1. How do you think Brandon Harris will handle his first start on the road Saturday night? Describe his game for those who haven't seen him.
Ben Love: Harris fits the bill of a dual-threat quarterback, but it would be accurate to say he’s more dangerous as a passer than runner. He possesses a strong arm, equally capable of throwing sideline fades deep down the field and humming fastballs in to receivers on intermediate routes.
That last part is really what LSU was missing with Anthony Jennings as the starter. But with Harris, if anything, he sometimes throws it too hard and is still finding the range on touch throws. As a runner he can hurt defenses most when plays break down. I am not sure how many designed runs we’ll see for the freshman, but he’s definitely one who looks to run (not sift through the pocket, step up and throw) when pressure mounts in the pocket.
As far as how he handles his first start and the environment, that’s one of the biggest unknowns heading into the ball game. Harris looked completely out of sorts during his only series versus Wisconsin in the opener, botching a play call in the huddle, having to burn a timeout and then making an incorrect read on a zone-read play within a span of three downs. Since then, however, he’s been much more composed and has played well playing loose. If he continues on that arc, and doesn’t try to do too much, I think Harris will be okay. But it’s also true that he hasn’t yet seen anything like what will be present in Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.
2. Auburn fans are used to seeing a physical LSU team on both lines of scrimmage and running the ball. What are the strengths of this year's team?
Ben Love: If you’d have asked me this question six weeks ago, I’d have told you the offensive line was an absolute strength of the 2014 team. Fast-forward to modern day, though, and it hasn’t worked out that way. Not even remotely. It’s really been baffling to watch four returning starters, who helped clear the way for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns rushing for Jeremy Hill alone in 2013, struggle the way they have. The whole thing has LSU fans wondering just what it is the Tigers got in first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes, obviously a familiar name on the Plains.
Still, with the stable of running backs LSU has, the running game is definitely something this team hangs its hat on. And with Harris now plugged in at quarterback, the Tigers figure to operate a little more in spread sets and from the shotgun/pistol. The hope is that it opens up more running lanes and lessens the stacked boxes this O-Line has seen through five games.
Another major strength for LSU is the secondary. Minus a few hiccups in the Mississippi State game, those guys have been lights out for John Chavis. Chief trusts Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White on their respective islands, but he will now have to bring along true freshman Jamal Adams, a five-star safety in the Class of 2014, at a faster rate with sophomore nickel back Dwayne Thomas (torn ACL) out for the season.
3. In what areas is this year's team different than the one that beat Auburn last year in Baton Rouge? Good and bad.
Ben Love: Different, good: The defense overall has grown up a little more and, with the exception of the defensive tackles, is in a better place than a season ago. Robinson and White have more experience under their belts at corner. Ditto at mike linebacker for Kendell Beckwith, who should factor in more at Auburn than he did in the Mississippi State game. The same can also be said for LSU’s defensive ends, outside linebackers and safeties, all of whom were starters or platoon guys in 2013. I think it’s fair to say the Tigers’ special teams are better, too, namely in the kicking and punting facets, although Leonard Fournette and White haven’t performed poorly as kickoff and punt returners, respectively.
Different, bad: It was expected given roster turnover, but the reality is LSU has had to start over completely at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive tackle. The wideouts have actually been the most successful at filling in for lost greats, but then again they’re no Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry (probably the best single-season duo the program’s ever seen). The DTs have been poor and injured, and that combination has contributed to LSU yielding a ton of long runs right up the gut.
At quarterback the situation is clear to most. The Tigers are transitioning from a strong-armed senior gunslinger who picked up third downs in his sleep to a true freshman who has a different skillset and is still learning the ropes. It’s changed the complexion of LSU’s offense, its capabilities and its ability to stay on the field.
4. How have you seen this LSU team respond since losing at home to Mississippi State two weeks ago?
Ben Love: Morale seems to be pretty high despite what was a beat-down through three-and-a-half quarters versus State, and I attribute a good chunk of that to Harris. Not necessarily to his personality, but to the fact that he gave the team as a whole a spark and shot of life, a sense of, ‘Hey, with this guy, we may be able to compete with the big boys after all.’ That feeling was only multiplied by halftime of the New Mexico State game.
So the Tigers have rebounded fairly well, and both the offensive and defensive lines have committed to improving upon their shortcomings in that loss to the Bulldogs. I think the O-Line has a chance to turn things around with all the experience and talent on hand, but I don’t particularly have the same optimism for the interior of the D-Line. Position coach Brick Haley has thrown everybody he’s got in there and so far no combination has made much of a difference. All things considered, LSU has weathered the storm, but there wasn’t much to learn from last weekend’s cupcake contest. We’ll know a lot more by bedtime Saturday night.
5. How will injuries impact the team this week, particularly on the defensive side of the ball?
Ben Love: Injuries to the two defensive Thomases will be the hardest to overcome. Dwayne, who really excelled in his nickel back role, will be replaced by Adams in the box for five and six defensive back sets. So add yet another true freshman to the pile that will be counted on to start and play major minutes Saturday night (others include Harris, RB Leonard Fournette, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Trey Quinn and DT Davon Godchaux).
Junior defensive tackle Quentin Thomas is also expected to miss the game, leaving a thin position discussed above even thinner. It’s caused LSU to move a former defensive end, Lewis Neal, inside. The fact that Neal (6-1, 255) is the Tigers’ third or fourth option at the position doesn’t bode well with how frequently, and in varied ways, Auburn likes to run the ball.
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