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LSU vs. Ole Miss: What to Watch For

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Well isn’t this a confluence of events?

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

LSU’s biggest game to date since the “new season” began, against Ed Orgeron’s former team.

There’s never been a lot of love lost between these programs, and despite the warm statements in the press, there isn’t much between the head coaches. And yet, there almost seems to be a lack of juice to the matchup. The two teams seem to be going in opposite directions – Ole Miss is coming off their third loss, second in conference. Any dreams of a conference title for the program’s best non-Manning quarterback are more or less over and done with. LSU, on the other hand, is playing with as much confidence as any team in the country right now, and is at home, very late at night.

Tiger fans are walking into with a lot of confidence and it seems like Ole Miss fans have almost none. Of course, for me with this series, that sets of the spidey sense. This game almost never seems to go the way you think in the last 10 years or so. Yeah, we’re in uncharted territory here for LSU, but I won’t discount the emotional energy Ole Miss always seems to gin up for this rivalry. And you can bet that Hugh Freeze knows the value of a win over LSU with his constituency.

Expect the Rebels to come out swinging.

What to Watch For On Saturday

Pushing the Envelope

LSU’s defense will easily see its stiffest test from Ole Miss’s offense, particularly its passing game with quarterback Chad Kelly and probably the best group of wide receivers in the country. Five different receivers have more than 20 targets on the season and more than 200 yards. Tight end Evan Engram is the No. 1 guy and a true matchup problem for any defense, but there’s a lot of size and speed up and down this lineup with Van Jefferson, Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and A.J. Brown.

Not that it’s mattered, because they’re still averaging more than 40 points a game with Slim Swaggy pulling the trigger.

What has been interesting, is that the Rebels have been running into some down-and-distance issues. Sir Swagsalot and Ole Miss really struggled on passing downs in both of their last two losses to Bama and Arkansas. That’s likely due to a very iffy offensive line, and the inability to use play-action or the threat of a run in those situations, but it’s something that Dave Aranda and the Tiger defense can exploit. Look for LSU to try and use man-to-man coverage on standard downs with some pressure to try and force the Swagosaurus into quicker throws near the line of scrimmage. On passing downs, things will get a little more exotic with some mixed coverages — likely a lot of quarters with pattern-matching — and a four-man rush, with some stunts and other matchup tricks to try and get a man free. Rush discipline and containment from players like Arden Key and Davon Godchaux in the middle will be key though, as Swagmaster Flash can be a dangerous runner and easily pick up first downs.

Mixing coverage on Engram will be incredibly important. Freeze will move him around and try to match him up on Key as a linebacker as much as possible, and they love to run a variety of fakes and clear-outs to try and get him the ball in space. At about 6-3, Engram isn’t the physical nightmare that, say, and O.J. Howard is, but he is very fast for a linebacker to handle. Look for Aranda to try a couple of different players on him in different sets, from Jamal Adams to Kendell Beckwtih/Duke Riley to Tre’davious White.

Wisconsins’ tight ends ate this unit up in the opener, so this matchup might very well determine the Rebels’ success.

Contrast

For all of Danny Etling’s successes in recent weeks, LSU’s success throwing the ball since the coaching change and Orgeron’s emphasis on it, a bit of classic Les Miles Football might not be a bad idea this week.

For one, the Rebels are straight-up bad when it comes to run defense, allowing more than 200 yards per game on the ground, and 250 to conference opponents. They allowed 200 on the ground to Arkansas last week, and the Hogs had been averaging just 120 per game against winning teams previously. There are some decent athletes on this defensive line, but the back seven just doesn’t have the horses to keep up with good backs.

We should assume that Leonard Fournette is still somewhere below 100 percent and won’t get a full workload, but Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams have been more than capable. Steve Ensminger and Jabbar Juluke need to balance those carries out, but this still needs to be a run-heavy gameplan designed to keep the Ole Miss offense off the field. Not only will it help keep the Tiger defense fresh, but if it’s successful, it will make the Rebels even more desperate to make big plays in the passing game. And the Swagster tends to chuck balls up for grabs when there’s pressure in his face.

Flatten Out

Now, that said, Ensminger should definitely keep some of his formation emphasis from recent weeks, particularly with regards to the use of one-back/two-tight end sets.

Ole Miss runs a 4-2-5 style of defense under coordinator Dave Wommack. It means a permanent 8-man front, but a smaller one. Against a two-by-two formation, like in the figure above, it’s going to align a little wider. Which will also make it a lot easier to get a hat on a hat on either side of the formation, and one with 250-pound tight ends blocking 210-pound defensive backs.

Remember, the gamble of a permanent nickel style is that you can use numbers to frustrate a power running game. That the offense will get frustrated with 3- and 4-yard runs before the defense wears down.

That’s a gamble LSU should always take, provided they can be smart with it.

Run/pass mix is still important to keep things from getting too bunched up, but if Ensminger mixes his runs and his quick passes well, there will be opportunities to get Fournette or Guice through a hole with nobody between them and the deep safety.

Three For All

The other major feature of Wommack’s defense is that it makes heavy use of cover-three in passing situations. It’s the perfect coverage for any defense that wants to keep a safety in the box, because it allows you to balance numbers at the line of scrimmage with coverage that, in theory, should still be able to limit big plays.

Against a zone defense, quarterbacks are typically drilled on thinking less about here the defenders are supposed to be, and more where they aren’t. And against cover-three, the holes in the zone are as follows:

This explainer does a great job of listing some popular “beater” concepts for cover-three. Where LSU is concerned, Etling’s limitations down the field will make things a bit tough down the seams. Four-verticals is probably the best cover-three beater, ditto the Smash Concept, but neither really plays to Etling’s strengths as a passer. But he’s had some good success in the flats. Look for some quick throws off of play-action there, and maybe a little more use of Guice’s skill as a receiver to get him in the open field. Watch for some slant/arrow combinations as well on standard downs, where the outside receiver’s slant can act like a natural pick for the flat route. And if DeSean Smith keeps up his level of play and avoids mental mistakes, the “Stick-Arrow” concept may allow the Tigers to attack the middle of the field some.

Ensminger flashed a couple of ways to stress defenses in the flat last week with the jet-sweep motion and a number of quick throws to D.J. Chark in that short area. I suspect that might have been show a little something for Ole Miss to think about, so watch for a constraint or two off of that look. If the Rebel corners are thinking short more it might be a bit easier to sneak a slot man behind them for an easy throw.