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LSU vs. Miami: What to Watch For

The Tigers and the Hurricanes square off in the Cowboys Classic.

Mississippi v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Year two of the Ed Orgeron Era at LSU. Year 10 covering LSU for me here at ATVS. Been a heck of a run. So let’s go around one more time.

What to Watch For on Saturday


Yes, Sunday.

Back Again

LSU returns to the House That Jerry Swindled the State of Texas Out Of Built for yet another narrative-laden, potentially season-defining matchup with another highly ranked team. This isn’t quite the 2011 Oregon matchup, which featured two top-five teams, but the Hurricanes will enter this game ranked in the top 10 in both polls. The U is Back! Again! and looking to break through as a legit contender for both the ACC title and the College Football Playoff.

The Tigers enter this game with as little preseason buzz as they’ve had in nearly two decades (yet...somehow considered...overrated?) and looking to make a statement themselves.

But putting aside all of the outside noise, this game does set up as a crucial point in the season for LSU and Ed Orgeron, right out of the gate. Per the final preseason S&P+ rankings, the Tigers sit 15th nationally, well in range for what could be a solid season for a young-ish roster. The issue is that five opponents currently sit ahead of LSU in those rankings. But of those five, two sit within relative striking distance: Mississippi State (14th) and Miami (12th). Meaning that wins and losses in those two games, should the rankings hold, will be the difference between a chance at a 10-win season and or a four- or five-loss one.

No pressure, fellas.

Double Image

Preseason narratives aside, these teams fit together in some really interesting ways. Comparatively, there’s great skill talent, aggressive defenses, with particularly strong backfields. The Hurricanes’ offense under Mark Richt even fits the mold of the type of offense Steve Ensminger has talked about bringing to LSU; an offense that features pro-style passing concepts and leans heavily on spread formations, but is still comfortable featuring two backs or multiple tight ends as well.

Where they contrast is the interesting part, and what makes this a better matchup for LSU than it may seem at first. Miami has a fantastic back seven, but is rebuilding up front — a positive for LSU’s offensive line. Likewise, the Hurricane offensive line really struggled to protect the passer last season, and weren’t exactly the most efficient run-blocking group either.

And while Joe Burrow is an unknown quality for LSU at the quarterback spot, what is known about Malik Rozier is that he has questionable passing accuracy, and can be prone to turning the ball over. To the point that Miami fans were practically hoping that a true freshman might beat him out for the starting job. The Canes have a really strong group of receivers, but if the Tiger pass rush gets to Rozier, he might give the ball up a few times.

Forcing the Issue

The 2017 Miami Hurricanes lived on big plays — they weren’t terribly efficient on offense, but made up for it by being explosive (75th nationally in success rate, but 10th in IsoPPP). And likewise, on defense they were a unit that lived on an outstanding plus-13 turnover margin.

It can be a lot of fun, especially when you pair it with a fun trinket/motivational tactic on the sidelines. But as a strategy, it’s not really repeatable. Advanced statistics have demonstrated for years now that they’re mostly luck. Fumble recoveries are a 50/50 proposition that mostly come down to the bounce of a ball (that doesn’t exactly bounce regularly), and interceptions are generally thrown more often than they are forced. No amount of ball drills on defense can really change that (not that said drills are without value).

That said, smart coaches can help create more turnover-friendly scenarios, simply by making the offense more predictable. Force third-and-long situations, the defense knows that a pass is coming and can use more exotic pressures and coverage looks. Trick a quarterback into a bad read or force a bad throw. And if you’re a fan of zone-blitzes like Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, there’s also an increased chance that your defenders will have their eyes towards the backfield and their hands up, ready to pick it off.

It worked fantastically for the Hurricanes last season — in nine of their 10 wins, the ‘Canes allowed just a 31.6-percent conversion rate on third down. All three of their losses featured both a third-down rate of 41 percent or more, and a minus-three turnover margin.

That puts a premium on the Tiger offense to stay on schedule. Four yards on first, 50-percent of needed yards on second and both run and pass remain viable options.

This also happens to be, in my opinion, one of the best ways to also manage a quarterback; specifically, with high-percentage throws on first down. For Steve Ensminger, that means mixing up play-calling as best you can for Joe Burrow. Use slants, stick-routes and other quick throws to space out the Hurricane front, which will also help create better running lanes.

Don’t be surprised if a slant or stick RPO is the Tigers’ first call of the game.

Who Are You?

To touch back on the similarities between these two teams — LSU’s gameplan will be remarkably similar as well. Roll a safety down for the run on first down, try and force third-and-long-yardage situations and force Miami quarterback Malik Rozier into some mistakes.

To say that Rozier had an up-and-down season doesn’t really describe it:

Rosier, first 3 games (3-0): 66% completion rate, 13.9 yards per completion, 2.2% INT rate, 167.0 passer rating

Rosier, next seven games (7-0): 53% completion rate, 14.4 yards per completion, 3.0% INT rate, 132.1 passer rating

Rosier, last 3 games (0-3): 45% completion rate, 12.5 yards per completion, 5.6% INT rate, 92.0 passer rating

More accurately, Rozier had a hot start, padded mostly by a 27-of-36, 333-yard day against Bethune-Cookman, and then steadily regressed. Over the remaining 11 games of 2017, Rozier had a 55-percent completion rate or worse seven times, with 13 interceptions in 359 attempts.

Of his 14 total picks, five came on third down, with just a 45 percent completion rate.

You can see the good things — he can throw a very pretty deep ball, and the Canes have the best group of receivers LSU will see until Ole Miss visits. Plus Rozier has nice speed on the edge if he breaks out of the pocket. But feast/famine can be a a pretty tough way to fly. LSU would be wise to force it on to Rozier as much as they can.

Bubble Bobble

How fun would it be to play on the YeehawTron?

Scheme-wise, Diaz coaches an “Under” front 4-3, with the linemen slid away from the strength of the formation.

Diaz likes to scheme around the obvious “bubble” in that front — the strong-side “B” gap, between the nose tackle and end — by rolling middle linebacker Shaq Quarterman down into the gap. It’s a gutsy move that can make the front vulnerable to wide zone runs to that strong side, but that’s also telling about how much Diaz trusts Miami’s speed in that back seven.

Speed is a strength for both of these teams, especially on defense. The question for this matchup, ultimately, is which team can exert their strength on the other.