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LSU vs. Louisville: What to Watch For

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And so 2016 truly comes to an end for LSU.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Texas A&M Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We should be used to long, strange trips by now for LSU, but the 2016 season kind of took the cake, right?

I’ll let Ross Dellenger recap this, at least through the actual final game of the regular season:

Since then, LSU has hired a new permanent head coach, flirted with Alabama’s offensive coordinator, whom Alabama found a way to make a head coach at Florida Atlantic, hired another offensive coordinator AND had two quarterback recruits waiver and then recommit. In the meantime, they landed a Citrus Bowl spot on New Year’s Eve, because New Year’s Day is on Sunday and the NFL ruins these things, against a Heisman Trophy winner that basically lapped the field in winning the award.

What to Watch For On Saturday

Supastahhhhh

Spencer Hall put Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson’s season in perspective better than I ever could, but for a point of reference:

  • Jackson’s 51 touchdowns this season is a higher total than Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Johnny Manziel scored in their respective Heisman seasons; and
  • His 410 average total offensive yardage per game, beats all three, plus Oregon’s Marcus Mariota in 2014.

Jackson is a spectacular athlete – a truly gifted runner that is deployed perfectly by Bobby Petrino in the passing game.

Petrino’s offense have always been notoriously quarterback-friendly, to the point that few of his passers have had much success outside of his sphere of influence. That’s not terribly unique for offensive gurus at the college level, but in Petrino’s particular case, I’ve always believed that it’s that he gameplans so well to not only take advantage of what his quarterbacks do well, but also the weaknesses of a defense.

Simply put, the man is the best play-caller I’ve seen outside of maybe Steve Spurrier. He doesn’t have a unique offense or system that really translates to other coaches. His Louisville teams, just like Arkansas before, aren’t doing anything revolutionary or ground-breaking. But they execute well and aggressively attack whatever a defense struggles with, run or pass.

And as Seth detailed earlier this week, the Cardinals don’t run a free-flowing spread offense full of RPO’s and crazy tempo a la a Big 12 team. Petrino just adjusted some of his favorite concepts to Jackson’s incredible athleticism, and incorporated the quarterback into his running game. And when you have a guy that can move like Jackson in the open field, that’s going to yield some big-time results. This line in particular stuck with me:

Sometimes athletes win no matter how you scheme to stop them.

These types of athletes are rare, but LSU’s seen more than its share in recent years. And sure, there was a lot of success against Manziel in both of his seasons, but sometimes you run into Newton, or Darren McFadden and you might even win more snaps than you lose. But the snaps you lose are just enough to make a difference. That could be the Tiger defense’s margin against Jackson.

Maintain

LSU’s had solid success against quarterbacks like Jackson in recent years, largely because of their athleticism on the defensive line and a steady run of defensive backs that have had a knack for blitzing. Keep a contained rush up front, chase speed with speed, and dual-threat quarterbacks kind of get funneled into the traffic at the line of scrimmage. And avoiding defensive linemen in tight quarters is a lot harder than it is in open space.

John Chavis was a master of it in his time here, and Dave Aranda’s unit has had pretty good success this year as well, with only Alabama’s Jalen Hurts managing to have much success as a runner.

Louisville will present a new challenge. Obviously, Jackson is in a different league, both as a runner and in his ability to throw the ball down the field well (Hurts still struggles with this). Plus, the Tigers will also be without Mack Linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Look for Donnie Alexander and Devin White to tag-team his spot next to Duke Riley, and while both did a nice job against Texas A&M and a similar type of running game, Florida was able to make a lot of hay up the middle against LSU. That was partially due to the read threat of Austin Appleby at quarterback, and also a lot of misdirection with sweep looks. You can bet that Petrino will have that in mind.

And given LSU’s strength on the edge with Arden Key, Tashawn Bower and defensive backs, look for the Cards to mix some fakes into their quarterback power game, and switch their read plays to the midline/inverted veer look, with an unblocked interior defensive lineman:

That will likely put Davon Godchaux in the crosshairs, and Aranda may have him dedicate his movements to get the ball out of Jackson’s hands. Louisville’s backs are solid, but funneling them towards LSU’s edge defenders, and Jamal Adams, is probably a smarter play. Adams will have to be on point with his tackling, ditto Tre’davious White and Dwayne Thomas, both of whom could spend some time chasing Jackson on blitzes.

A disciplined pass-rush could create quite a lot of opportunities against an offensive line that has given up 39 sacks this season. But LSU cannot allow Jackson to get outside of that containment. Look for a mix of some zone coverage from Aranda as well, in order to keep some eyes up the field should Jackson break out.

Third downs will be crucial. Louisville converts a solid 44 percent on third down, but that number drops to 30 percent for Jackson on distances of seven yards or more. Of course, when you average a combined 8.9 yards per play on first down (per pass attempt plus rushing), you don’t get in third and long very often.

Will Vs. Way

Jackson and Derrius Guice (especially sans Leonard Fournette) will get all the talk in this game and all their big plays will dot the various highlight packages, but this will be a line of scrimmage game just like any other. Particularly, for the LSU offensive line, which faces a fairly stout Louisville defense, albeit one that will be without its leading sacker in James Hearns, who was injured in a shooting a month ago.

The Cardinals allow 23 points per game but a lot of that has featured garbage time points behind huge leads. They rate 15th in S&P+ and 17th in success rate, but have been a little vulnerable to big plays at times. Likewise, when the unit breaks down, it’s usually against the run, with 200-plus yards allowed in losses to Clemson and Kentucky.

LSU will need to take that gamble for several reasons. For one, the best player on this offense is still in the backfield with No. 5, and if he’s partnering with the rest of his mates to grind out some nice, long scoring drives that just means fewer plays and less time for Jackson to come in and do what he does on offense. But Louisville is a fast-starting team, and that means that Steve Ensminger will need to show some patience early on if the Cards do their thing and get a lead. At least within reason.

The Tigers need to exert their will, not let Jackson and Petrino make this a scoring fest. That’s a game they’re far more comfortable playing.

Do NOT Expect

A Sneak Preview

Bowl wins are important for cosmetic reasons. An offseason is long, and fan bases – especially LSU – can be really gripe-y if their last impression of the team was a loss. But beyond that, there’s rarely much carryover. Whatever pieces you might see of the next season’s team won’t be apparent until you know what that next team looks like. Last year’s Texas Bowl was a mirage for Brandon Harris. The 2012 Peach Bowl proved a speed bump for Zach Mettenberger. Ed Orgeron has more changes in mind for this program than may seem readily apparent right now – and we know that there will at least be a new offensive approach with Matt Canada coming in. Plus, this is a team that will lose, at minimum, a number of seniors and a transcendent talent that was truly the heartbeat of the team in Fournette. What we’ll see tomorrow morning is something kind of in between the 2016 and 2017 squads. It’s probably not even fair to really call it a beta test yet.

Hell, LSU may not even get Jackson at his peak. Many a Heisman winner has shown up for his bowl game in less than stellar shape following a couple weeks traveling the banquet circuit away from the watchful eye of a strength and conditioning staff. Teams spend weeks out of the grinding regiment of the season, and coaches have their minds focused on recruiting, and in some cases, finding a new job. It’s as far from a typical game situation as you can get, and that’s before you get into the festivities that come with the bowl trip.

Avoid any sweeping, long-term conclusions from what you see on Saturday morning. Just sit back, try to relax and enjoy your last taste of Tiger football in 2016. We’ll figure out what matters in another eight months or so.