It doesn’t feel like a year has passed. Maybe because the game seemed to take that long.
After all the talk, after all postgame bullshit and after the complete and total failure of the Southeastern Conference to act when a football assistant coach damn near tried to start a riot after a football game and put students and members of the general public at risk, the Texas A&M Aggies are back, trying to avoid their fifth season of five or more losses in their last sixth, and spoil the Tigers’ perfect record before the postseason.
Joe Burrow’s final home game in purple and gold, and one more chance to put his world class numbers even farther out of reach in the LSU record books, and to further add to his legend.
Park the Bus
You know, it’s funny. For so many years this was a match-up of the up-tempo spread of Texas A&M versus the smash-mouth, pro-style offense of LSU. Power-running and play-action versus screen passes and the quarterback running game.
Well, in 2019, the roles are suddenly reversed. LSU is running one of the best offenses in football, exclusively out of the shotgun with a quarterback that’s set the college football world on fire, shattered records and become the favorite for the Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, A&M has become one of the last holdouts committed to the pro-style attack under Jimbo Fisher. It’s not nearly as two-back heavy as those LSU teams, but Fisher’s definitely a believer in a deliberate style, without much of a use for pace or the RPO game.
But it’s a style Fisher’s comfortable with, and one that, when fully realized, did some big things at Florida State with Jameis Winston and Dalvin Cook. He doesn’t have those kind of horses at A&M, but this offense has found ways to be efficient this year. They average a healthy 6.07 yards per play with a 47.7-percent success rate, which is good for third in the SEC. Although roughly 10 percent behind LSU.
Consistency has been the problem, especially with quarterback Kellen Mond. His home game/road splits have been striking this year:
Kellen Mond Passing Stats Home/Road
|on Road/Neutral Site||4||147||88||59.9||934||6.4||6||4||121.26||36.8||233.5|
And likewise, his passer rating in losses has been about 30 points lower versus wins. Of course, it doesn’t help that his offensive line has allowed the most sacks in the SEC in conference games, and pressure on 36 percent of his drop backs, per SECStatCat.
Third down has been a real problem, with Mond completing less than 50 percent of his throws on that down, and converting just 13 of 34 pass attempts on distances of seven yards or longer. Naturally, Jimbo avoids those situations where he can (72 of his 370 total passing attempts on the year have come on third down), and tries to manage Mond with easier throws on first and second down. They’ve also had some success using him in the running game, with 76 yards on the ground in each of the Aggies wins against the Mississippi schools.
Look for A&M to commit to a ground-and-pound approach against LSU. On average, the Aggies have faced about 64 plays a game on defense, even against offenses like Clemson, Auburn, Ole Miss and Bama that like to run up the play counts. For LSU, who averages about 72 plays per game, that number would result in at least one fewer possession, maybe two. It’s a lower margin for the Aggies themselves, but they’ll take that to try and keep the ball out of the Tigers’ hands, drag things down and hope they can survive the stalemate.
For the LSU defense, it’s an interesting match-up because it really marks one of the only true pro-style offenses that the Tigers have seen this season, outside of maybe Vanderbilt. Plus, it offers something of a preview of what they’ll face against Georgia in the SEC Championship.
For the most part, the teams that have had success against LSU have done it using inside receivers matched up on nickel corners and safeties, with the Tigers struggling to get pressure out of their nickel front looks. But if A&M wants to use more two-tight end looks, Dave Aranda can use more of a base 3-4 look, out of which he can be a little more creative in his pressures, as we saw last week against Arkansas.
The game plan will be a little simpler in terms of man coverage with a safety down in the box to help control the run. Jacoby Stevens had his breakout performance in this game last year, and he could be in line for a big role again in the hybrid linebacker/safety role he’s excelled in. Watch for freshman tight end Jalen Wydermyer; he could be the kind of match-up player the Aggies need on the inside.
Tyler Shelvin and Rashard Lawrence will need to help control the line of scrimmage, and set up Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen to do more of what they’re better at and control the run. Freshman tailback Isaiah Spiller has come on recently, averaging 6.4 yards per carry in his last three games. He’s a 220-pound workhorse — not in D’Andre Swift’s class, but similar in style — that the Aggies will use to try and clutch the mat. Georgia will have the same idea.
In theory, this game’s a better match-up for LSU against a team that doesn’t excel at the things that have given the Tiger defense’s struggles. How that works in practice could help set the table for the SEC Championship.
Another interesting schematic angle to this match-up will be how Aggie defensive coordinator Mike Elko game-plans for the LSU offense. His nature is to be pretty aggressive out of a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 base. Man-up at the corners and turn the front loose to disrupt.
That’s pretty much the worst idea possible against this LSU attack, and the teams that have had the most success slowing it down have done it by opening up the umbrella, so to speak. Keep two safeties deep, play coverage and force the offense to dink and dunk. Where that’s become problematic has been in recent weeks where Clyde Edwards-Helaire has gotten going — a further concern for the Aggies, who allow 5.2 yards per carry in conference games this year.
The Aggie secondary has been the most efficient in the conference this year overall, albeit against a less than stellar schedule of quarterbacks (and season-worst outings against Clemson and Alabama). Third-down’s been the money down, with an 86.2 rating allowed and 31 conversions in 109 pass attempts. So does Elko trust them to do what’s worked for them most of the year, against a passing game that’s been aces throwing it down the field, or does he try and play the slower game? Given the offensive game plan, there may be more virtue in conservatism. The last thing A&M wants is to fall behind while LSU scores quickly.
This is going to be another emotional game — that’s no secret. This team wants to beat the Aggies like they stole something (because they stole something). The coaching staff has handled that emotion well this year against teams like Texas, Florida and Alabama, and this team has focused through it to bring A games. They have to ride that roller coaster one more time, and put the final exclamation point on this regular season. Make sure that all the championship goals for this team are still on the table.
The crowd should be pretty damn juiced up, and Saturday night should be one hell of a scene.
Let’s go have some fun.