Sixth-ranked LSU enters the Auburn game averaging 442 yards of offense and 41 points a game but those numbers are skewed by the competition the Tigers have faced which has combined for one victory on the year against five defeats.
Most felt that an accurate portrayal of the offense would not come until this team ventured into Jordan Hare Stadium for the SEC West showdown and the two young quarterbacks got their first taste of life on the road.
Andrew Hatch is 17 of 31 for 202 yards as the starter while Jarrett Lee has been good on 16 of 28 passes for 200 yards. Both quarterbacks have thrown an interception and Lee is plus one in the touchdown column with a 2-1 advantage.
Both have made their share of rookie mistakes under center which isn’t surprising but heading into what will be one of their stiffest challenges of the season their head coach has seen improvement.
“I like how they’re coming…..I look forward to their development and I think both guys understand the offense more with each practice and each snap taken,” said Les Miles.
Whether it is coach-speak or not is anyone’s guess but Auburn’s headman seems to agree with Miles’ assessment of his two young signal callers.
“They’re probably kind of in the same situation as we are with our quarterbacks,” said Tommy Tuberville. “They’ve got a couple of guys that have both played and have both played pretty well. They’ve made some nice throws that we’ve seen on film and have progressed in the two games we’ve seen.”
Someone who will be looking to help the quarterbacks come through in the clutch is Brandon LaFell.
Some remember LaFell for the infamous “bobble” last season against Auburn where he caught the ball only to have it bounce off of him and into the hands of Patrick Lee for an interception.
LaFell now leads the Tigers in receiving with 11 catches for 156 yards and two scores. He knows the offense is going to have to move the ball and put points on the board at a place LSU has managed to score only two touchdowns at in the last 13 quarters of play.
“I didn’t know those numbers but that doesn’t sound too good,” LaFell said. “I think we can move the ball and we have confidence in both quarterbacks to be able to get us the ball. We just have to make sure that when they get it to us we catch it.”
One thing that most seem to agree on is that LSU will have to establish the run and not force the quarterbacks to have to shoulder the load if LSU is to come out with a win on Saturday.
However, Miles views things differently.
“It’s very difficult to predict the ‘can you win’ but I think we can,” Miles said. “I think we’re going to establish the run anyway. If we didn’t establish the run I think we would find a way in some facet of our football to win.”
Most would disagree with Miles on that issue because after all the strength of this offense is the running game that is ranked first in the league at 241 yards a game led by Charles Scott and a veteran offensive line that returned four starters.
Scott is currently leading the conference and is sixth nationally averaging 131 yards a contest but, once again, the step up in competition this week will provide answers as to how good this running game really is.
“I think they have a very quality front seven,” Miles said. “They understand the scheme and they play it very well. I think our offensive line understands that and is looking forward to playing against them. It’s a great challenge but I think our guys are looking forward to that and I think our guys have played better against our best opponents.”
Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads rotates his defensive linemen and will throw as many as eight at LSU’s offensive line in an effort to keep his front four fresh.
He will need to do that because LSU’s line averages 6-5, 293 pounds while Auburn checks in at 6-3, 274 pounds along its front.
Not many offenses have been able to move the ball effectively or with any kind of consistency against Auburn and the only opponent that has put any points on the board offensively is Southern Miss with two touchdowns through the air.
Rhoads’ crew is allowing only five points a game which is third in the nation and it has stopped the opposition on 32 out of 36 third down conversions with three of those unsuccessful stops coming against Mississippi State last week.
A big reason for that success is attributed to Sen’Derrick Marks, who is on everyone’s all-america list and is up for just about every award that a defensive lineman can garner.
Through three games this year, Marks has yet to record a sack but he has logged 10 stops and his 5.5 tackles for loss is tops in the SEC.
There are many words Tuberville can use to describe his interior lineman and a few stand out.
“One thing about a lot of players on your team is they’re different,” Tuberville said. “One thing that makes Sen’Derrick different is he never gets tired. He’s one of those that can go all day long. He plays with great leverage and with enthusiasm. He just has fun playing.”
Speed seems to always be the name of the game with Auburn’s defense and the War Eagles always have good edge rushers.
In the early part of the campaign, Antonio Coleman has provided that pass rush as he leads the team in sacks (4) and is second with 12 tackles.
Another aspect of Rhoads’ defense that is eerily similar to some of the past units is that the linebackers all have tremendous speed and are always around the ball. All three starters returned from a year ago led by Tray Blackmon (11 tackles), Craig Stevens (11 tackles), and Chris Evans (10 tackles).
The defense enters this contest giving up 213 yards a game with only 53 by way of the ground and 160 through the air.
A large portion of that 160 is due to the 268 yards Southern Miss accumulated which means that only 224 was allowed against UL-Monroe and Mississippi State combined.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers is the leader of the secondary and he has picked off a pass to go with his team-leading 18 tackles, while Walter McFadden who plays opposite of Powers on the right side has also picked one off.
The man calling the plays for Auburn may be different since Will Muschamp has moved on to Texas but according to Tuberville there hasn’t been much change on the Plains.
“I don’t think that this defense is any different than the other ones,” said Tuberville. “I think it’s the mentality of how they play. We’ve got good leadership, good depth in our front seven, and a bunch of guys that just go out and give it their all and leave everything on the field.”
Leaving everything on the field is what it will take this weekend and that is what both coaches are expecting.
“It usually comes down to one or two plays,” said Tuberville. “If you like athletic ability then watch this game. If you like excitement, watch this game. It’s just an unbelievable scenario and usually it means something.”
“Every time we play those guys it’s a battle and that’s what we expect again,” added Miles.