Thursday, October 23
I've got a brand-new pair of quarterbacks, you've got a brand-new D: the LSU preview.
Hometown: Baton Rouge, La.
Last season: Won their bowl game and got a crystal trophy or something for it. It might've been for the national championship or something, but really, it was so long ago, who remembers those kinds of things?
The season thus far: Everything was going grrrr-reat for the Tigers, who ran up a 4-0 record in the month of September, right up until they wandered into Gainesville and got 51 points dropped on them by Florida. Earned a little bit of respect back last week by coming from behind to take down South Carolina on the road, and are now 5-1, 3-1 in conference, and ranked 11th in both polls.
Hate index, 1 being people who say "nuclear," 10 being people who say "nuke-you-ler": Five and a half. Everyone likes to criticize LSU fans for being total whack jobs, but since when was total whackjobbery a punishable offense in the SEC, people? Also had a really cool boss who was a big LSU fan when I was temping in Synovus Financial's HR department one summer. (Fountain City, son, WHAT.)
Associated hottie: Hurdler Lolo Jones came up empty at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but don't feel too bad for how her life has turned out -- she won a gold medal at the 2008 World Indoor Championships and, while a student at LSU, won three NCAA titles and 11 All-American honors. Plus she looks good even when she's sweaty after a hard run, which very few of us can claim.
Celebrity preview: Britney Spears gushes over the defending national champions here.
What excites me: The LSU defense that has been so stifling almost ever since Nick Saban rolled into town appears to have taken a step back in 2008. After holding their first two patsy opponents to a total of less than 400 yards, some chinks started appearing in the armor -- 320 yards given up to a dire Auburn offense, more than 20 yards above their season average; 24 points given up to Mississippi State, the most MSU has dropped on a D-IA opponent all year. Then the wheels came off in the 51-21 drubbing by Florida, and even South Carolina's Stephen Garcia was moving the ball pretty well on the Tigers (207 total yards in the first half) before LSU figured out the Gamecocks couldn't run and clamped down on them the rest of the way.
Pass defense appears to be LSU's biggest problem at the moment -- they're allowing an average of 200 yards even over their past three games, which is decent, but their opponents completed passes at a rate of better than 60 percent during that span (45-of-73), and LSU only had one interception to show for it. (Memo to SEC defenses: If you go an entire 60 minutes and don't pick off a Mississippi State quarterback even once, you have underachieved.) Even Auburn's Chris Todd finished with 250 yards against the Bayou Bengals, though he did throw two picks in the process. What this tells me is that the short passing game can indeed work against LSU -- and maybe even a few long passes, too, if you can give them a running game to respect like Florida did.
The good news is, LSU can be run on; the bad news is, note who's doing the running.
On the other side of the ball, the QB situation hasn't been quite the disaster many feared when Jarrett Lee and Andrew Hatch were forced to take over for the disgraced Ryan Perrilloux, but neither of them is getting mentioned for the Heisman Trophy, either. Lee has seen the greater action of the two, and has a 131.8 QB rating through six games, but in four outings against SEC opponents he's thrown six TDs and five picks; his best passing day came against Mississippi State. Hatch, meanwhile, seems to be to this year's team what Tim Tebow was to the '06 Gators — mainly sent onto the field in specific situations where a running QB is required — and hasn't thrown more than 17 passes in a game (and that game was against North Texas). Between the two of them, LSU's passing offense is holding at a so-so 51st in the nation, and while neither has really lost a game for the Tigers yet, neither is really the type who's going to win one, either.
What worries me: Whatever slack has been left by the passing game, however, has been taken up by the running game, which ranks 36th in the country. That attack is led by Charles Scott, a 5'11”, 221-pound bruiser who's amassed 631 yards this season at a rate of 6.4 per carry; when he got bottled up last week against South Carolina, the Tigers sent out Keiland Williams, who put up a respectable 72 yards on 15 carries against an extremely stiff defense. The LSU ground game as a whole is averaging an even five yards per carry.
For our purposes, Charles Scott is henceforth Public Enemy #1 (then again, everybody in the SEC looks good against Ohio State).
