We open Act II of the 2019 season this Saturday as LSU welcomes one last non-conference opponent before a seven-game SEC gauntlet over the final two months.
And despite the three-plus touchdown spread, Utah State isn’t the average non-con patsy. The Aggies won 11 games a year ago, and at 3-1 this year are still a top-40 SP+ team in 2019 under new (old) head coach Gary Andersen. Realistically, they’re the second-best team LSU’s seen to date.
Again, LSU’s a heavy favorite here and the better team, but between injuries, next week’s big conference match-up, and the early kick, this game is ranking a bit higher on the hinky meter. At least for me.
As I’ve said before, strong mid-major programs don’t come into games like this intimidated. Utah State they won’t be in awe of the moment. They aren’t going to commit stupid mental errors or drop passes. They won’t pack it in and save themselves if the game is close in any way. And they have a pretty good quarterback.
It’s going to be important for LSU to step on their throats early on here. Luckily, that’s been the Tigers’ specialty in 2019.
What to Watch For On Saturday Morning
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What to Watch For On Saturday Morning
Love to Know
Breaking down Utah State begins and ends with quarterback Jordan Love. For one, they replace a ton from last year’s dynamic offense, which finished second overall to Oklahoma in points per game at 47.5. Love finished in the top 10 in passer rating with an outstanding 32/6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
New (old) head coach Gary Andersen hasn’t changed too much from last year, keeping an up-tempo, pass-first spread attack that revolves heavily around Love’s talents as a passer. He’s a big-bodied guy (6-4, 225) with a strong arm that can power the ball into some tight spots. Mike Sanford, who called Notre Dame’s offense a couple years ago, came in with Andersen. So far the results are a bit of a step back at “just” 38.5 points, but I think that’s more than likely due to the experience lost.
Andersen made his name originally at Utah State seven or eight years ago with a staff that included Dave Aranda and LSU DB coaches Corey Raymond and Bill Busch. After a strange odyssey that saw abbreviated stops at Wisconsin and then Oregon State, he’s back after Matt Wells used last year’s huge season to land the Texas Tech job.
Love and the offense can make their living underneath with stick routes, slants, shallows and screens, but the goal is to let those short routes set up double moves down the field. In some of their previous games this year the plan looked very similar to what Northwestern State had success with, exploiting space and off coverage. You can see he has a pro arm, and I imagine he’ll have a chance to really work his way up the draft in the scouting process.
So it will be interesting to see if Aranda shuffles the deck with the talk of moving Kristian Fulton to the nickel position with freshman Cordale Flott moving outside. Kary Vincent has struggled in the role this year, and with more teams using their best receivers in the slot, moving Fulton makes some sense. Yes, using two true freshmen outside is a bit of a risk, but corners have help out there with the sideline. And to date, teams have done the overwhelming majority of their damage against LSU with inside receivers.
It will be interesting to see how a front-seven that is still a little banged up handles an Aggie running game that’s been pretty effective. The Tigers will likely have K’Lavon Chaisson back but will almost certainly still be without Glen Logan or Michael Divinity. Love gets the ball out pretty quickly, so I’m not sure there will be a ton of pressure opportunities.
Love’s already thrown five interceptions this year, and he will take some risks with the ball. So if the Tiger DBs can keep themselves in position, they may have some chances to make big plays.
So that Aranda question brings us to the big overarching one for this game. Utah State’s secondary is terrible; Wake Forest threw for 400 yards on them and San Diego State — a team averaging less than 200 yards per game — nearly got 300. Based on what we’ve seen from LSU to date, there’s no reason to believe Joe Burrow and Co. won’t be able to execute.
That said, things will look a little different. First and foremost, the receivers will be without Terrace Marshall, who is still recovering from a fractured foot. Justin Jefferson will apparently be full speed after rolling his ankle, but Racey McMath will also be down for a half for a targeting suspension. Given that Marshall, Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase each have at least 20 catches and nobody else is in double digits, someone will need to step up. And with three big SEC games coming in the next month, who that is will be a very important question to answer.
Is it Stephen Sullivan, working more at outside receiver as opposed to the flex tight end spot? Derrick Dillon? Trey Palmer? JaRay Jenkins? Or maybe Thad Moss from the tight end spot, or one of the running backs? Or some combination of all of the above.
To date, Burrow has done a great job of distributing the ball, so I’m pretty confident in him finding the answer. But I still want to find it out for myself.
Meanwhile, the offensive line gets a big addition in guard Ed Ingram, back after sexual assault charges were dropped in Texas. Ingram missed the 2018 season on suspension after starting 12 games as a true freshman. And while that’s a long layoff with no game snaps, he does appear to be in great shape, and I’m told he spent most of the offseason working with GAs and assistant strength coaches in his spare time to learn the offense. While a starting spot isn’t announced, it wouldn’t surprise me if he has one. If not, he’ll certainly get a lot of snaps, with Adrian Magee moving into a T-Bob Hebert swing backup position for either guard or tackle spot.
Whether or not that’s a game-changer for the running game remains to be seen, but it could certainly help build on the offense’s best rushing performance to date versus Vanderbilt.
Again, a dynamic passing game is great, and certainly a welcome change for LSU fans, but I’ve always thought the best offenses are the ones that can attack you in multiple ways. We’ll see if this running game can take another step forward this week before the conference gauntlet opens.