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LSU vs. Mississippi State: What to Watch For

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Tigers look to keep the momentum going with a potentially dangerous trip to Starkville.

Florida v LSU Photo by Marianna Massey/Getty Images

LSU has crossed the midseason threshold 6-0, and will begin the season’s second half with our favorite...there’s that dirty word again...pesky...road trip: Starkville, Miss., and the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

LSU’s a near-20-point favorite going into this one, but that’s hardly news in this rivalry. What would be, is the Tigers playing like it. When’s the last time you felt like LSU truly played a complete game in Starkvegas?

2013? Sure, LSU ultimately scored 59 points but that game was 31-26 in the third quarter before Odell Beckham and a dominant running game put up 28 points in the fourth quarter.

Even the the greatest team in LSU history only won by 13 in Starkville in 2011. Sure, the 19-6 final score might’ve felt like a lot more given the Tiger defense, but that’s still a two-score game (against a team that finished 7-6). In college football cornerbacks fall down and give up wide-open touchdowns, or balls get batted at the line for easy pick-sixes. Things happen. That is literally a big part of why we love this silly sport.

You’d probably have to go all the way back to 2007’s 45-0 season-opener to find a truly complete performance. To say nothing of what happened the last time the Tigers made the trip.

And now LSU heads up there for a 2:30 p.m. kick coming off a huge win at home against a top-10 team, while the Bulldogs sit at 3-3, fresh off an embarrassing loss to Tennessee. And with what could be another big-time game with Auburn next week, it’s a textbook sandwich spot. In fact, the Bulldogs have won four of their last five at home against ranked teams, with the lone loss in the last minute to Alabama in 2017.

LSU vs. Mississippi State — What to Watch For


Precursor

Most of the narrative around LSU’s offensive revolution with the addition of passing game coordinator Joe Brady, has been his roots with the New Orleans Saints. Truthfully, Brady, and what LSU is currently doing, probably has more in common with Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead.

Brady served as a grad assistant under Moorhead at Penn State before joining the Saints’ staff in 2017 — Moorhead tried to attract him to Starkville before Ed Orgeron brought him here — and what he’s helped transition LSU’s offense to looks a lot like those PSU attacks (minus Saquon Barkley).

The roots of Moorhead’s attack are in the classic West Coast Offense. Before people knew to call it a Run-Pass Option, Moorhead and his staff at Fordham just called it a “tag” on a running play. That backbone probably helped Brady transition to Sean Payton’s offense, which is from the West Coast background as well. It also likely meant that Brady and Steve Ensminger were speaking a common language, if different dialects, during the X&O discussions in 2018 that eventually led to Brady’s hire in 2019.

It’s an offense that’s built on using tempo and easy completions to dictate match-ups for big plays. Only it hasn’t quite worked out like that for Moorhead at Mississippi State.

Spare Parts

Hiring Moorhead definitely made sense for State. The program doesn’t have the resources to build a program that can consistently compete with the SEC’s upper class, so you hire a coach that can specialize and recruit to a system. That’s essentially the model Dan Mullen brought to Starkville (although, in theory, not what he now wants to do at Florida).

Through a year and a half, it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. Despite a lot of heady talk about fitting system to players, Moorhead did the inverse in year one and spent a chunk of the 2018 season trying to shoehorn Nick Fitzgerald and a group of receivers that weren’t up to the task into the Penn State offense, before eventually settling into a run-heavy attack to try and complement the nation’s top defense. The 8-5 results were less than fans were expecting. The question is, does that say more about Moorhead or the general frequency of the program?

Early on in year two, further evidence isn’t promising. An academic scandal has put some personnel limitations in place, and per fan and some media theories, has led to Moorhead and the staff picking and choosing which games to play stars like linebacker Willie Gay. Holding them out of games where they either aren’t needed — or wouldn’t make a difference. Pragmatically, that makes sense, but it wouldn’t surprise me if players are taking notice themselves. It’s a tough situation to be in.

It also raises the question as to whether the suspended players will be in action on Saturday. One might think that Moorhead might hold them out, like he did versus Auburn. But then, this would be a good time for a marquee win.

As it is he’s already shifted the offense away from Penn State grad transfer Tommy Stevens to redshirt freshman Garrett Shrader. He’s been relatively ineffective as a passer this year, but he does at least add a more dynamic running element — and the Bulldogs already have one of the top backs in the league in Kylin Hill.

Between those two, look for State to try and emulate Florida’s ball-control strategy. Keep LSU’s offense off the field, lower the margins and hope that maybe with the raucous environment, Joe Burrow & Co. misfire.

Backed Down?

I don’t really have to get too deep into the on-paper aspects of this match-up. The big point spread says plenty enough there. But everything we love about this sport is the stuff that doesn’t show up on paper, and that’s State’s only shot here.

You hate to judge coaches too harshly on games where they’re at a significant talent disadvantage, but the Bulldogs’ effort level here will tell us something about Moorhead. The loss to Tennessee last week wasn’t just a gut punch, it put a chance at bowl eligibility in jeopardy. After LSU the Bulldogs still have Texas A&M, Arkansas, Alabama, Abilene Christian and Ole Miss to play. There’s at least one gimme in there, but if things keep spiraling Arkansas and Ole Miss could easily be up for grabs as well.

Does this team want to play for its head coach? Has the the suspension tug-of-war affected morale? Nobody outside of the Bulldog locker room can really answer that. And we won’t find out until things kick off.

If LSU plays its game on offense, things should be fine. There are a number of solid players on this defense — cornerback Cameron Dantzler and linebacker Erroll Thompson are two future pros that don’t appear to be on the suspension list — and it’s a different match-up in that it’s been more vulnerable to the run thus far.

LSU was content to keep it on the ground last week when Florida dared them to, and it paid off. If State repeats that strategy, well...they’re allowing more than five yards per carry on first down.

Shrader and Hill are fast and athletic enough to make some plays, but they can only do so much to keep pace with the Tiger offense if it takes care of business. Part of the reason LSU ran so few plays last week against Florida is that they had so many big ones. But the other part was the inability to get Florida off the field on some of their longer drives — for a number of reasons. But the idea of nibbling away and limiting LSU’s opportunities are one that a lot of opponents will try and replicate for better or for worse. It’s a strategy that gets a whole lot harder to manage if the Tigers score at the pace we’ve seen to date.

Just a feeling here — but LSU was just a couple of beats away from several turnovers last week against Florida. We might see someone like Grant Delpit or Kristian Fulton finish the drill on a few passes this week.

We all heard the talk this week about good enough getting in the way of greatness. And we know a lot of the veteran leadership on this team remembers what happened in 2017. If they turn that talk into action, LSU will make short work of things here.