This is a big one. The Mississippi State disaster to start the 2020 season served as a lasting poster-child for the entire bad season. This is a big week to show if Ed Orgeron really has made changes within the program. Should LSU drop this one, it would serve as both a figurative and literal compounding of 2020’s descent into irrelevance. Should they win convincingly, it will serve as a symbolic repudiation of a program’s humiliation. It’s a big week for narrative. Let’s begin.
For Mississippi State
LSU’s defensive front has been by far its brightest spot this season. Maason Smith looks as advertised, Neil Farrell is having a rebound year, Jaquelin Roy has been absolutely SUPERB (best player on the defense through three games), Joseph Evans looks good, etc. If LSU is able to generate pressure with just three guys given that those guys will largely likely be some combo of Smith, Roy, Gaye, Farrell (please have three-man fronts ready for an air raid team) it’s going to be curtains for their entire offense. If they aren’t, Ed Orgeron may feel tempted to tell Daronte Jones to bring pressure (really only okay on obvious pass situations against the air raid) or put an extra lineman on the field, which is favorable for an air raid offense. You just cannot give up pressures against 3 man rushes and stay viable.
Zach Arnett Revenge Game
Zach Arnett was a candidate for the LSU defensive coordinator job this offseason, and LSU passed on him pretty quickly after his interview. I personally think he should have gotten the job after Marcus Freeman went to Notre Dame and Barry Odom decided he wasn’t leaving Fayetteville. Arnett runs a defense that matches up with what LSU does pretty well. He plays a lot of quarters to invite the run and force an inefficient, underneath pass game. He wants to force you into obvious passing situations where he can tee off on your empty protections with devious simulated pressures and blitz packages. Against Memphis, an obligate 3-4 wide spread team (like LSU), he used a lot of the tite front (which I wrote about being an obstacle for LSU this offseason) to stop their inside zone game. LSU really only runs inside zone with any significance, and their attempts at blocking gap schemes against McNeese and CMU have looked a little sketchy and under-practiced. Arnett is content to empty out the box, allocate ample resources to the pass, and make up for the numbers disadvantage by snuffing out inside zone teams with the tite front, then he assaults your line and protection communications with some cool pressures. This is a potentially bad matchup for LSU, talent outside can overcome it, but it also might not (see UCLA, week 1).
Stopping the Raid
For the love of your job Ed, please, please just let your coordinator play a three-man front, drop eight into zone, and win the game.
There is a clear blueprint that has been developed over the past couple years to completely neutralize the Air Raid (particularly in its pure, Leach form). You drop eight into zone coverage and you don’t worry about the run. I don’t wanna see cover one a single time unless it’s like, 4th and inches. If you line up in four down and try to man them up on the back end in cover one again I’m going to become the Joker. If LSU loses for that reason AFTER last year’s debacle, Ed Orgeron should be fired by Monday. If you don’t have a separate install for Miss State (like teams do in the offseason with the triple option on the schedule) that is basically just dropping eight all the time, you’re being intransigent. Just do what everyone else did last year en route to stifling Mississippi State.
It’s critically important for LSU to use their talent at wide receiver to generate big plays this week. Zach Arnett’s brand of defense is going to make it difficult, but LSU has to be efficient on offense. If Arnett can force LSU to have to dink and dunk down the field, their margin of error is drastically reduced and he can tee off on them in 3rd and long. Forcing this line to pick up sim pressures and forcing Johnson to operate against the blitz, as well as back-end post snap rotations, is a recipe for a repeat of the UCLA game.
RPOs and a Diversified Run Game.
This probably should be two separate things to watch for, but they’re related. If you’re going to punish Miss State for spacing out their defense and allocating resources to the pass, you have to be able to attack their tite front and attack their second level conflict defenders. You do the former through gap schemes like counter, pin and pull, duo, and dart, and the latter through RPOs. LSU has tried to show gap schemes in their get right games against McNeese and CMU, but didn’t look particularly great operating them. That’s gonna have to change if you really want to attack Arnett’s defensive structure.
As for the RPO game, it looked much better, and much more prevalent against Central Michigan. I hope they continue to build on that this week, because you can have a lot of RPO success against empty boxed teams. This all needs to be done to punish their commitment to taking away explosive plays. You want to force them out of that, force them into cover one, and throw over their heads for the explosive, gamebreaking plays you need to score at a high level.