Saturday night in Death Valley will feature two SEC teams with identical records but not-so-identical street cred so far in 2012.
No. 7 LSU (7-2, 3-2) has defeated ranked South Carolina and Texas A&M teams while coming oh-so-close to taking down the top-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama a week ago.
No. 21 Mississippi State (7-2, 3-2) has stumbled mightily in its only two games versus ranked opponents, and the Bulldogs' three conference wins have come against opposition with a combined 0-18 record in SEC play.
Here are our TSD's keys to the game from an LSU perspective with Dan Mullen's Cowbell Crew coming to town.
I'll lead off with my keys then we'll move on to two apiece from TSD's Hunter Paniagua and Austin Cooper.
Remember what your identity is on offense.
Following the Alabama game, it's been very easy for the mass public to fawn over LSU's passing game and to proclaim that the Tigers and Zach Mettenberger have arrived in that department. Maybe they have, but it's critical to remember who you are and what you do best. And if you're LSU, that's running the football.
The Tigers had to pass against Alabama because it's awfully hard to run consistently on those guys. State will be a different story. Through nine games the Bulldogs are conceding 168.2 yards per game on the ground, ranking their rush defense 11th in the SEC. Cornerback Johnathan Banks & Co. are markedly better against the pass and have shown they're an opportunistic bunch. I'm in no way saying to stifle what's happening in the passing game, but there's also no reason to forget about Jeremy Hill, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford. The Tigers can definitely wear down the visiting Bulldogs in this one.
Start off with a purpose.
When you're the heavy in a big brother-little brother situation, it's just never a good idea to give the underdog hope. That's not meant to be rude to Mississippi State fans, but 12 in a row and 19 of 20 speaks for itself. Les Miles has also not lost to the team from Starkville in seven career tries. There are a lot of historical factors pointing toward LSU on Saturday night, but all that in-the-past stuff will go out the window pretty quick if this one's tight entering the fourth quarter.
If LSU can start fast, it will eliminate that hanging-around concern. It will also energize the crowd and remove any lingering doubt that the Tigers are dealing with a post-‘Bama hangover. I suspect playing at night will help the team's motivation. They simply can't afford to come out disinterested.
Zach Mettenberger must protect the football.
There's no question Mettenberger is coming off the best performance his career, completing 24-of-35 passes with no interceptions against the best defense in the country. But how Mettenberger follows up that game will be something to watch. He won't get much of a break against a Mississippi State defense that ranks sixth in the country with a plus-13 turnover margin. Defensive backs Johnathan Banks and Darius Slay have four interceptions apiece, and the Bulldogs have scored 58 points off turnovers this season.
If Mettenberger protects the ball, MSU won't get many scoring opportunities against the LSU defense. But if he hands the ball over, the Bulldogs could get chances at cheap points that keep this game closer than it should be.
Who can best bounce back from disappointment?
Both teams could desperately use a win this week for an emotional turnaround after disappointing defeats. For those who don't believe in moral victories, LSU is coming off one of its more heartbreaking losses in recent memory. After a 7-0 start in Starkville, Mississippi State will hope to rebound from blowout losses to Alabama and Texas A&M.
How these teams handle their respective downswings will go a long way in determining who wins this game. If MSU shows vulnerability early on Saturday, expect the Tiger Stadium crowd to attack, which won't make it easy for the Bulldogs.
Stop LaDarius Perkins.
So far this season, Mississippi State running back LaDarius Perkins has accumulated 824 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, ranking him third in the SEC in yards. Perkins will have to be the focal point of the LSU game plan heading into this weekend because he is a potential game changer. Stopping Perkins means the Tigers will put all of the pressure on MSU quarterback Tyler Russell. While Russell has enjoyed a nice year, throwing for 1,954 yards and 16 touchdowns with only three interceptions, a team won't be able to move the ball on the LSU defense with a one-dimensional attack. We have all seen what happens when the Tigers have the ability to shut down the running game of a team. If the Tigers get after Perkins early, this one could quickly swing in LSU's direction.
Bounce back with a similar offensive performance.
The LSU offense had what many believe was a coming-out party last week against Alabama, with quarterback Zach Mettenberger throwing for 298 yards and a touchdown. The LSU rushing attack also provided 139 more yards on the ground. With Mississippi State being a team that doesn't turn the ball over often, LSU will have to make the most of its possessions by having a game very similar to last week. While the Mississippi State defense isn't on the same level as Alabama, they still rank 23rd in college football, allowing 19.7 points per game, so LSU will have to be efficient when it has the ball.
From speaking with players on the offensive side of the ball this week, it seems the confidence that the unit has been lacking all year has finally arrived. As Russell Shepard put it, "Everybody has talent out there, it's the teams with confidence that are great, and we have that now." The offense must keep their usual game plan of wearing down the opponent with the rushing attack in order to open up the passing game. I look for the LSU offense to have a big game this week, and if that happens, combined with the LSU defense, this one should fall in favor of the Tigers.
Keys to the Game: Mississippi State
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