That consistent success has been greatly helped by a positively massive offensive line, particularly on the left side, where Scott and Williams are getting blocking from 325-pound tackle Ciron Black and guard Herman Johnson, who, at 6'7”, 375, can be described as “Terrence Cody big.” Even with our front seven about as stable, personnel-wise, as it's been since the beginning of the season, we're going to have a devil of a time getting past those guys to the LSU running backs — much less their QBs, as we're still not pressuring opposing passers the way we'd like to be.
LSU's defensive front carries some serious beef, too, and they've been clamping down on opposing running games to the tune of less than 100 yards a game and only 3.1 yards per carry. Not only have the Tigers allowed only one 100-yard rusher all season long — Florida's Jeffrey Demps — but they've only allowed two teams to go over 100 yards total (Florida and, oddly enough, Mississippi State, who had 110). So, uh, good luck with that one, Knowshon. I continue to be amazed by just how well our offensive line has held their heads above water despite an incredible level of adversity this season, but this is still the biggest challenge they've faced since Alabama, maybe the biggest all year.
Finally, there's the venue, and with all due respect to South Carolina, Tiger Stadium is going to be the loudest and wildest place we've played all year. Thankfully, this one's going to be an afternoon kickoff as opposed to a night game, so LSU's fans will only have until 2:30 to get their drink on (well, except for the legions of people who bring their flasks into the stadium). Still, day game vs. night game at LSU is sort of like comparing a medium-security prison with a Supermax facility, and Mark Richt's knack for winning games in opponents' stadiums is going to get the biggest test it's faced in quite a while. The last time we went to Baton Rouge, of course, we lost 17-10 in one of the more epic defensive struggles I've ever seen.
Player who needs to step up: RT Justin Anderson. Anderson hasn't gotten much publicity this year -- not because he's not a good player, but mainly because he's one of our few offensive linemen who hasn't been grievously injured or shuffled all over the place in the last six months. His profile might get raised a tad this week, though, as he'll be one of the primary guys charged with keeping DE Ricky Jean-Francois's mitts off of Moreno and Stafford. Jean-Francois is dangerous enough as it is, and probably itching to hit somebody after missing the last two games due to a groin injury; I'd imagine he's also hopping mad after being called out for some unwisely phrased comments on Tim Tebow and then having to sit and watch as his team caught a 30-point beatdown from the Gators. Go with God, Justin.
What I think will happen: This has turned into one of those classic head-versus-heart battles for me, because my head says we could be in real trouble here. LSU presents a lot of the same strengths that Alabama wielded so punitively against us a few weeks ago -- big, strong offensive line; a Himalaya-sized defensive front; depth and variety in the offensive backfield. And while neither of the Tigers' new QBs are threats to make the All-SEC roster just yet, I was saying the same thing about John Parker Wilson right up until his O-line built a Berlin Wall around him and allowed him to play-action us into an early grave. Suffice to say my honest thoughts on how well we match up with the Tigers have not been positive; best case is we manage to hold our heads above water, worst-case is we get ground into roadkill before the bands even come out for halftime.
Not this. Please.
Even so, I can't quite see us getting gangbanged to the tune of a 31-0 halftime deficit again, and that's mainly due to a very interesting statistic/factoid that my heart keeps whipping out every time my head starts predicting unremitting doom and gloom: Georgia is 6-1 all-time in regular-season matchups against defending national champions. Not only that, but we've been overcoming some big obstacles to win those games. In 1997, Georgia went into Jacksonville as 20-point underdogs against the defending-champion Gators and instead came out 20-point victors; a decade later, Georgia had sustained a shellacking by Tennessee and had to come from behind to win a nailbiter over Vandy, yet went right out and stunned the Gators despite being a touchdown 'dog in Jacksonville. And while we were a home favorite against LSU in 2004, it was only by three points, and instead we ran up a 24-0 lead on the defending national champs, rolling all the way to a 45-16 beatdown.
So as poorly as you or I might think the Dawgs match up here, there is certainly precedent for the Dawgs to rise above all that. If we're going to accomplish that, though, it's got to start on the lines, and here's where we have what might be our biggest ace in the hole: offensive line coach Stacy Searels. Searels has already worked more than his share of miracles at Georgia, as he's helped the Dawgs go 17-3 in his tenure despite a combination of injury, youth, lack of depth, and other assorted misfortune so unremitting that Russian novelists would reject it as being too depressing. But the kicker here is that we poached him from LSU, which means he has as intimate a knowledge of both the Tigers' O-line (since he used to coach them) and their D-line (since he used to have to coach against them) as it's possible for someone to have. If there's a way to keep the Tiger defensive front at bay, or a way to solve their monster O-line and get some pressure for what feels like the first time in forever, Searels will know it.
