The top-ranked LSU can’t rest on its laurels after the big win over Bama, hitting the road this week to take on a 4-6 Ole Miss team desperate for a marquee win and a chance to set up an Egg Bowl showdown with Mississippi State for bowl eligibility.
It may feel like LSU’s climbed the mountaintop, but there’s still three games left to this regular season. And while all three are very winnable, they’re still conference games and this is a sport built on much crazier upsets.
Plus, the Tigers are likely to be down three offensive linemen — including both starting tackles — with defensive players gimpy as well. Austin Deculus suffered injury in the Bama win, Dare Rosenthal remains sidelined and Saahdiq Charles appears to be “withheld from play.” That likely means some reshuffling that probably slides Adrian Magee out to left tackle while Badara Traore comes off the bench on the right side. It also remains somewhat unclear if the Tigers will have nickelback Kary Vincent or safety JaCoby Stevens either.
Not ideal. But something teams have to overcome during these final stretches of the season.
What to Watch For On Saturday
Matt Luke can be an oddly complicated subject. From observation, he doesn’t appear to be a particularly good head coach. He makes some baffling in-game decisions (he kicked so many sad field goals with an explosive offense in last year’s match-up with LSU), and he can really seem lost at times. And of course, his record is less than impressive.
But then, he’s not exactly in that great of a situation, and his Ole Miss teams have generally been about as good as they should be. This is a program that’s been pretty depleted by the last few years of NCAA sanctions. Not so much the actual loss of scholarships so much as the few years of bad recruiting under the specter of the investigation.
Luke is kind of in a similar position to Mike Shula at Alabama 15 years ago. The school didn’t have many real options, so they gave him a deal to take care of things. And while he hasn’t really steered the program to where it wants to go, it’s kept them out of the ditch and in time, can help them transition to someone better.
This year was always set up to be a rough one for the Rebels. They just don’t have depth and talent at the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball. But they’ve at least played with some emotion, and haven’t quit. They just haven’t been able to win any toss-up games.
They have, however, found some young playmakers on offense. Longtime spread-to-run guru Rich Rodriguez has guided the SEC’s top rushing offense in yards and touchdowns, with 95 total explosive plays (runs of 10 yards or more/passes of 20 yards or more) — the second-highest total in the league and three more than LSU.
Quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and the tailback trio of Scottie Phillips, Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner all know how to make plays, and Rodriguez knows how to create space and play with defenses’ gap control to free them up. Both Plumlee and Ealy can take it a long way if you miss a tackle; and this group has gone over the 200-yard mark in seven games this year, including Alabama.
Still, it’s an offense in the bottom three of the league in success rate and dead last with 66 negative plays allowed overall. The anemic passing game doesn’t help much. They rotate Plumlee with former blue-chip recruit Matt Corral as the runner/passer, and the results haven’t been impressive for either with just eight combined touchdown passes and less than seven yards per attempt. Plumlee’s not a strong enough passer to hold down the job full time, and at just 192 pounds I suspect his coaches want to limit his rushing load to a degree. At this point, they may just be putting Corral in to keep him happy and avoid a transfer.
But it’s the kind of attack that can be really frustrating if a defense isn’t dialed in. They can rip off long runs on just one missed tackle, and Plumlee is the kind of scrambler that can extend a play long enough for someone to get open, even if he’s not particularly accurate. The best bet for a more talented team is to execute on offense and take that variable out of the game.
Defensively, the Rebels employ another former head coach, ex-Colorado head man Mike McIntyre. (fun bit of synergy — McIntyre was in the next group of coaches under consideration for LSU after Tom Herman and Ed Orgeron in 2016. Man, 2016 seems like a long time ago.) He’s moved this group to a 3-4 front that features senior nose guard Benito Jones a lot more, and it’s payed some nice dividends so far. The Rebels have allowed the same number of touchdowns (16) as LSU, rank 37th in defensive SP+ and are allowing just 122 rushing yards per game (a 99-yards-per-game improvement over 2018).
