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LSU vs. Syracuse: What to Watch For

Tigers are back in Death Valley and in need of a rebound against a basketball school.

The Mississippi State game is in the rearview mirror. Next up is a return visit from the Syracuse Orange. It may not set up as the stiffest of physical challengers — LSU is a 21-point favorite as of press time — but it does present a set of mental tests, both internal and external.

So just what are we looking at here? Let’s find out.

What To Watch For On Saturday

To Infinity And Beyond

The Orange had a coaching change shortly after LSU’s trip up to New York in 2015, bringing in former Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois head coach Dino Babers in 2016. With him, he brought his own version of the Art Briles “Bear Raid” offense, which had so much on-field success at Baylor.

Babers’ history is a bit odd. He was, at one time, one of “next big thing” coordinators as a member of R.C. Slocum’s Texas A&M staff in the early Aughts. College football fans near my vintage may remember “The Real Deal” Reggie McNeal, who flashed some spectacular talent but never really amounted to much in College Station. Babers fell out of favor and was somewhat adrift, before landing with Briles’ Baylor staff as receivers coach in 2008. After a few years, he took the head job at EIU, where he broke records with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and then again at BGU before heading to Upstate New York.

The Briles Offense, obviously, has its roots in the Leach/Mumme Air Raid, with its own twists. Frankly, you could argue that it is the “most” spread, spread offense, with incredibly wide receiver splits. It will be rare to see a receiver lined up inside of the opposite hash, and it won’t be all that unusual to see a trips set all aligned between the numbers and the sideline.

From there, the offense is about both space AND pace. Syracuse averages about 88 plays per game this season, with the tagline “Orange is The New Fast.” It’s an attack that wants to get the ball out quickly and combine different looks through Run-Pass-Options to create big plays and isolate mismatches. If you watch when this offense is really cooking, it’s not unusual to see the quarterback turn these spread sets into one-receiver patterns, with a tagged receiver running a deep route while the rest release a few yards and stop, in order to save their legs.

Ian Boyd, over at Football Study Hall, has a nice explainer as to some of the differences and twists that Babers has brought to the attack. Namely, incorporating his power-and-play-action roots. The Orange like to use their wide splits to work in-breaking routes like slants and curls early on to take advantage of the gaps on the edge. Once the linebackers start to creep outside a little, that opens up inside running lanes, which can then open up big-play opportunities down the field off play-action.

However, it hasn’t quite worked out that way for the Orange to date. Syracuse averages all of 7 yards per attempt with quarterback Eric Dungey, and rank 58th in Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP stat, which measures offensive explosiveness — LSU’s IsoPPP rates just 93rd, but Danny Etling is nearly two yards ahead of Dungey per pass attempt. Dungey is, however, the team’s leading rusher, so there is a dual-threat aspect to this passing game.

From a strategic standpoint, LSU should be able to matchup well on the edges. Receiver Steve Ishmael does lead the entire country in receptions, but an 11 yard average indicates he’s not particularly explosive. Dave Aranda should be able to park Greedy Williams and Donte Jackson outside.

The challenge will be for the players that have to work in that big void — nickel corners, safeties and F-linebacker Corey Thompson. Look for Syracuse to keep them in a lot of conflict with those in-breaking routes, screens and quick hitches and run-action. Thompson’s versatility to play both at the line of scrimmage and in coverage should help by giving Aranda the freedom to drop him into the passing lane in certain sets.

If there’s a week to be a bit short on defensive tackles, this is probably it, given that Aranda can rotate Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Glen Logan and the returning Rashard Lawrence inside while using Thompson, Arden Key and K’Lavon Chaisson in the end positions. Getting Lawrence back, even on a limited basis, is a good thing. LSU does not want his first action in nearly a month to come on the road against Florida in October. Hopefully, his teammates can help to limit his snaps and get Syracuse off the field when possible.

LSU may want to keep Devin White and Tyler Taylor at somewhat of a deeper depth than usual, but with their speed they should still be able to fill against the run, with John Battle and Grant Delpit helping from either safety spot.

Play physical, press coverage outside and throw off Dungey’s timing, much like what LSU did to Drew Locke and Mizzou last season, and the result could be a lot of very quick three-and-outs.

A Little Step

Who CAN sleep at night after a 30-point loss to Mississippi State?

When I talk about a Get Right Game, I mean that the how matters as much, if not more, than the actual result. Specifically, using the game to work on the problems that have emerged, at least in as far as the ones that can be worked around.

“Work on” being the operative term, because you’re not going to fix everything in one week — certainly not everything that we saw last Saturday in Starkville. And pressing to do so is only going to compound the mental errors, make this game tighter than it needs to be and play into everything that could give the Orange a shot to pull the upset.

Most people will talk about penalties, but I’ve always believed that you fix those in the bedrock, not on the surface. You don’t coach offensive linemen by telling them not to hold, you coach them on hand placement, leverage and finishing their blocks, because if they do those things consistently, they aren’t going to hold. Focus on execution, and the things you can control, and the rest will follow. Stay under control, and the composure penalties like personal fouls and the like will decrease as well.

So in this case, with a team that we know LSU can simply overmatch from a physical standpoint, just focus on executing the gameplan in place. From the coaching standpoint, and the coordinators, you narrow the focus of that gameplan into something simple, that the team can hang its hat on.

That’s incredibly important on offense, where the Tigers, and fans, are probably struggling the most in terms of confidence. Matt Canada needs to figure out what he knows this team can do, on a consistent, efficient basis. That could be running power/zone and play-action passing, or it could be some supplement from the jet sweep and short passing. Whatever it is, do it, and do it efficiently. Move the ball, convert on third downs, and cash in when you get inside the 20.

If that includes a bunch of explosive plays, great! If everything is a slow, double-digit-play drive, also great! The point isn’t what works, it’s that something works. Once you’ve pulled that off, you can expand on that next week against Troy, the last non-conference gimme this season. Don’t worry about what you’ll “need” against Florida or Auburn — that’s several steps from now.

Just start with a small one.

New Faces

I’ll never pass on a chance to watch Derrius Guice run the football, and never should you. In addition to being incredibly good at it, he brings a flair and intensity to the game that you just don’t see every day, and something we should all do our best to enjoy while we can.

That said, I can’t say I was too upset to hear that he was originally slated to miss this game.

If Guice is good to go, I’m fine with him playing Saturday — keeping players in game shape is important, so if they can go, there is value in making sure they keep their timing and reflexes. That said, the thought of not having Guice, and forcing Canada and the offensive staff to focus on other players, without having No. 5 as a safety net, was a good thing.

Again, not to be misunderstood, if LSU wants to go run heavy and bully Syracuse around, that’s not a bad thing. But a back like Guice can cover for a missed block every now and then and make something work better than maybe it should. Forcing this shaky offensive line to work around Darrel Williams, Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Hellaire could yield some dividends in the future. And that includes the receiver group, particularly players like Derrick Dillon, Jacoby Stevens and some of the tight ends. Just because you narrow your focus in terms of gameplan, doesn’t mean you can’t work through the rest of the depth chart.

And of course, these two games will also represent a real chance to give Myles Brennan some meaningful snaps in relief of Danny Etling. LSU’s going to need more than just Guice, Williams and D.J. Chark to have a shot against the rest of this conference slate. Now’s a good time to find out who else can contribute.