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LSU vs. Auburn: What to Watch For

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Back to the Plains to take on those Other Tigers.

Auburn v LSU Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There are big-time stadiums that are difficult to play in because they house really good teams, or have huge crowds. And there are stadiums that are just loud. Jordan-Hare Stadium is in that second category. LSU is walking in to face a desperate Auburn team that has lost seven straight home games to Power-Five conference opponents.

What to Watch For on Saturday

On the Raggedy Edge

LSU, Auburn, in what could very well amount to a metaphorical "Loser Leaves Town" matchup for the head coaches in the SEC's version of the Springfield Mystery Spot, Jordan-Hare Stadium. What could possibly go wrong?

Things are a little direr for the Other Tigers; even the College & Mag crowd seem a bit resigned to Gus Malzahn's fate, and a loss this week could make a mid-season firing a reality. An LSU loss wouldn't end things for Les Miles right away, but it would make the four- or five-loss season that WOULD result in his ouster much more of a certainty.

But that also means that there's an opportunity for a statement win here. LSU hasn't beaten Auburn on the road by more than one score in 18 years. A decisive victory would show that the momentum of defense and solid quarterback play from last week has carried through while the mistakes that prevented LSU from putting State away last week have not. That would mark a real improvement for this team as they move into the deeper end of SEC play.

So here we are. The question will be who pushes whom over the edge.

Limited Series

Auburn’s offense has become a complete mess in recent years, something that might seem hard to understand if you’ve been in a coma since 2013 or so. Somewhere along the line, this program seems to have lost how the puzzle pieces fit together.

College and Mag had a fantastic series summarizing Tubby Raymond’s book on the Delaware Wing-T series -- a book that Malzahn has credited with informing a lot of his football philosophy. That’s less about the Wing-T itself, or the way that most people understand the offense anyway, and more about the bedrock philosophy of series play-calling. All of the fakes, motions and misdirection that is a staple of Malzahn’s offense, along with its tempo, is about focusing on one particular aspect of a defense and putting as much stress on it as possible. That’s a classic Wing-T principle, where motions, play-action and blocking can disguise plays in several ways.

As you can see in these figures, similar motions and movement can result in runs for different players to the same side of the defense. You see those ideas repackaged here in Malzahn’s Power/Jet-Sweep series:

Easy to picture three different players with the ball there, and if the QB keeps it that cold also create a passing opportunity. You combine that with a fast pace, make the defense physically tired as well, players start guessing and voila! Big play.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily need a Cam Newton or Nick Marshall type to run this offense, but if you don’t, that has to be accounted for in play-calling. See last year, with Jeremy Johnson. A big, strong athlete that had decent mobility for his size, but much more comfortable in the pocket versus on the move. Most figured the offense would look more like the Chris Todd days in 2009, with more play-action passing and quick screens to constrain the run, but Malzahn never really adjusted to that.

A year later, former blue-chip recruit Sean White has the reins, with JUCO transfer John Franklin III working in on occasion. White is a bit on the thin side, so don’t expect to see him running QB Power plays too much. Franklin is definitely a more explosive athlete, but he must be more limited as a passer, or struggle with the playbook.

In the backfield, sophomore Kamryn Pettway appears to have taken over the lead tailback role. He reminds me a lot of Cam Artis-Payne, only bigger. Thick, bowling-ball type runner that isn’t going to break a game open, but can wear a defense down. LSU’s best defense for him would be to keep Auburn off the field. He’s the kind of back that doesn’t look like he’s doing much damage but then he breaks a 25-yarder in the fourth and you look up and he’s had 25 carries for a buck-40.

Outside, the Other Tigers seem to be really lacking for playmakers, so look for LSU’s defensive backs to press close to the line of scrimmage and the safeties to play downhill. On the line of scrimmage, they’ll try to read Arden Key as much as possible, so he needs to attack the mesh point and try and steer the ball to his help as much as possible. His other mates up front need to mind their block down/step down principles and wrong-arm Auburn’s pulling linemen.

Auburn likes to stack its receivers outside -- watch to see if they try a couple of pump-fake/screen-and-go combos. LSU’s defensive backs have attacked those screens very aggressively in the last two weeks.

Hello Again!

For the second consecutive season, LSU is facing its former coordinator, this time in Kevin Steele, who surprised just about everybody by announcing his departure almost right after LSU’s Texas Bowl win.

To date, he appears to have upgraded Auburn’s defense, albeit only slightly. Whether that will remain the case as the season wears on remains to be seen. I’m dubious, if only because of the talent deficiencies on hand.

But as of today, Steele’s Auburn teams have held two opponents under 20 points, which equals his LSU defenses’ total from all 12 games last year. And that includes Clemson and superstar quarterback Deshawn Watson in week one. The finer numbers, however, paint a less rosy picture: Auburn is still allowing more than 5 yards per play, have allowed 8 plays of longer than 30 yards (an abysmal 124th in Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP stat on passing downs), are allowing a 60 percent success rate on passing downs and are just 83rd in passing-down sack rate. Things are likely to trend down as the Other Tigers see better quarterbacks.

On film, the scheme is more or less what he tried to do with LSU last year -- an “under” front 4-3 defense that wants to mix coverages on passing downs and bring zone pressure. And while there’s talent on that defensive line, especially with Carl Lawson healthy, the back seven looks a lot like the same crew that struggled last year for Will Muschamp. Steele does have them playing with some enthusiasm, and tackling well. Those two things alone can improve any defense.

Steele’s defense is known for being rather complex, and the best way to attack that is to add that complexity. Mix in passes on standard downs, stay ahead of the chains and use motions and shift to try and force players to adjust and swap off assignments. It’s something the Tigers struggled with last year, and it’s a gameplan LSU had some success with last week. I would expect Cam Cameron’s confidence in Danny Etling to continue. Sure this is his first SEC road start, but he’s not a true freshman Brandon Harris circa 2014.

A few other elements to watch for could include some delay runs to take advantage of times when Auburn’s defensive line will be one-gapping, and a lot of the swing-bluff plays we’ve seen where a back starts to motion into the flat pre-snap. Auburn’s defensive backs give up inside releases a lot as well, so look for slants and crossing routes on early downs.

The road recipe applies. Score early, get stops on defense and take the crowd out of it as much as possible. A fast start, at least in theory, could help LSU avoid some of the penalties we saw last week. As for Leonard Fournette well…I don’t expect him to repeat a mistake too many times. And if No. 7 is keying another big offensive output, Auburn’s desperation may turn into exasperation fast.