LSU welcomes 10th-ranked Auburn to Tiger Stadium on Saturday. It marks the first time the Tigers will welcome a top-10 opponent as an unranked team since 1999 — coincidentally, also the last time the Other Tigers walked out of Death Valley as winners.
Auburn comes into this game the favorite, and they should be, based on the team they have and the season they’ve put together to date. Frankly, if even if LSU plays their best game on Saturday, Auburn still wins if they play at their best.
But that doesn’t mean our Tigers don’t have a shot. A game effort with a juiced up crowd in a rocking stadium, and LSU has a chance to create the kind of epic atmosphere that we haven’t seen since the Ole Miss game in 2014. The chance is there for LSU, and the Ed Orgeron Era, to turn the page with its first true big-time win.
How can the Tigers pull it off? Let’s find out.
What to Watch For On Saturday
We’ve been doing this with Auburn for so long, it’s easy to forget it’s a relatively new rivalry, at least in SEC terms. But it makes up for it with well...everything that’s happened. Earthquakes, fires, magic, five interceptions, five missed field goals, star-making touchdown runs, last-second touchdown passes — one that counted, and one that didn’t — missed extra points and that one that got a re-kick.
Something to remember for all those riding the chalk this Saturday.
Under and Over
Defense, overall, has been the story for Auburn this season. The Other Tigers are allowing just 13 points per game, rank seventh in defensive S&P+ and eighth in defensive success rate.
You may remember that this is a unit coordinated by Kevin Steele.
Nevertheless, Auburn’s personnel has taken really well to what Steele prefers. It’s a big, physical group that has thrived on opening up the zone coverage umbrella, swarming to the ball and forcing offenses to drive slowly and methodically.
Obviously, we have our familiarity with Steele’s defense — the 4-3 “under” front. The Under look has it’s advantages, obviously, one of them being the way it creates two “overhangs” for the offensive line, seen here.
The strong-side linebacker and weak-side defensive end, circled above, both align outside the tackle-box of the offensive line, which can create a real advantage at setting the edge and containing the running game.
Of course, there are a couple of different strategies for dealing with these overhang players, which fit well with LSU’s offense under Matt Canada. Jet-sweep motion can help to conflict them — make them hesitate — which can allow one to be unblocked and gain a man advantage to the other side with a tight end. Last week, we saw LSU have a lot of success running the jet sweep, but they need to be able to use it more to open up that interior running game. This week, that may require a few more carries for the sweep man.
The split-zone play also pairs well with the tight end and F-back motion packages LSU employs.
The arching tight end/F can kick out the overhang on the back side of the play, giving a natural cut-back lane should the defense try to overload the play-side with a safety.
Here we see the Philadelphia Eagles pop a long run on a split play out of a tackle-over set — something else that’s familiar this season.
Look for the F-backs, J.D. Moore and Tory Carter, to be key pieces to try and gain leverage on plays like the split, and on wham blocks as well to try and create gaps in the middle. Those movements can also be useful on play-action passes as well, for high-percentage completions, which we know will be crucial for Danny Etling.
Something else to watch could be how Canada’s use of shifts and motions messes with the different assignments and checks for Steele’s zone coverages. Although LSU’s going to have to protect Etling long enough for Etling to take advantage.
Third down, particularly avoiding long ones, is going to be crucial for both of these offenses. For all of his success, Jarrett Stidham has struggled in long-yardage situations so far, with a 55-percent completion rate on third and seven-to-nine yards. His third-and-10-plus rate is higher, but he’s only converted twice in 11 attempts. Etling has only converted four of 20 third and seven-plus opportunities.
Auburn’s had one of the best defensive success rates in the country on passing downs, because Steele has great personnel for what he wants to do — drop into coverage and flood passing lanes with big bodies while the defensive line move and stunt against a quarterback struggling to find his opening. Not the ideal situation for the Tigers, especially with the prospect of three freshmen seeing snaps on the offensive line.
LSU can avoid that by mixing the run with high-percentage throws on standard downs. Simple play-calling underneath all the window-dressing of the motions and shifts. Allow Etling to get the ball out quickly, and limit the liability of the young offensive front.
Cuarento y Nueve
Shockingly, the Gus Malzahn offense works a whole lot better with a talented quarterback in control. And for all the talk of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey bringing in some Baylor-esque elements to the passing game to fit the former Bear quarterback, this offense is still 100-percent Malzahn. The only real difference is the play-calling, which fits Stidham’s skillset much better. Frankly, this year’s Auburn looks a lot more like how I expected the Jeremy Johnson version to look — more like Malzahn’s original unit, led by another transfer quarterback, Chris Todd.
The running game is still Malzahn’s sequenced style, heavy on power, counter and the buck sweep, with assorted fakes and unbalanced looks at a fast tempo — a past breakdown of the Malzahn style can be ready here. The big difference is that the play-calling features more play-action passing and quick screens, as opposed to the quarterback running game. The Mothership’s Richard Johnson has a good primer on how the Wildcat set has made up for the lack of carries by Stidham, who has enough speed to be an effective scrambler, but isn’t a plus runner in the mold of past Auburn QBs.
We know what to expect here. Malzahn wants to string similar plays and looks together, then pop a big play with a constraint like play-action, a counter or an RPO when the defense is lulled asleep a bit.
That puts three players in the crosshairs for the LSU defense: Arden Key, Grant Delpit and Devin White. Auburn loves to read defensive ends and put them in conflict, usually to give the offensive line more time to get to the second level. Last year, that would’ve been a bad idea, as Key was generally quick enough to make the offense wrong no matter what. This season, that isn’t the case, and whatever his comments this week, you can bet Malzahn is aware of that.
Delpit made a handful of really impressive plays downhill against Florida last week, so long as he’s tackling well. LSU’s going to need to single up Greedy Williams, Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson outside and bring in extra help against the run, and to defend quick passes to the flat. It looks like the game may be starting to slow down a bit for No. 9, and if he can start to anticipate a bit, that may yield some big plays.
And of course, against any run-heavy team, there’s a chance for Devin White to tear off into god mode against the interior run. Auburn has two thumping backs in Kerryon Johnson and Kam Pettway, but neither are going to beat a player like White to the edge, especially if a healthier defensive line can keep him clean of blockers. Don’t be surprised if White tops his tackle numbers from last week.
Although LSU may need him to force more negative plays, or a turnover or two, to steal the victory.