LSU heads to The Swamp to take on the No. 22 Gators in living (at least until the fourth quarter starts, thousands of years from now, beyond the heat death of the universe) color on CBS.
There aren’t too many people that pegged this one to feature two ranked teams, but here we are, with first-year Gators head coach Dan Mullen looking to get a big statement win in front of what should be a very jazzed up home crowd.
Aside from the ugly Kentucky loss, these two teams seem to be a relatively even match — LSU just two spots ahead of the Gators in the S&P+ rankings, and the metrics actually favor the Gators by 1.8 points. S&P favors the Tigers slightly on offense, but the Gators on defense. Even the raw numbers — scoring offense/defense, yards per play and third-down rates, are relatively close:
LSU-Florida Raw Stats
|Points Scored Per Game||33.8||35.4|
|Off. Third-Down Efficiency||37.50%||36.36%|
|Def. Third-Down Efficiency||35%||38.96%|
A lot has been made about the Tigers hitting the meat of the 2018 schedule over the next few weeks, with Georgia and Alabama likely coming to Tiger Stadium as top-five opponents. But that gauntlet wont have quite the same meaning if the Tigers can’t bring their A-game in this conference road game.
What To Watch For On Saturday
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If there’s one thing that has been consistent about Dan Mullen’s offenses over the last couple years, it’s been that he schemes to turn 11-on-11 football into a series of one-on-one match-ups.
As Florida’s offensive coordinator in the Urban Meyer heyday, he could scheme around specific players like a Percy Harvin, Tim Tebow, Aaron Hernandez, etc... But at State, he never really had that level of skill talent. So instead, you find other ways to take the action to a defense. Make linebackers and safeties tackle in space. Isolate alley defenders in the running game, etc... Against LSU, it didn’t work often, because even if they could create that isolation, either the defender would win or the other 10 players couldn’t hold up their end.
Florida hasn’t been particularly deep in skill talent for some time now, so until that can be redressed in recruiting, look for the Gators to employ a similar M.O. on Saturday.
Look for lots of motions and quick throws out to Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce into the flats to try and force the Tigers to make a tackle out there. And look for receiver/quarterback Kadarius Toney to get some work in the running game as well. Toney had some success against the Tigers last year running the ball from the QB spot, but the Gators didn’t really stick with it much.
Look for lots of motion to set up the mismatch and for some quick screens, and for that to then lead to some misdirection; move the back out of the backfield to clear a linebacker from the throwing lane on a slant, things of that nature. As well as a ton of bubble and other quick screens when the Gators can get a numbers edge at receiver.
Watch for a good bit of blocking change-ups as well. That was something Ole Miss had success with — getting LSU’s front out of their gaps to spring a run. I’m not sure any of the Gator backs are as good as Scottie Phillips, but if you can get defense displaced I’m not sure it matters. And most of these are Mullen staples anyway:
or Counter-Read variants, such as the Guard/Tackle
or with an H-Back look.
Feliepe Franks isn’t the burly workhorse runner that Tim Tebow, Chris Relf or Dak Prescott could be for Mullen, but he’s a good 220 pounds with decent speed if he gets on the edge. And all of these runs will have their own variants and RPO tags. The Tiger front will have to maintain their gap rules, play smart and make sure to maintain discipline.
Watch for Florida to try and take a shot, either with play-action or some sort of gadget play early on, to try and keep the crowd juiced up.
(Shout out to 2010, one of my favorite LSU-Florida games. How’s the throat Urb?)
LSU’s strategy for this week is going to the same thing as Ole Miss. Roll the corners up, bring Grant Delpit down into the box. Challenge the Gators on the slants, pivot routes and screens that they prefer to live on, and force them to try and beat you deep. Trevon Grimes is a big target, and Tyrie Cleveland has flashed some talent in the past, but that’s still a match-up LSU’s DBs will take. And while Franks has one heck of an arm, he hasn’t shown the ability to connect on those deep passes consistently.
In terms of the pass-rush, LSU may have to take some risks with the linebackers, but they definitely can’t risk giving Franks too much time, because he has the arm to attack just about any area of the field.
My daughter’s new vocabulary word of the week also happens to apply to the match-up as well. We’ve seen lots of Dan Mullen, obviously, but even on this staff it will be Aranda’s third time scheming against this offense. On the other side of the ball, this game will mark the third straight year LSU will be seeing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, at his third different job; he coached Louisville’s defense in the 2017 Citrus Bowl, was with Mullen at Mississippi State last year and followed him to Florida.
You know what you’ll get with Grantham. Pressure from the jump. He’ll rush six, seven, even eight if he thinks he can get away with it, come hell or high water. When it works, it really works (State, last year). When it doesn’t, it really doesn’t (his last few years at Georgia).
To date, he’s been a hit with this Gator unit, which was pretty brutal a year ago. Florida has 15 sacks through five games, and they have the No. 1 standard-down sack rate, getting to quarterbacks on 16 percent of standard-down passes.
That number does drop by about half on passing downs, and teams are completing nearly 55 percent of their passes on third down, which suggests that a smart quarterback who can read the pressure can find his outlets.
The raw pass defense numbers are pretty gaudy — tops in the league in yards allowed and third in efficiency allowed — but none of the Gators’ opponents have been particularly good at throwing as of yet. Neither has LSU overall, but Joe Burrow and the Tigers do appear to be making strides there in recent weeks.
The rushing defense is much less impressive. Kentucky ran for 303 yards on this group, and Charleston Southern ran for 222. Units like Grantham’s can sometimes prioritize getting up the field over gap control, so if you can catch them blitzing away from the play-side, that can usually pay off.
In terms of personnel, there are some very good players up front: defensive end Jabari Zuniga, edge players CeCe Jefferson and Jachai Polite, and linebackers David Reese and Vosean Joseph. Although the whole hasn’t quite been the sum of its parts, it’s a veteran group facing what will likely be LSU’s sixth different starting offensive line combination this year.
Tactically, LSU needs to use misdirection passes on some early downs — bootlegs, screens, waggles and the like, with some RPO looks to try and catch the Gators out of position early. Pick on the linebackers and safeties in coverage — that’s not their strength. Don’t get too greedy trying to force the ball down the field, and when you do, make sure you give yourself some help in protection with backs and/or tight ends.
If the offense can stay ahead of the chains, the running game should be okay. Although Burrow will want to be conscious of the numbers on either side of the field and be ready to adjust the play.
Watch for newfound tight end/matchup receiver Racey McMath. Florida will have some tape on him now, whereas Ole Miss was likely caught by surprise. But that doesn’t mean their linebackers will be able to handle him in coverage. And by moving him around, LSU should be able to create some confusion on assignments as well.
Grantham’s defense is a snowball unit; they can get a quarterback happy in the pocket and worried more about the rush than his receivers — we saw that last week with Nick Fitzgerald — but if Burrow can keep his wits about him and stay on target, that snowball can turn around on the defense as well.
Momentum — mental, a confidence and focus in the moment — can be big in these road environments. We saw that last year where LSU’s defense was able to keep calm and focused even as the offense failed to get some late first downs and put the game away. The team that stays collected in the fourth quarter will be the one that holds on again this year in Gainesville.