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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What To Watch For

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Back-to-back Bulldogs in Tiger Stadium.

Georgia v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

#NoWeeksOff right?

LSU blows through the No. 2-ranked Georgia Bulldogs, lives through the high of rushing the field, etc... and the reward? A visit from the country’s top scoring defense and the SEC’s top total defense, Mississippi State.

This year’s State squad came in with sky-high expectations, and at 4-2 seem like something of a disappointment — preseason top-10 expectations will do that — but still a team that’s more than capable of beating the Tigers. And this Tiger team, while showing signs of improvement, is still far from being in a position to take any conference opponent for granted.

This State team returns 18 starters from the 2017 squad that embarrassed LSU by 30 points. And while I have no doubt that wound is still fresh for this year’s Tigers, that alone can’t be enough motivation. Against a defensive front that features two of the nation’s best, and a dangerous running game, LSU will need to strap the big boy pants on for both lines of scrimmage, and be ready for what should shake out to be a very physical test.


What To Watch For On Saturday

Repeat

This week and last’s opponents feature similar profiles in a lot of ways, even including the mascots. The Bulldogs have a dominant running attack that’s surpassed the 330-yard mark in three games this year, including their most recent win against Auburn, and averages more than six yards per carry.

Likewise, on defense the Bulldogs are fantastic at limiting big plays — just 71 of 10 or more yards on the year, the second lowest in the SEC — and get teams off the field on nearly 75 percent of their third-down opportunities. Also similar to Georgia, Mississippi State has some bizarrely vulnerable stats against the run. They’ve allowed 4.06 yards per carry on first down despite allowing just 3.39 overall, and have allowed 4.6 per rush in third and three-or-less yardage scenarios as well. They average 8.5 tackles for loss per game — 19th in the country.

Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop runs an aggressive 4-3 scheme that likes to bring pressure; linebackers through the gaps and defensive backs from the edges. He inherited a very big, physical group from front to back, with defensive backs that average north of the six-foot mark and have allowed less than six yards per attempt on the year. Again, like Georgia, they allow a healthy completion rate, but teams aren’t doing much after the catch.

The offense was the story this offseason, with former Penn State guru coordinator Joe Moorhead coming in with the up-tempo, RPO-based spread attack that was so successful in the Big 10. The results have been a bit mixed to date; the running game is still one of the most efficient in the country, led by quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and a pair of very good backs, Kylin Hill and Aeris Williams behind a very big offensive line.

The passing game hasn’t quite developed the way many had hoped, though. Over the summer, I wondered if Moorhead would struggle adapting to Fitzgerald. He’s still a big, burly runner averaging 100-plus per game on the ground, but he’s below 50 percent as a passer on the year and hasn’t averaged more than five yards per attempt since a win over ULL in week three.

Passing accuracy down the field just isn’t one of Fitzgerald’s strong suits, and State’s receivers struggle to get separation as well. Moorhead wants to be able to tag any run with a passing option, and it looks like they try to give Fitzgerald as much freedom as possible, but it’s still been a struggle.

The running game itself will still look familiar; Moorhead kept a lot of what worked from Dan Mullen’s offense, so Dave Aranda coached against it last year and then already once this year. Healthy dose of power, counter and dart reads with lots of action to try and displace the linebackers and create running lanes.

Reduce

State’s similarities to Georgia also extend into how the Tigers will have to gameplan against these Bulldogs. For the defense, it will be simple, at least in terms of scheme. Roll Grant Delpit down into the 3-3-5 nickel look that they’ve had so much success with:

Billy Gomila

Press the outside receivers, sit on the short passing routes and tackle in space. LSU had a lot of success last week using Ed Alexander in the base lineup at nose guard with Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence at the end spots, and that’s something I think we’ll see more of this week. Linebackers will have to maintain gap discipline against the run. If the line can hold up, force Fitzgerald to hand the ball off and the play-side defenders should be able to rally. Cut space as much as possible, and force Fitzgerald to make plays over the top.

On the other side of the ball, State has that similar first-down run vulnerability and they’ve given up an average of 171 rushing yards in each of their road games this year. They lack Georgia’s speed on the back seven, but they’re much more disruptive on the line, led by Jeffrey Simmons and end Montez Sweat. Simmons is one of the more explosive tackles I’ve seen in a while, against both the run and pass.

As with UGA, LSU’s best bet will be to try and spread the field and force the defense to defend sideline to sideline. Use the wide zone to try and get the line on skates, and make the linebackers into multiple gaps. Get the safeties down into the box and force one-on-ones outside.

For the passing game, the best bet will still be to try and keep passing situations manageable in terms of down and distance. That hasn’t exactly been the Tigers’ strong point to date this year, so when Joe Burrow does have to pass, look for Ensminger to use different stretches and flood concepts that can isolate the zone defenders. On a long enough timeline, every zone coverage can be forced into man-to-man.

Take for instance, this Y-Sail concept:

It works against a Cover-2 zone by isolating the curl/flat area defenders. The go route takes the deep safety, and the shallow corner will get pulled up on the flat route. That means the Sam linebacker or nickel player covering the sail route is, essentially, one-on-one and has to cover that break.

Concepts like Stick and Spot are also designed to stretch zone coverage, and I think you’ll see a few of those on first down, along with some play-action looks when Ensminger thinks he has man coverage outside.

Rebound

Florida and Kentucky were able to have success against the State defense getting the ball out on the perimeter. Nick Brossette may not be Benny Snell, but he’s been able to find a lot of room on LSU’s wide zone plays, and Ensminger has found interesting ways to bounce plays outside, either with jet misdirection or different types of moving blocks, like pin-and-pull sweeps or crack plays from the outside.

Sweat and Simmons want to get upfield, so take advantage of that by running in the other direction, or confusing them with the blocking scheme.

Florida used the passing game more to bounce the ball outside quickly. With State’s ends and outside linebackers in conflict, there was more room inside. Don’t be surprised if we see a little more Jontre Kirklin use. He didn’t break any big plays against Georgia, but he made some steady gains and there’s value in that against a defense like this.

Bouncing back in a game like this will tell us something. State is still ranked 22nd in the country, and Moorhead could use a high-profile scalp, especially after a full-offseason of great press that’s already starting to disappoint.

LSU needs to be ready.