Smoking Georgia Southern was all well and good, but LSU takes a a pretty big step up this week in traveling to take on 10th-ranked Texas in Austin.
You’d think a top-10 match-up in week two would have enough on its own but this one brings a bit of a #narrative overload. Is Texas back? Is LSU ready to push for a playoff spot? BIG TWELVE OFFENSE VERSUS ESS EE SEE DEFENSE. Ed Orgeron taking on the coach that was the first choice for his job. Tom Herman versus the school he spurned in November of 2016.
For a refresher of how things worked out: LSU had discussions with then-Houston head coach Tom Herman late in November of 2016, and was prepared to offer him the job. Call it a deal in principle. The night of LSU’s blowout win over Texas A&M, and the night before Houston’s season finale against Memphis, a series of media links were tantamount to a giant “HEY TEXAS, MOVE IT OR LOSE IT” signal fire, lit by Herman’s representation through Texas media intermediaries. Shortly after Texas finally fired then-head coach Charlie Strong, Herman blew off an interview with LSU to meet with Texas. The program moved on to Orgeron, and the rest is history. Ross Dellenger wrote a very extensive piece in SI earlier this week that matches up with everything I’ve heard regarding the search.
If the idea of LSU’s current coach facing his would-be usurper weren’t enough — don’t forget how huffy Herman got because Orgeron boxed him out of satellite camps in Louisiana a few years back — you have the general idea of the Big-12/SEC antithesis. Do Big-12 defenses only look horrible because they face Big-12 offenses? Do SEC defenses only look good because of SEC offenses? Might there just be some truth in the middle? Who knows.
And of course, there’s the fact that LSU is going for its first every road win over a top-10 out-of-conference opponent. You’d think just having two top-10, national name programs in an intersectional showdown might be enough.
What To Watch For On Saturday
Offensively, Texas returns the guts of a top-30 offense that was pretty damn successful last season. They converted 46.3 percent of their first downs and averaged 31 points a game, but at just 5.5 yards per play, which matches LSU’s 2018 average. They were also a good 20 spots behind LSU in ISOppp, the advanced stats measure for explosive plays — just 15 of 10 or more yards in 2018, two fewer than a Tiger offense most don’t want to write home about.
The Longhorns might’ve struggled to stretch the field in Herman’s second year, but they became incredibly efficient — using the short passing game to stay ahead of the chains and keep third downs manageable and short. Where a spread offense with an athletic, hard-running quarterback is very hard to stop.
It’s a game plan that Sam Ehlinger executes very well. He’s not great at throwing it down the field, so Herman doesn’t ask. They rely on the short, quick throws on early downs where the defense is more likely to be in man coverage with an extra safety in the box, then spread the field and use the offenses’ numbers in the running game for short-yardage. Functionally, it worked a lot like what LSU saw from Mississippi State with Nick Fitzgerald, although Ehlinger is a much better passer.
The Horns showed more of the same against Louisiana Tech in the season opener. Screens, quick hitches and shallow crossing routes on early downs, and then a power-read or some other type of designed QB run on third down and three, where those plays are very hard to shut down. Ehlinger’s a hard runner with some quickness in the short area. If you don’t stop him short of the line of scrimmage, chances are his momentum is going to carry him forward for a few.
Factor in a quick tempo and it’s a snowball offense that can really lean on an opponent. Ten and twelve-play drives will really compound for a defense if the offense isn’t matching the point total. An offense that can light you up down the field is exciting, but one that can slowly frustrate you is just as tough to deal with.
So for Dave Aranda and the Tiger defense, the emphasis will revolve around trying to play down hill early on. Squat on the short routes and bring numbers to the running game to try and challenge Ehlinger to throw down the field. Texas does have some very big, very athletic targets for him — probably the best overall group LSU will see until Alabama.
And honestly, Texas’ game plan will likely mirror this approach for Joe Burrow. The defense that can force third-and-long situations and take the opposing quarterback out of his comfort zone will have an edge. Likewise, the offense that stays on schedule will have its own advantage.
Defensively, these teams are remarkably similar, both running out of a 3-4 base with heavy use of the tite front. According to multiple reports, Herman has been working with former California Lutheran classmate Dave Aranda for years, but couldn’t get him to come on the Houston staff in 2015. Todd Orlando’s done a relatively solid job in his stead, with a similar focus on an active front with lots of bluffed movements and simulated pressures. Versus Louisiana Tech, Texas was very aggressive in long-yardage situations, bringing five or more on occasion, usually with a delayed rusher to try and clean up a scramble.
Don’t be surprised if we see him do the opposite in some third-and-medium passing situations, flooding the zone similarly to how Georgia Southern did last week. Either Burrow will have to find a way to squeeze a throw or scramble. LSU’s going to need to find ways to clear space with better route concepts.
With both quarterbacks having ample mobility, keeping a disciplined rush will be key to try and keep Ehlinger or Burrow from extending plays scrambling for the first. Texas’ offensive line is a little more inexperienced, so Aranda’s ability to mess with protections and create free rushers could pay off. That’s also another area where Texas’ injury problems at running back could create an advantage.
I’ve got a lot more confidence in LSU’s defense here, but that doesn’t mean we want to see this game solely in their hands. The thing about uptempo offense — and this applies to both teams — is that you can see something of a snowball effect. The kind of game that gets out-of-hand on the scoreboard quickly, even if it doesn’t feel like a lot has happened yet.
As previously discussed, Texas’ efficiency allows them to almost add something of a ground-and-pound element to their offense. They can run up the play count really quickly, and without a ton of big plays, that means that even at a faster tempo, scoring will take a while and eat the clock.
But based on what we saw last week, that same principle can apply to LSU’s offense. We rarely saw the Tigers stretch the field throwing — and 16 of Burrow’s 27 throws from last week were 10 yards or less — so both of these offenses will look to stay in their comfort zones.
Which could mean that one team or the other could build, or lose, a 14-17 point lead very quickly, based on which offense is clicking at what times.
A lot has been made of the whole “Tom Herman as an underdog” narrative this week. And while those numbers are impressive, if he does his job well at Texas the program won’t be an underdog very often. So how much value is there?
That said, he’ll be ready to go all out for this one. Look for something big early on to try and swing momentum. Maybe an onside kick or a gadget play, something to try and bring the home crowd into it and knock LSU on its heels. The players and coaches will have to be ready for it, and be ready to counter-punch.
The Tigers’ advantage at the line of scrimmage may be enough to take Ehlinger, and Texas, out of their comfort zone. But Burrow and the offense have to be ready to take advantage of that edge. Create a lead that will make the Longhorns have to press that much more, and that advantage will compound itself.