Sometimes I think LSU Tiger football seasons go by faster and faster each year.
Maybe we don’t appreciate them like we should.
Anyhoo, here we are, game 12, headed to College Station to take on the Texas A&M Aggies for Rivalry Week. At 7-4, the best the A&M can hope for isn’t much of an improvement over their recent fortunes, despite the heftier price tag under Jimbo Fisher. But this game means more than that for them. The Aggies are already pretty hot to try and beat us, in case you haven’t heard. Expect a loud, raucous atmosphere and a hungry football team. And Fisher knows what this win can mean for him politically, over a major recruiting rival. To date, his biggest claim to fame in year one is that time they almost beat Clemson. Beating LSU will sound a lot better.
The Tigers are limping in here with at least two defensive starters down — Breiden Fehoko and Kristian Fulton — plus No. 1 receiver Justin Jefferson and a potential starting corner in Kelvin Joseph, also potentially out. But there’s still a ton to play for; a 10-2 regular season, a 6-2 conference mark that would put them in a firm second place in the division, and in line for a New Year’s Six bowl, likely either the Sugar or Fiesta.
A&M is favored at home, and as the injury report continues to pile up for LSU, that’s not hard to explain. It also may be a difficult match-up for the Tigers based on how the offenses and defenses line up.
The Tigers will have their work cut out from them, but then that hasn’t that been the case this year?
What To Watch For On Saturday
A New Day
Through the last six years, we’ve pretty much known what to expect of the Aggies. And one word generally described it. The word that dominated Fisher’s takeover of the Texas A&M program in terms of what he considered his first problem to fix.
It’s such a cliche in football analysis, and kind of dumb because anybody that plays major college football has toughness. But it was never a secret; LSU always felt that in almost any situation, they could push Texas A&M around at the line of scrimmage. And it showed in some 1,600-plus yards worth of rushing over the last six games.
Fixing the Aggies at the line of scrimmage was one of the first items on Fisher’s to-do list, and he’s made some solid progress to date. He’s still going to have to raise the overall talent level to get the program where he wants, but it’s very evident on tape that A&M is a much more physical team on both sides of the ball.
They have the SEC’s top rushing defense and on offense, the conference’s leading individual rusher in Trayveon Williams with 1,326 yards at a healthy 6.1 yards a pop and 13 touchdowns. That’s no big surprise, as Williams had always been an impressive runner, and he’s fit very well into Fisher’s pro-style offense. While they still use a healthy amount of spread and shotgun looks, A&M is pretty comfortable in the I-formation and running power.
Of course, Fisher’s biggest impact has been with sophomore quarterback Kellen Mond, who has been relatively solid this year, and has looked much improved as a passer compared to his freshman year. Fisher’s talent has always been more for crafting a gameplan to a quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses, moreso than correcting the latter. Mond’s a tall, athletic kid that can be a plus as a runner, so Fisher keeps him on the move and keeps him in manageable situations (just 22 percent of his passes have come on third down). Mond relies heavily on tight end Jace Sternberger, who leads all conference tight ends in receiving yards, and with eight touchdown catches (how he didn’t make the Mackey Award list is a mystery).
A&M wants to lead with the run to set up play-action, and keep the passing situations manageable — Mond’s third down numbers aren’t much better than Joe Burrow’s. I do think you’ll see A&M try and take advantage of Mond’s running ability early on, especially with LSU’s pass-rush limitations. I also think we’ll see some sort of gadget play or tendency breaker early on, to try and put the Tigers on their heels quickly, and get the crowd more involved.
For Dave Aranda’s part, the injuries in the secondary could be very problematic. LSU’s going to need to roll the corners up and bring Grant Delpit into the box on running downs. The linebackers are going to be key in this, containing Sternberger and maintaining the interior gaps against Williams. But if LSU can get into some clear passing downs, the defensive front can have a lot of fun with A&M’s protections. And ultimately, Mond can be limited as a passer, and should put a few balls up for grabs.
On the field, the biggest impact we’ve seen from the Aggies’ new coaching staff is second defensive coordinator Mike Elko,
the second choice when Dave Aranda said no whom we’ve previously seen from Notre Dame in last year’s Citrus Bowl. In year one, he already has A&M as the SEC’s top rushing defense, and top five in a couple of other important categories like third-down rate (third) and sacks & tackles for a loss (fifth).
The Aggies have been atrocious on pass defense, but on the whole if you’re defending LSU you’d probably rather be stout against the run and take your chances. That said, closer examination and some film study shows that there could be a path to travel for the Tiger offense.
Elko runs an aggressive, modified 4-2-5 base defense that wants to play down hill and rally to the ball. And the attitude has certainly paid off for the Aggies to date. It’s primarily a Cover-3 shell base, zone with a single deep safety, which has become very popular because it allows defenses to keep numbers versus the run but still keep deep leverage. Coming out of a primarily man-to-man scheme with very few coverage checks under John Chavis, I suspect problems with some of the zone calls may be behind some of the Aggie coverage issues. Along with talent that just isn’t there yet.
That said, this is a defense that loves to get up the field. Elko will keep his safeties moving a lot pre-snap, and they do a great job of fitting versus the run and making plays up in the flats. The defensive line has a good group of big, athletic upperclassmen, and two very good linebackers in Otaro Alaka and Tyrell Dodson — Elko loves to bring those two up the middle on A-gap pressures. Negative plays and getting opposing offenses behind the chains have been a big part of the unit’s success.
On film, this unit specializes in blowing up slow-developing gap runs and screens. But on straight, down-hill runs like tight and wide zones, teams have been able to have some success. Kentucky, in particular, had some very strange play-calling, giving Benny Snell just 13 carries overall, but only completing four of six first-down passes for 19 yards. Schedule is key — on the ground, the Aggies allow 3.5 yards per carry on first down. 4.48 on second, and in the air they allow a 60-percent completion rate and a 167 rating. And while they allow just a 30 percent conversion rate on third down, it balloons to 44 percent on distances of six yards or less.
Avoid third-and-long situations, and stay patient, and I think LSU can move the ball on this team. The key for Steve Ensminger will be patience with his play-calling, similar to what worked against Georgia a six weeks ago and Rice last week. Look for quick, easy completions on stick and levels concepts on run downs. Some smash-concepts to the half side of the quarter-quarter-half zone. Keep the offense on schedule and if the running game can just average in the four-yard range, that should be enough.
I do know this though — A&M’s pass-rush is too good for Burrow and the offense to live on too many obvious passing downs. If Ensminger goes too heavy on play-action shots down the field, and Burrow fails to complete them, there will be trouble.
I’ve never made it a secret that when it comes to natural eight-man front defenses, I’m a believer in patience and commitment with the running game. You have to be willing to bet that size can overcome numbers (assuming you have the personnel, of course) and that eventually, you can turn three- and four-yard runs into five- and six-yard ones in the fourth quarter.
One way to help with that key is the use of a seven-man blocking surface, something LSU has used a good bit this year.
LSU’s top two personnel groupings have been 11 (one back, one tight end) and 12 (one back, two tight ends). Both create the same gap presentation, and while the latter has a little more beef, the Tigers have some bigger receiver targets to help in this regard with Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson. Create more gaps to cover, and with the defense having to account for the quarterback on bootlegs and quarterback keepers, that can create an advantage for the running back.
A&M is pretty deliberate on offense, so if LSU can use tempo and strike quickly, that could A) take what should be a very active crowd out of the game and B) help create a snowball effect with Mond taking more chances down the field. The team that has to press for big plays here will be at a big disadvantage.