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LSU vs. Texas A&M: What to Watch For

And the 2017 regular season comes to the end with our annual matchup with the Aggies.

LSU v Tennessee Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

So is it just me, or has this season both passed really quickly, and at the same time, almost felt like two seasons?

From the despair of September, from wondering if this team could pull itself off of rock bottom with brutal losses to Troy and Mississippi State, to now facing the season finale with a chance to finish 9-3 on the regular season, and with a 6-2 mark in Southeastern Conference play.

Yeah, the league is down this year, and some of the wins aren’t as impressive in hindsight, but the fact is this team fought through and has objectively improved, and now has a chance to finish with a record that falls right around where most of us predicted it to. A finished product for Ed Orgeron’s LSU? Absolutely not. But a foundation for the future.

But now, the Texas A&M Aggies are coming to town for what could set up to be an emotional game.

What to Watch For On Saturday

Senior Day, the only night game of the conference schedule (which I’ll be missing out of town with the in-laws, natch), and a host of important prospects on hand. And what are we looking at?

This? Again?

So yeah. We’ve been here before. LSU versus Texas A&M, with an embattled head coach that appears to be doomed. For me, I have a feeling that, despite all of the Jimbo Fisher talk, a marquee win over LSU could have a way of buying Kevin Sumlin another season. That could certainly be off base — I know if I were making this call, this one game wouldn’t change anything about the current state of Sumlin’s program, or its ceiling — but big wins have a way of creating emotional impact. Plus, if you’re Sumlin, you can certainly sell the progress of a young quarterback in Nick Starkel, who also happened to be injured during most of A&M’s struggles this season. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Personally, I’d just as soon LSU make it all a moot point.

You? Again?

If the familiarity of the situation wasn’t enough, there’s the simple fact that we know exactly what to expect out of Sumlin’s Aggies. And while this team has some of its own characteristics, at it’s core, it’s all the same.

On offense, the Aggies are the same spread/Air-Raid offense they’ve always been under Sumlin, but skewing slightly more run-heavy. That makes sense, because top two tailbacks Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford are good, versatile runners. The Aggies spent most of the year playing true frosh Kellen Mond at QB, who is more of a runner, but has caught some fire in November with redshirt frosh Starkel, who is more of a pocket-mobile guy.

Starkel has completed 60 percent of his passes at 10.4 yards per attempt over the last month, with seven touchdowns against just one pick. He shows a little more touch throwing it down the field, which works for A&M’s usual strong group of receivers. Senior Damion Ratley and freshman Jhamon Ausbon have been a big part of Starkel’s surge through the season’s final month, and of course, Christian Kirk is always dangerous.

On the other side of the ball, we know what we’ll get from a John Chavis defense as well. Forty-front, shifted over the offensive strength, with lots of man coverage. The Aggies will stunt and twist in pass-rush situations, blitz linebackers against the run and bring in corners and safeties into a Mustang package on third-and-long.

It’s taken the Chief some time, but he’s finally made some progress in College Station, moving the Aggie defense up to 47th nationally in yards per play and 57th in S&P+. They allow 156 per game on the ground — although that number goes up to 196 yards allowed in conference games — neither of which are great numbers but are still nice improvements over previous groups.

The big difference is negative plays. Texas A&M ranks 28th nationally in overall Havoc Rate, and leads the SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss. They do rank 62nd nationally in IsoPPP, so that indicates that there’s a bit of a boom-bust factor here, especially given that they’ve allowed 21 touchdown passes, the most in the SEC.

This group doesn’t have that superstar Myles Garrett/Daeshon Hall type, but it’s pretty deep with big, physical veteran players. Defensive ends that can get up field, linebackers with good size, active safeties and long, physical corners. There may not be a first-round pick among this group, but there’s a solid bunch of overall draft picks.

The fact that this is a veteran group that excels at making negative plays is a bit of a concern for this LSU group with its young offensive line. Still, it’s an outfit that the Tigers have the potential to run on, especially in Canada’s jet-sweep style. I don’t suspect a lot of formation shifts will help — Chavis runs a pretty straight-forward scheme that doesn’t ask players to check assignments too much as the formation changes. But, the jet-sweep will almost always pull a safety down into the C-gap. That’s something LSU should be able to take advantage of.

Silver Screen

After the last two weeks, it seems that the book is out on LSU in regards to defending screens. ESPN listed a stat citing a 6.6 yards per play early in the Tennessee game, and that figure has probably gone up slightly since.

Texas A&M has always been a very active screen team under Sumlin, and they’ve run more for their backs, because Williams and Ford can both catch the ball and well they’re very good.

From LSU’s perspective, I don’t know that there’s some magic play-call for Dave Aranda or button to push. Young linebackers like Devin White, Tyler Taylor and Jacob Phillips, and Grant Delpit at safety just have to recognize what they’re seeing and react faster, before the blocking can get set up.

Nothing special, nothing fancy. Just do it.

Going Clear

Back to the offensive side of the ball for LSU. Again, the Aggies are heavy on the man-to-man outside, so for a team like LSU that is still somewhat limited, that puts a premium on clear-out pass concepts, and the misdirection passing game like bootlegs and such off of play-action. Flat routes to backs and tight ends underneath vertical routes, or flat routes to open up hitches and crosses inside.

Mix the run on first down, keep linebackers like Otaro Alaka and Anthony Hines on the move, to further open up the inside run for Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams. That running game will also open up the flats for passes to Guice, Williams, Foster Moreau, etc... outside. Stick and move, keep the defense off balance, and LSU should be able to keep Danny Etling in positive situations and create a positive passing game, similar to last year.

Stay on top of things, and let inevitability set in for the Aggies.