The problem is pass defense; the Rebels allow a 65-percent completion rate and a conference-low 274 passing yards per game. Their havoc rate is incredibly low and even lower against passes; they break up a pass, sack a quarterback or tackle a receiver for loss on just 10.4 of the pass plays they’ve seen in conference games.
In other words, if you do everything right on offense, that means you’re going to complete nine out of every 10 throws.
So what this means is that LSU, an outstanding passing offense and an excellent rushing defense, is matched up with a team that relies heavily on running the ball and struggles to stop the pass.
Not a great match-up for the Rebels.
Everyone’s expecting LSU to breeze in and breeze out of this convincingly, and there’s a good reason for that — they’re the much better team.
But that was the case in 2013, too, when a top-10 Tiger squad limped out of Oxford with possibly the worst loss of the Les Miles Era to an Ole Miss team that was on a three-game losing streak and down a ton of injured defensive starters. A brutal performance that your boy was on hand to sit through, in some miserably cold weather at that.
It’s no secret that the Rebels are always up for this game. The Egg Bowl has taken on a different dimension in recent years, but Ole Miss always brings an extra level of intensity for this game. Even last year’s 45-16 win for LSU, which was never particularly close, got very chippy at times, leading to a cheap shot that took Jacob Phillips out.
Whether reports of Luke getting another season are true or not, a win in this game would absolutely clinch it. And to date, this team has shown no signs of quitting on its embattled head coach.
The Tigers won’t have the same level of emotion as the Bama game. How could they? But emotion only takes you so far in a football game anyway. Intensity, and a focus on the task at hand should be more than enough. If LSU has those things, that will be more than enough to take care of business.
In that 2013 game Zach Mettenberger threw three picks on the same play, on the same route, to the same man. LSU approached that game like it was something to just get through and get home. This team has even more of an offense to score a ton of points and make this game a laffer early on. But they have to execute, and take Ole Miss’ playmakers out of it by virtue of the scoreboard.
What this really comes down to is this LSU football team playing to it’s standard and doing the things that they have done all year long. There’s every reason to believe Joe Burrow will have the 150 yards he needs to break the program’s single-season passing record in the first half, and that the Tiger offense can put this game out of reach. The Rebel offense is almost certainly going to make some plays. But so long as the Tiger defense isn’t a complete sieve, the Rebels aren’t likely to keep pace. Plumlee can be particularly frustrating in a close game, because of his ability to keep plays alive in unlikely situations. But he isn’t going to pull an offense out of a deep hole. This team is capable of doing that, and it needs to do so.
The offensive line injuries are a bit of a concern, because if Ole Miss can get pressure from the edge on those reserve tackles, Jones is a tough match-up for a quarterback to step up into. But LSU has thrived on getting passes out quickly all season long, and this Rebel team has allowed those kinds of completions.
And not that the focus needs to be anywhere else but on the field Saturday night, last week’s win makes the postseason begin to loom for this team. And that means games like this are an opportunity to continue to develop depth moving forward. Ed Ingram should see his most significant playing time at the left guard spot with Magee out at tackle. Chasen Hines may be able to get some rotational snaps as well, plus younger tackles like Cam Wire or maybe even freshman Anthony Bradford, who might be able to get in and still preserve his redshirt.
There’s also the younger skill guys like Tyrion Davis-Price or Trey Palmer, who could have chances for more playing time. John Emery could also have a chance to get back involved. On defense, reserve defensive backs like Eric Monroe, Cordale Flott, Jay Ward or Maurice Hampton could all have chances to shine. Likewise, Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville at linebacker, or a pass-rush specialist like Marcel Brooks.
And of course, any work that Myles Brennan can get can be a positive for 2020.
LSU is going to need a lot of these names in the coming weeks, and if the starters can do their jobs, they’ll have a chance to learn from game reps.