There’s a lot of weird surrounding this LSU versus Ole Miss game.
For one, it’s being played in September, which should be against some sort of Federal statute. I’d say “it’s being played at 8:15 p.m. local time,” but A) that’s actually correct and B) the 2016 game in Tiger Stadium — our last, best glimpse at the greatness of Leonard Fournette — also kicked that late.
Maybe it’s the lack of juice to the Ed Orgeron angle (he and Ole Miss are 10 years in each other’s rear-view mirrors). Or the general pointlessness surrounding the Rebels given the status of the program as it relates to the NCAA.
Still, it’s just an...off...feeling for me. Excited, don’t get me wrong — this had damn well better be as good of a Tiger Stadium atmosphere as we’ve seen in some time. Full-throated from start to finish (glaring expectantly in your direction, students) and loud. We have some new ghosts to raise.
But regardless of any of that, it’s a game that the Tigers will need to have their own juice, because Ole Miss is a dangerous football team.
What To Watch For On Saturday
All offense/no defense is nothing new for Ole Miss in recent years. Last season, they were a top-10 offense in S&P+, but 113th in defense. In 2016, the final years of the Hugh Freeze Era, they ranked 14th on offense and 74th on defense (it’s funny how people forget they went 5-7 that year).
Currently, the Rebels have the No. 4 overall offense in S&P+, and rank 108th on defense. For a point of reference, LSU has the 10th ranked defense and the 51st ranked offense.
Although this game presents an opportunity for the Tigers to improve on the latter figure.
Honestly, it makes sense. Good defense requires numbers and depth, and that’s the first thing you lose in an NCAA sanctions situation (and yes, the actual penalties weren’t all that steep, but Ole Miss’ last four recruiting classes have ranked 17th, 5th, 31st and 32nd while recruiting under the cloud of the investigation).
And as dynamic and explosive as the Rebel offense is, the defense is that bad. Currently 93rd nationally in yards per play allowed, and last in the SEC in both rushing yards and passing yards and touchdowns allowed. Explosive plays have been a big problem — Ole Miss has allowed 77 plays of 10 yards or more in four games this year, not only the worst in the SEC but 24 more than the second-worst defense. What stands out more than anything, however, is the 344 plays the Rebels have seen in just four games. That total is 57 more than the next-highest team. Most notably, the Rebels allowed Kent State, the 107th-rated offense in S&P+, to run 84 plays. If LSU runs 84 plays, at their current per-play average, that will net them a season high in total offense.
On the field, Ole Miss runs the same 4-2-5 unit they have in the last few seasons, hoping to use numbers to stop the run and force third-and-long situations, then use line stunts and some zone-blitz looks under a Cover-3 shell.
Not that it’s worked all that much. The Rebel line has some decent pass-rush speed, but they get pushed around easily against the run, and the linebackers often look like they are just chasing the ball instead of reading their keys.
One Step At A Time
From LSU’s standpoint, attacking this defense will have to start small, and, in my opinion, should start with the running game. Alabama had a ton of success getting to the edge with the wide zone, and I think that’s something LSU could exploit, even with the weakened offensive line. Look for Steve Ensminger to move Foster Moreau around to help in that regard — in line, flexed, in the slot, out wide — to try and gain some leverage on the defense. Badara Traore did a solid job in setting the edge last week, so if he is pressed into service again, this may also be a way to limit his liability in pass-protection.
As for the passing game, start small there again. Quick passes, maybe some misdirection throws like bootlegs and screens to try and exploit the linebackers. Don’t press for big plays, even though Alabama was able to beat this group over the top early and often. The deep ball is still not Joe Burrow’s forte, but there could be some easy completions, especially in the slot. Stay on schedule, and let the running game do it’s thing. Burrow has thrown 48 of his 107 passes on first down, and it’s by far his most productive and efficient.
Use the short game to aid the run. Don’t press for the big plays. That’s Ole Miss’ game. If LSU can hold on to the ball, and force that burden on the Rebels, that can only help the defense against a difficult matchup.
The Rebels have an explosive offense, there’s no question about that. But it’s an offense that operates at it’s best under specific circumstances. Break it’s rhythm, and things change up a bit.
Ole Miss averages 42 points per game, average an SEC-best eight yards per play and sit tied with Texas A&M and Mississippi State for the most explosive plays — 32 plays of 20 yards or more. And yet, they have a much more pedestrian 38-percent conversion rate on third down, about the same as LSU.
Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu showed promise last year and he is certainly a dangerous player, but he’s converted just 10 of 31 total third-down situations in the first four games (9-of-25 passes, 1 of 6 on the ground). He looks remarkably comfortable in the free-flowing parts of the Rebel offense — namely the RPO game — but he can get flustered easily in the pocket in drop-back situations.
Ole Miss will look to work that RPO game early on, and use play-action to get vertical with their receiver corps. A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DeMarkus Lodge are as good as it gets and they make this offense go. Offensive coordinator Phil Longo will move them around in multiple positions, including in the backfield. They haven’t seen any carries in the running game yet, but I could see that coming. Both Brown and Metcalf are north of 225 pounds, so they could certainly handle a few hits from linebackers or linemen from time to time.
Tight end Dawson Knox is also a valuable chess piece as well. Against Bama, the Rebels flashed a play where he dotted a pistol formation behind Ta’amu and then arced out in front as a lead blocker for a potential QB keeper (Ta’amu handed the ball off on the read play). And JUCO tailback recruit Scottie Phillips is a nifty runner that is big enough to carry more of a load than recent Ole Miss backs.
LSU doesn’t want to tempt fate with another mid-game offensive drought against this group.
As Seth laid out yesterday, Dave Aranda can certainly roll the corners up and use some press-man looks to try and take away the short stuff early. The big question will be how the Tiger front handles the running game. This isn’t a particularly stout offensive line, but the Rebels know how to get creative and mess with run fits from the linebackers. Ole Miss averaged 5.4 yards per carry last year against LSU. Only Mississippi State had a better number.
It will be interesting to see which nickel set Aranda works out of more: the modified 3-3-5 look with Grant Delpit lined up near the line and the nickel corner deeper, or the “Peso” 2-4-5 look we’ve seen more of over the years. If it’s the latter, look for Delpit to come off the edge some to get after Ta’amu. But he’ll need to hold up his end in coverage when asked, as well.
Either way, the mandate is clear for the defense; cover tight and think short first, both the run and the pass. Ole Miss will definitely take some shots down the field, but LSU’s corners aren’t going to shy away from that. Watch to see if they take some early, similarly to how they attacked Alabama. Push the top off the defense to pre-preemptively open up the short game. The big key will be getting after Ta’amu and making him uncomfortable.
But the biggest help for the defense will be an effective offense.