupre had a very nice game last week, but skying over defensive backs down the field has never really been his game.

The staff could also work to engineer a few more opportunities to stretch out yards-after-catch opportunities, via quick throws off of playaction or screens. That would mostly call for a little more misdirection and clever timing. Staying on schedule will help with that.

Likewise, establishing those kinds of plays could open the defense up to a few more constraints, like fakes, double-moves, etc..., like a screen-and-go type of play.

USM’s rushing defense is terrible, allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground and rank 104th in rushing defense S&P+. So LSU should have no trouble pounding Derrius Guice, Darrel Williams and Nick Brossette, even with a banged-up offensive line.

Screaming Eagles?

It feels funny to talk about this game as a gimme, given what I know about Southern Miss’s history. Sadly, that’s indicative of how the program has fallen – although Jay Hopson strikes me as a coach that might be able to get them back to where they used to be.

Younger readers don’t remember when USM served as kind of a southern proto-Boise State, known for hitting the road a ton and pulling upsets against SEC teams – including Kentucky this year. Ole Miss stopped playing them after the Golden Eagles won five out of seven from 1977-84, and Mississippi State only recently picked them back up.

USM was the most consistent program in Mississippi in the 1990s under Jeff Bower, before cutting him loose or Larry Fedora in 2007. Fedora, of course, spring-boarded to bigger and better things and left behind a bit of a mess ever since. Todd Monken seemed to have things headed in the right direction, but financial difficulties drove him back to the NFL. Enter Hopson, an alumnus (and a GA on Curly Hallman’s ’94 staff – more symmetry) that has the potential to be a more long-term solution. And a coach, coming from Alcorn State, that is used to working with limited resources.

The Golden Eagles run a typical packaged type of spread offense that will blend the run and pass based on what a defense gives them at a fast tempo, similar to Missouri. And like Missouri, look for LSU to roll up the corners, play tight, man-to-man coverage and roll a safety down into the box for run support. Arden Key should have plenty of opportunities to get after the passer, and LSU’s front can control the action.

The Tigers won’t have safety Rickey Jefferson this week, but John Battle should get some strong mental reps against an offense that, at least from a schematic standpoint, is close to what the Tigers will face next week against Ole Miss.