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LSU vs. Wisconsin: What to Watch For

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends!

Wisconsin v LSU Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

A New Beginning

And here we are, back again to open up another season of LSU Football.

You could say the last 12 months have been…eventful around here. But the past is the past, and I think it’s time to start putting one foot in front of the other and move forward again.

LSU comes into this season with a top-10 ranking, its most experienced team in years, a flashy new defensive coordinator and an offense that has some maturity for the first time since 2013.

And the curtain comes up in…Green Bay, Wisconsin?

Okay, I know that a lot of people are over the whole neutral site deal, and I don’t even blame them, to be honest. But this one is pretty cool. And I don’t just say that because I’m going to be there.

Now our season begins. Let’s all enjoy it together.

Familiar Faces

Two teams that like to use the I-formation on offense and the 3-4 on defense. The Dave Aranda/Wisconsin matchup is going to get all the pub here, but LSU has some history with multiple coaches involved. The program faced a Paul Chryst offense in 2004 when he was then the offensive coordinator for Mike Riley’s Oregon State team. Aranda’s replacement in Madison, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, led Tennessee’s D against the Tigers in 2010 and Washington’s in 2012.

Chryst has always been a classic “pro-style” type of coach. His Beaver teams used more of a one-back look with H-back tight ends and slot backs, but his Wisconsin team brings it back to the Barry Alvarez years with more fullbacks and traditional tight ends. Whereas the 2014 Wisconsin offense liked to attack the edge with the jet-sweep under Gary Andersen, this team will be much more straight-ahead with pulling guards and blocking down from the traditional big, strong Badger offensive line. There isn’t the dangerous big-play threat of Melvin Gordon to attack those edges, but Corey Clement and Co. are all strong runners that should be able to pound out 4-5 yards per carry against most teams.

At quarterback, the Badgers will be rolling with senior Bart Houston, who looks…well…like almost every other QB Wisconsin has had in the last 20 years. He should give them a steady hand in the passing game, which they need without a dynamic receiver returning.

Defensively, Wilcox isn’t likely to change much from what Aranda put in place – his defenses usually blended the 3-4/4-3 fronts anyway with an end/linebacker hybrid type on the weak side. Plus, he returns a very experienced, talented front seven. Wisconsin’s linebacking corps will be one of the best in the country this season, with enough depth that even with freshman All-American T.J. Edwards out for this game with an injury, his replacement inside is Jack Cichy, the star of this clip that every LSU fan has watched ever since Les Miles hired Aranda:

Vince Biegel is a legit talent, and T.J. Watt (yes, those Watts) was talented enough to jump the depth chart for the Badgers in the spring. And there’s some bulk in the middle in 340-pound nose tackle Olive Sagapolu.

Split the Difference

The 3-4 defense has always been a scheme that, even with the best personnel, sacrifices some size for speed. It fell out of fashion in the NFL in the 1990s, largely because offensive lines got bigger and bigger and workhorse tailbacks became the big fad as everybody tried to copy the Dallas Cowboys. Having a massive nose tackle helps, but those players can be rare. But if you have a great pair of outside linebackers, they generally have the size to set the edge on outside runs, and the speed to pinch down inside and make tackles on inside runs.

For coaches, they’re usually called “overhanging” defenders, because while they might be the end man on the line of scrimmage, they’re usually in a two-point stance and have enough space to make them a difficult target for offensive tackles. That makes other movement blockers, particularly tight ends and fullbacks, very important.

Look for LSU to try and deal with the Badgers with what was one of their best running plays last season, the Split-Zone run concept. Here’s a video from the Philadephia Eagles on some of the principles of the blocking — embedding was disabled for it.

It’s a run that’s become a staple of spread teams that use an H-back tight end, but LSU executes it really well out of the I-formation with a fullback kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage behind the zone-blocking line. You may remember this example:

This is a textbook example of the play. The line steps right and the defense flows hard with the direction of the blocking. Connor Neighbors makes a great block, Fournette cuts back and the only thing between him and the endzone is the soon-to-be-crumpled remains of Howard Matthews.

The split-zone almost creates a natural counter for a back like Fournette with great vision. If the defense overcommits to the play side, there will be a huge cutback through the weak side B-gap.

Teams can also gain leverage on that back side by putting the player in conflict, either with zone-read/bootleg action in the shotgun or pistol, or with some sort of motion, like a jet-sweep or with a bubble-screen set when aligning a trips receiver formation to that side.

Opening Night Jitters

LSU is a strong favorite in this game, and they should be. That said, don’t be surprised if the going is tough for a good chunk of this game, much like the 2014 matchup in Houston. Wisconsin’s secondary may be vulnerable, but the front seven will be a tough matchup for an LSU offensive line that isn’t totally settled yet. Cam Cameron needs to be patient with the running game, but also avoid putting Brandon Harris in too many unfavorable third-down situations.

There’s a tendency with LSU fans and pundits to completely dismiss second-tier Big 10 teams in these matchups due to talent discrepancy, but Wisconsin has success year in and year out for a reason. They’re going to be ready to play on Saturday, and the Tigers had better be as well.

Aside from the obvious, there’s a lot to like about this matchup in terms of testing some of our concerns with the Tigers as well. Wisconsin’s pass-rush and odd front should both test Harris and the LSU offensive line. While the Badgers’ power-based attack plays towards one of our concerns with the move to Aranda’s defense — namely how it will hold up against teams like Alabama and Arkansas.

Season-openers have rarely gone smoothly for LSU under Les Miles, especially in these bigger matchups. The furious rally from North Carolina in 2010. Passing-game sputters in 2011 and 2012 -- the 2013 matchup with TCU was nip and tuck for a while as well, to say nothing of the last time LSU matched up with Wisconsin. Hell, last year’s opener didn’t even get out of the first quarter.

I expect LSU to eventually pull away and take care of business here, but I don’t expect it to be easy. And the on-field product is almost certainly going to evolve over the remaining 11 games. So just keep that in mind when you have that inclination to overreact one way or another when the final whistle blows.