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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What to Watch For

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A new hope?

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

LSU hits the quarter pole of the 2016 season opening up SEC play with a visit from the Mississippi State Bulldogs. A sense of desperation following week one’s embarrassment led to a flash of hope following some quarterback change.

This week will begin to tell us if that hope is warranted.

What to Watch For on Saturday

Out of the Blocks

LSU is 0-for on third down in the first quarter of both games to date. For everything we want to see from this offense and this team in this game, changing that one stat is probably the best place to start.

Having Leonard Fournette back has to be an incredible emotional lift for this team, and the change at quarterback to Danny Etling appears to have added something of a spark for the time being. If the offense can put some sort of fast start together on Saturday night, 90 percent of that Tiger Stadium crowd will forget about the Wisconsin game very quickly. At least for the time being.

That kind of momentum, plus a raucous crowd, would almost certainly help push the defense into a position to keep things rolling downhill.

Under New Management?

We’re about to get a pretty good idea of just what we have in Etling, who seems like a pretty clear upgrade at the quarterback position at the moment.

Now, exactly what that will translate too in totality remains to be seen, but the thing that consistently showed up was a lot of the little things that you like to see out of a quarterback, particularly a calm, steady hand, quick feet in the pocket and some nice poise under pressure.

Etling may not have Harris’ physical gifts in terms of his pure arm strength, but he may be a better fit for more of a managed passing game compared to Harris, who has always struggled on the shorter throws that don’t involve a lot of juice on the ball.

Fans and pundits are always talking about how other programs, particularly Alabama, find ways to feature their quarterbacks, but what they’ve always really done is manage them by, for lack of a better phrase, hiding them in plain sight. Combine easy throws, in plus situations -- i.e. standard downs, when the defense is more likely to be thinking run first, and play man coverage -- with a very strict adherence to schedule. If you’ve watched Bama over the years, this is the largest single constant through different coordinators. They throw easy passes on first and 10, second and five, etc…and avoid third and long at all costs. When they do find themselves in that position, assuming they aren’t trailing or desperate for a play, they usually call a low-risk play like a screen or a draw. If it works, great, if not, punt. When you have a great running game, defense and superior talent level to your opponents, it’s a great way to still take advantage of your weapons in the passing game while managing risk.

It’s something we’ve talked about LSU doing a lot over the years, but rarely seen outside of Greg Studrawa and Steve Kragthorpe’s work in 2011.

Harris’ accuracy issues may have precluded this type of gameplan. If you can’t hit these low-risk throws, you’ll wind up behind the chains anyway. But it may be a better fit for Etling, if Cameron is willing to try it. Whether or not that’s the case remains to be seen.

State looks rather weak at corner, so testing those players early will only help out the Tiger running game by forcing the Bulldogs to keep safeties over the top.

Lookin’ Out the Back Door

The Bulldogs have moved to something of a 3-4/4-3 hybrid type of defense under new coordinator Peter Sirmon, and it’s paying off through two games with 22 tackles for loss, the most of any SEC team. Watching their game with South Carolina, the end/outside linebackers, A.J. Jefferson and Jonathan Calvin have been very effective.

That’s a bit scary for LSU, where the tackles have been less than impressive for the offensive line, and the team just really struggled with a 30-front defense in week one, particularly with Wisconsin’s outside linebackers. As we discussed in the preview of that Wisconsin game, there are a couple of ways of dealing with those defenders that LSU has employed at times. They did not, however, use them against Wisconsin, and as a result T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel made a number of plays pinching down inside against the run and getting to Leonard Fournette quickly.

LSU went back to some of those split-zone runs last week versus Jacksonville State, and it would be a good idea to try those again, along with a couple of other tactics to make those defenders hesitate when they are left unblocked. Throwing a couple of bubble screens, when LSU is in that twins-slot I-formation would help, as well as give Etling some of those easy completions. Faking that action with a run will work too. Ditto orbit or jet-sweep fakes as well. Anything to make Jefferson or Calvin hesitate slightly, so that LSU can gain a blocking advantage on the play side.

Reading is FUNdamental

Last week gave us something of a preview of what to expect on offense from the Bulldogs, with Jacksonville State running an offense that was largely built off of variations of the zone-read. Which is, of course, a staple of State offenses since Dan Mullen arrived from Florida.

Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rushed for a school-record 195 yards last week against South Carolina, with about 151 of those yards coming on variations of the play. As Ian Boyd wrote last season, fewer teams are running what we think of as the classic zone-read play – an offensive line zone blocking, leaving the backside end for the quarterback to read and either hand off to a back with the flow of the play, or keep himself. The play itself is still there in terms of quarterbacks making the read, but as defenses adjusted to the classic version, coaches have adapted in a number of ways, be it RPOs, changing the read to midline with an unblocked defensive tackle, using runners in motion or different blocking schemes like power, counter and sweep.

Per the Advocate, JSU was able to pick up some 106 yards on 26 zone-read plays, although nearly half of that total came on two plays. Almost everything State will want to do with Fitzgerald will come off of that play, including several run-pass options.

At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Fitzgerald is a similarly imposing figure to Dak Prescott, but despite last week’s outburst, he doesn’t look like nearly the same dynamic athlete. He does, however, look like a player that will make good decisions and handles the ball well enough to really affect a defense. He actually reminds me of another former Mississippi QB — Bo Wallace. Dr. Bo was never the most dangerous runner, but he could ride the mesh-point on that read to the last possible second, yank that ball out and scamper for whatever the defense gives. Likewise, Fitzgerald doesn’t flash the strongest of arms. State looks like a team that relies on a lot of short throws in the flat and on shallow crosses to try and set up bigger plays down the field.

LSU will need to defend this team downhill. The corners need to tighten up and press at the line more after giving JSU’s receivers too much room last week. Jamal Adams, Rickey Jefferson and Tre’davious White will also likely be in for some busy nights as well as the Bulldogs attack the flats and try to eke out those short gains. White will also be busy with State’s best player, wide receiver Fred Ross, who will move around to try and create mismatches. In particular, watch for Mullen to try and match Ross and speedy tailback Brandon Holloway on linebackers.

If the defense can be stout up the middle, Fitzgerald will have a hard time getting outside of players like Arden Key and Lewis Neal. Get the Bulldogs in third-and-long and force Fitzgerald to push the ball down the field accurately, and LSU should be in good shape.