A whole new challenge for LSU

No. 2-ranked Tigers get a big dose of different today with a trip to the East Coast, a wave of fall weather and unique looks from 16th-ranked West Virginia on both sides of the ball.

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – Summer officially ended as autumn was ushered in on the calendar, and LSU's football team landed in authentic fall-like weather in the Pittsburgh area – a rare visit to the Northeast for a football game.

Those are just the first of many changes the Tigers will have to be ready for today, though.

No. 2-ranked LSU (3-0) hits the field at 7 p.m. today against 16th-ranked West Virginia (3-0) in a battle of contrasting styles that figures to put both teams to a test.

On their longest regular-season road trip since opening the 2009 season at Washington, the Tigers bring in one of the country's top defenses to face a dangerous Mountaineers' offense that starts out looking similar to Oregon and Mississippi State.

But the WVU scheme is much more pass-oriented, averaging 41 passes and 356 yards a game in a 3-0 start under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen.

"This is something a lot different than anything we've lined up against since I've been here," senior safety Brandon Taylor said.

"We're used to teams trying to run the ball against us first. They spread the ball out a lot and throw the ball 90 percent of the time and if they catch you out of place, they can burn you real good."

WVU's scheme is a blend of all the offensive styles Holgorsen has been a part of, with influences of Hal Mumme, Mike Leach Art Briles and, of course, Holgorsen himself.

Geno Smith: 336 passing yards a game, 7 TDs
Guided by veteran quarterback Geno Smith, the Mountaineers will play up-tempo most of the time and Smith will look to get rid of the ball quickly. Four wide receiver sets are a staple and WVU also relies on backs coming out of the backfield for quick, short pass routes and a steady diet of screens.

Four Mountaineers have 10 receptions or more through three games, paced by speedy inside receiver Tavon Austin (20-236) and up-and-coming star Ivan McCartney (17-211). Veteran Stedman Bailey is second on the team with 229 receiving yards on 15 catches.

Ivan McCartney: 17-211 receiving, 2 TDs
While the WVU offense is a quick-trigger, short-throw package, receivers are also counted on to turn those underneath passes into big plays and that has worked. Each of the top four pass-catchers has a play for 39 yards or longer – a portion of the 16 plays of 20 yards or longer the Mountaineers have piled up in the passing game.

"We're going to be challenged in a different way by the West Virginia offense," LSU coach Les Miles said.

"There's a much different challenge, and it's one that you have to give view to. Rushing the passer is generally the same. But the way they put their passing game together is certainly much different, and it requires some adjustment."

Doesn't hurt the Tigers to have a collection of defensive backs that stack up against anybody in the country.

LSU has played a 4-2-5 scheme most of this season, especially against the spread offenses of Oregon and Mississippi State. That's allowed the crew of Taylor, Eric Reid, Morris Claiborne, Tharold Simon and Tyrann Mathieu to gel even more than they had in pre-season work.

Mingle in hard-hitting safety Craig Loston and veteran playmakers Ron Brooks and Derrick Bryant and it's a crew that is well-equipped to match up effectively with WVU's unique scheme.

At times, the Tigers will play straight man-to-man with each of the five DBs taking a receiver. At other times the secondary will operate in a zone and dare Smith to try and find a crease.

The five-on-five almost basketball-principled approach made Claiborne's eyes light up.

"If it is that way, I'll take my chances every day with our DBs," he said.

Another thing the Tigers' secondary will have to do is tackle soundly when passes are completed. With the ball in the air as much it will be, Smith will find his targets at times.

What the receivers do afterward is up to the LSU cornerbacks and safeties.

"If they make the catch we've got to make good, solid tackles," Reid said. "We don't want to have any missed tackles. That's something that's stressed in the DB meeting room. A missed tackle can turn into a real big play. If your guy catches it you have to get him on the ground."

Ryan Baker: FInally ready to bust out?
The Mountaineers' style might take away some of the blitz packages defensive coordinator John Chavis is fond of jabbing defenses with. But the role-changing – with the secondary playing a more focal part of the game plan instead of freelancing – also gives the linebackers, especially speedy Ryan Baker, an opportunity to play more of an underneath safety. That could translate into more linebacker stunts.

"There hasn't been a lot left for the linebackers to do this season because our d-line is playing so well and our secondary guys are dominating," Baker said with a smile. "Maybe this is our week to step up."

While LSU defense has spent nine days adjusting to a much different look than it has seen in a while, Holgorsen said his team is in for a bit of culture shock as well.

The Mountaineers hadn't met with a whole lot of resistance until the second half last week when Maryland surged back from a huge deficit and pulled within 34-31 in the fourth quarter before West Virginia escaped with a 37-31 triumph.

Now, against a team with a whole new level of talent and motivation, Holgorsen said the challenge facing is immense.

"We worry more about our scheme and when you play a team like (LSU) with talent at every position and talented backups behind them, you worry about guys doing their part and trying to win individual battles," Holgorsen said. "They just replace (starters) with guys that are every bit as good."

While it might seem hard for Holgorsen to criticize the offense he orchestrates, he said this week's hurdle will be a major test.

"It's obviously a work in progress," he said. "I hope our offense isn't going to be judged from what happens (this) week because LSU is very, very good on defense.

"We have to play fast and hard and see if we can hang in there with them as long as possible."

One thing that doesn't change for WVU regardless of the opponent is the reliance on Smith.

The 6-foot-3, 214-pound Miami native was solid enough in 2010 with 2,763 passing yards and 24 touchdowns. He wasn't at his best in a 20-14 loss at LSU, though, finishing with only 119 yards through the air as the Tigers stifled the Mountaineers to 177 total yards.

Smith might not be the perfect fit for Holgorsen's offense yet, but he's making progress in that direction with a 159.13 passer rating, anchored by 69.5% accuracy (82-of-118) and a 7-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

"We put a lot on the quarterback decision-wise," Holgorsen said. "We coach them and we hope he makes the best decisions he can.

"He's still at the point where he has to totally understand what the system is and trust it and try not to do too much. There's been some instances out there where he didn't really trust what we tell him and I think he's learned from those."

West Virginia's defense got something to learn from last week. Maryland rolled up 281 second-half yards to surge back into a game it trailed 34-10 early in the third quarter.

The Mountaineers' base package is a 3-3-5 – again much different than anything LSU sees in the SEC.

With only three down linemen on most snaps, WVU applies pressure from a bunch of different angles, placing some pressure on the offensive linemen to be alert of who's coming and from where.

"It creates a lot of different angles and different assignment calls," left guard T-Bob Hebert said. "You really have to know where every guy is before the snap."

Jarrett Lee
LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee also has to be alert to the different blitz packages the Mountaineers might come at him with.

Although every QB is trained to work against a defense with five DBs, it's not something the Tigers see often because of their propensity for and success with running the ball.

"There's an extra DB back there, so as a QB you have to always be aware of that," said Lee, who has only been sacked twice this season and threw his first interception of the season last week.

"Their linebackers play a little closer to the ball and they move around a whole lot. This is different than anything we see against most of the teams we face, so it's definitely a challenge."

Something different. Just like a new season that arrived Friday and a rare road trip to the East Coast.

Add that to the list of challenges facing the Tigers as they close out the first month of the 2011 campaign looking to stay perfect.

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