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LSU vs. Troy: What to Watch For

Tigers have one last brush-up opportunity before the SEC rollercoaster begins.

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

This is LSU’s final non-conference game, and final real chance to get right before seven straight Southeastern Conference games close out the remaining eight weeks of the season.

And get-right is a concept the Tigers are badly in need of following a devastating loss to Mississippi State and an unsatisfying win against Syracuse that still left us wondering exactly what kind of team this is.

Mood around Baton Rouge this week has been angsty at best, downright anxious at worse, with a lot of questions about quarterbacks, program direction, offense, phone lines for a radio show — you name it.

I suspected it wouldn’t take very long for fans to turn on Matt Canada — just the nature of the position and of fan discourse at this point. But I was surprised at how quickly folks called for the return of Steve Ensminger to the play-calling chair. LSU’s tight ends coach, as you probably remember, took over for Cam Cameron last year after Les Miles was fired, and did a solid job of guiding the offense over the final eight games. Although there were certainly no calls to keep him in the spot beyond that interim gig (and for what it’s worth, Ensminger didn’t really want to either).

So I decided to take a look at a few of the metrics I value over Canada’s first four games this year, as opposed to Ensminger’s first four as the play-caller. Maybe take those fingers off the panic button.

Offense Metrics Through Four Games

Category 2016 2017
Category 2016 2017
Points Per Game 31.5 28.5
Yards Per Play 7.2 6.2
Third-Down Conversion Rate 41.3 41.6
First Downs Per Game 18.2 19.8
The first four games of Steve Ensminger versus the first four of Matt Canada.

That’s pretty damn close, and Canada’s had the obstacle of a much thinner offensive line and spotty availability from Derrius Guice. Ensminger didn’t have Leonard Fournette for every game, but he had Guice to back him up.

None of this is to be completely calming — the goal is to make things better, right? But it’s a sense of perspective to get in mind. The question for this staff is, can the take what they have now, and show some improvement over these final eight games.

Starting on Saturday night, with the Troy Trojans coming in for homecoming.

What to Watch For On Saturday

Fun Belt

It kind of feels like whistling past the graveyard to talk about Troy as a “get-right” game. The reality is that LSU can certainly overmatch the Trojans. But that was the reality in 2008, and in 2004, and in both cases Troy marched right into Tiger Stadium and was able to take the lead in the fourth quarter.

And in this instance, Troy will walk into Death Valley with 14 returning starters from a 10-win 2016 team that gave 2016 national champion Clemson a scare, 30-24. The Trojans are a proud program with a winning tradition and a smart young coach in Neal Brown.

In these guarantee games, the home team can usually count on the lesser program to get a little overwhelmed from the experience and fall apart at some point. Troy’s not going to be that kind of team — you have to go out there and physically beat them. If the quarterback has time, he’ll go through his progression and make smart decisions. Their receivers will run crisp routes and catch the football. They’re not going to beat themselves. LSU’s going to have to take care of that part. And that means the Tigers are going to have to show some improvement over what we’ve seen to date.

Brown has some familiarity with LSU — he was the Trojans’ offensive coordinator in 2008, and led Kentucky’s offense when the Wildcats visited in 2014. He’s a former receiver and disciple of the original Air Raid offense developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach.

We discussed Brown the the guts of this attack in some background before that Kentucky game here. It’s an offense that is similar to Syracuse at it’s core, one that won’t quite match their tempo or extra-wide splits, but will still focus on a handful of core passing concepts, with a liberal sprinkling of the screen game and RPOs and other packaged-concepts, such as the stick/draw combo:

The Trojans also bring a very strong running game — Jordan Chunn and Jamarius Henderson have a combined 497 yards and eight touchdowns in four games. As we discussed with Underdog Dynasty on Wednesday, scoring has been down this season due to some redzone issues. It’s one thing for a spread passing team to struggle in that instance, what with the field being compressed a bit, but it’s a bit surprising for a team that can run the ball well. Chunn is a big, 235-pound back too, so you’d expect him to be tough to stop in a confined space.

From a strategic standpoint, LSU needs to trust Greedy Williams and Donte Jackson outside, roll the safeties down into the box and be prepared to get after Brandon Silvers a bit. If LSU surrenders the run, Troy will take it, and when things get tight we’ll see our fair share of trick plays once again.

Progress Report

My wife teaches middle school science, and it’s that time of the year where parents find out exactly how their kids have spent the first few weeks of the school year. And while our ideas of this LSU team are already a little formed, this is a chance for one last check in before things really get moving.

On the other side of the ball, whatever adjustments the coaching staff is making to this offense has to start to materialize before the show hits the road next week. There’s been a lot of talk about “simplifying” from Coach O, but to me a better word would be streamlining. More of a focus on a few basic and fundamental plays. Things you can then build off of.

Against Syracuse, LSU’s most sustained success stemmed from the inside-zone/jet-sweep combo, and to my eyes, that would be a good way to get the receivers involved while working around any deficiencies that may still exist in pass protection.

As for said passing game, until we see otherwise, Canada has to assume that teams are going to bring pressure and try to make Danny Etling uncomfortable. The best way to work around that is emphasizing shorter, quick throws. It may not create the same big-plays down the field, but if the offense is moving the ball efficiently and staying on schedule, that will only create better opportunities to take those shots.

On defense, the Trojans are led by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, an old hand that’s seen his time come and go as one of the hotter coordinator prospects. He was even mentioned as a candidate for Les Miles’ staff a few times during a successful run at Clemson on Tommy Bowden’s staff. The Trojans will work out of a 3-4 base and bring rushers from lots of different angles, so the challenge for LSU’s line will be similar to the last few weeks.

Troy is currently allowing just 95 rushing yards per game and less than three yards per carry, so this may be something of a test of wills. Does LSU need to come out passing to try loosen up the front early, or does this embattled line impose its will? Whatever it is, it has to establish something for this team moving forward.

As for the quarterback situation, playing time for Myles Brennan is certainly a priority again. Although I don’t think this is evolving into a “two quarterback system” as others have speculated. At least not yet. The plan for this staff is more about getting the freshman some seasoning, should he be needed later on this season. Brennan won’t be supplanting Etling unless something changes — the senior regresses, or the season truly starts to become futile.

Of course, we all know that things can change, and that the story of this season is still being written. Saturday represents an important set up for the second act.