On the defensive side of the ball, our D isn't quite brand-new, as the title of this post implies, but it is fresher and healthier than it's been in some time -- we'll have Dannell Ellerbe back for the first time since the Alabama game, and Rod Battle, who only saw limited action against Vanderbilt in his first game back from injury, should be healthier as well. It's impossible for me to understate how important these guys are to our game plan this weekend -- again, this may just be my head searching for a worst-case scenario, as it always tends to do, but we've got to find some way to pressure the QB and keep the LSU offense out of balance. Jarrett Lee may not be a household name just yet, but he's good enough to stab us in the gut with a few well-timed medium-to-deep balls if our front seven can't get near him at all on Saturday.
I'm a little more confident in our ability to make big plays on offense, because Georgia will bring the only truly balanced and talented offensive attack LSU has seen this season other than Florida's -- and we all know just how brutal that Gator attack was against the Tigers. I imagine we'll start off with a slightly conservative mix of running and short-to-medium passing, but the latter will require making much better use of tight end Bruce Figgins than we've done over the past few weeks. Senator Blutarsky says that the continuing injuries on the offensive line have caused the coaches to keep Figgins in a blocking role rather than actually throwing to him, but in the course of a discussion that expounds upon that same topic, Kyle King points out that a TE drag route worked quite well for South Carolina in what was a pretty successful first half against LSU. Striking a balance between these two needs is going to be incredibly tricky -- maybe we move Kiante Tripp around again to give us some depth? who knows -- but again, how well you think we're able to do in that area just depends on how much faith you have in Searels at this point.
Obviously, the ongoing O-line issues haven't hampered our ability to move the ball between the 20s; as Kyle explains, it's been in the red zone where our lack of a push has really hurt us, sometimes manifesting itself in the form of settling for field goals, other times turning into INTs (primarily against the Vols) because we have to throw more down there. That, I think, is the biggest killer for us, because while subsisting on field goals worked against a lousy opponent like Tennessee, I don't see it working against a much more talented team like LSU (and in a maniacally hostile environment to boot). These kinds of issues don't get solved in the span of a couple weeks, and they certainly don't get solved in a place like Death Valley.
What? I did a Google image search for "LSU fans" and this was the first thing that came up. Go on, try it.
So as much as I've gone back and forth on this, with both my head and my heart winning the tug-of-war at various points, I think my heads wins out here, and for the first time all season I'm gonna have to predict a Georgia defeat. I think it'll be a back-and-forth affair for most of the game, with both offenses moving the ball fairly consistently between the 20s, but toward the end LSU is going to be one score better -- maybe something off a turnover, maybe something off special teams, as they're seventh in the nation in punt returns -- and Georgia's last-gasp drive falls just a few yards short of where it'd need to be to make up the difference. LSU wins by three or four points.
There is a not-insignificant chance that I could be wrong, though, and my heart is already berating my head for being a pussy. I guess we'll see.
If you're trash-talking: Sounds weird to be counseling smack talk when I've just predicted a loss, but before the game starts, at least, you can remind LSU fans that we've absolutely obliterated their team the last two times we've played them. The more recent of the two, of course, was for an SEC title, but the other one, that 2004 regular-season matchup I've already alluded to, was an even bigger ass-pounding. Anything to add, Westerdawg?
Ahh, yes, that was a guh-lore-rious afternoon. Even if we get trucked on Saturday, they can't take that one away from us.
Why you should root for Georgia even if you don't care about this game: Because LSU just won a national title and they should be happy with that. And if you're a fan of one of the Tigers' SEC West rivals, certainly, you should be rooting for a Georgia win so that a little wind will be taken out of the notoriously rowdy LSU fan base's sails before you have to face them.
I will run up and down Highland Avenue in front of my apartment building wearing nothing but a Georgia flag if: Georgia wins, period. Come on. It's the defending national champions; it's a conference game; it's in Baton Rouge. Whether we win by one point or thirty, I'll be deliriously happy come Sunday morning.