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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What to Watch For

And now the 2017 LSU season really begins.

NCAA Football: Chattanooga at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve enjoyed a lot of what we’ve seen to date from the 2017 Tigers, but questions still remain. This weekend isn’t going to answer all of them, but it’s our first good chance at really learning what this team is made of.

Young team with freshmen up and down the lineup. A new offense, of which veterans only have two games worth of experience. On the road, in one of the louder environments in the conference, against a hungry team that’s annually very well-coached.

#CLANGA indeed.

What To Watch For On Saturday

Dial ‘8’

We know what to expect from a Dan Mullen offense at this point. He wants to spread the field, force a defense to choose between single coverage outside, or bringing an extra defender into the box to help with a quarterback-based running game.

That also happens to be exactly where this matchup favors LSU. State just doesn’t have the athletes outside to really to scare a good group of defensive backs, and that’s certainly the case here. No Fred Ross to rely upon on passing downs. Dave Aranda should be able to park Greedy Williams, Donte Jackson and Kary Vincent out on the receivers and bring a safety down into the box to help against the run. The main goal will need to be getting Nick Fitzgerald into obvious passing downs.

More on that later.

State’s response will look a lot like Chattanooga’s, with a lot of motion, pick routes and other quick throws designed to function like running plays, nibble up yards and keep the offense on the field. Don’t be surprised if LSU responds with some short zone coverage to allow the DBs to pass players off, then come up and make a quick tackle.

Major Key

LSU does get a pretty big bonus this week in the return of star edge defender Arden Key, who has been recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Key won’t be 100 percent, and we should expect K’Lavon Chaisson and Ray Thornton to rotate in with him on a fairly healthy basis. But the Mississippi State offense will almost certainly still give him a chance to have a an impact in his limited snaps.

Last season, State tried to isolate Key as the unblocked man on their read plays, and the result was five tackles and two sacks, including the forced fumble that iced the game for LSU.

Key is the rare defender with the speed to successfully go right at the mesh point on most option plays. He just comes right up the field and is right in the quarterback’s lap, all but guaranteeing a wrong decision and a tackle for loss regardless of where the ball goes.

Luckily, if Nick Fitzgerald does manage to get away, Devin White is the perfect linebacker to scrape behind the weak side of the play. Corey Thompson may not be able to be quite as aggressive, but he’ll similarly plan to crash the dive while White, Donnie Alexander or Tyler Taylor scrape behind for wide runner.

Swing and Miss?

On the other side of the ball, State brought in a familiar face to run the defense last year after what was...frankly...a complete disaster — former Georgia and Louisville coach Todd Grantham. LSU saw him at Georgia in 2011 and 2013, and of course in the Citrus Bowl last year with the Cardinals.

Aside from his um...fiery...personality, Grantham is known for running an incredibly aggressive 3-4 defense that tends to hit the ground running in year one and run out of gas shortly thereafter.

Grantham runs the type of defense every fan thinks he desperately wants: all pressure, all the time, with tons of blitzing and man-to-man coverage.

If there was an ethos to it, it could be summed up thusly:

Of course, in practice, we’ve seen how it tends to work, especially when the pressures and coverages shift and change with the offensive formation. Missed assignments, players out of position and lots of big plays for the offense.

Coincidentally, Matt Canada’s offense is mostly built around using shifts and motions to mess with a defense’s assignments and create mismatches and big plays. And what just so happened to spring LSU’s big play against Grantham’s defense in the aforementioned Citrus Bowl?

The jet-sweep/run combo that is now one of the chief staples of this offense. It was a safe bet that State would see a healthy dose of this anyway, but if it succeeds, we know that Canada will ride it.

Of course, bringing those safeties up and attacking an offensive line that still has some question marks will likely lead to something of a feast-or-famine situation between the two teams. State will probably guess right and create some negative plays, but LSU will break a few runs, and isolate some matchups in the passing game as well.

But that still puts the onus on the Tiger offensive line to win up front.

Thirst and Ten

This game, ultimately, will almost certainly be won by the team that has more success on first down. Whether it’s with the run or pass, the team that can pick up at least four yards will be the team that can consistently run their offense on their own terms.

Both teams’ passing success rates see significant drop on passing downs.

Avoiding long third downs and obvious passing situations will be paramount. From LSU’s standpoint, it still remains to be seen whether Danny Etling can stand in the face of a blitz and deliver the ball. He’s only attempted five throws on third downs of seven yards or longer on the season. Yes, he’s completed four of them, but that’s an incredibly small sample size. And that’s before we talk LSU’s issues at receiver.

Likewise for Etling, staying on schedule will also allow he and Canada to break into the play-action passing game that, as Tiger Rag’s Cody Worsham and The Advocate’s Ross Dellenger have detailed, has been incredibly effective early on.

Fitzgerald, for his part, has completed 3-of-6 passes in third-and-long situations, but only two of the passes have converted. He’s also yet to pick up one with his legs. Fitzgerald also only completed 50 percent of his third-down throws in 2016 as well.

Just my opinion, but I don’t see a lot of the love I’ve seen for the Bulldog’s junior quarterback. That isn’t to say he isn’t a good player — he most certainly is. An athletic runner with a nice arm, but not a great one. Certainly not one that should be drawing some of the reviews I’ve heard from pundits on his NFL future. He has a bad tendency of throwing off his back foot — just not carrying through with his weight transfer, even when not under pressure. LSU has done a fantastic job of containing mobile quarterbacks under Aranda, with a disciplined pass rush and linebackers and DBs with the speed to run things down.

What I’ve always found fascinating about Mullen’s offenses is that they’re both quarterback-friendly, yet still quarterback dependent. The threat of the QB run is the constraint that makes their running and passing games function. And unfortunately for Fitzgerald, I don’t see a strong enough supporting cast to take pressure off him.

But the rubber is going to meet the road on first down, on the line of scrimmage. State has some big bodies up front, and one of the most talented defensive tackles in the country in Jeffrey Simmons. Grantham will almost certainly try to get Simmons matched up on freshmen right guards Ed Ingram and Saahdiq Charles, but he’ll move around some as well to try and create different rush lanes for other players. LSU will have to try and find some ways to establish the running game to mix things up on standard downs.

Because the team that wins those standard downs will be in the best shape to control this game.