Know Your Foe: LSU

TigerSportsDigest publisher Ben Love answers five pressing questions as LSU prepares to take on Notre Dame in the Music City Bowl.

1.) LSU's pass efficiency defense is ranked first nationally. Is this more a function of facing balanced and/or run-heavy offenses in the SEC (for instance, four SEC teams rank among the top 14 in this category), or can the Tigers really lock down on any passing attack?

Love:   Defensive coordinator John Chavis has his best secondary since the 2011 group that led the Tigers to an undefeated regular season and appearance in the BCS title game. Maybe the most impressive thing is that LSU’s defensive backfield has excelled despite losing its starting nickel back, Dwayne Thomas, in week five to a season-ending injury and one of its top cover corners, Rashard Robinson, to indefinite suspension three games ago. Playing several teams that operate run-first on offense may contribute toward the final statistics, but make no mistake about it – LSU’s secondary is the best (and probably deepest) unit on the team.  

One starting corner, redshirt junior Jalen Collins, is expected to be an early-round pick in this year’s draft while the other, sophomore Tre’Davious White, will likely be the year after. Then at safety there’s three-year starter Jalen Mills and senior Ronald Martin, recently named an AP second-team All-SEC performer in 2014. Chavis trusts his guys to play man coverage on an island, and the Tigers actually get better the more teams invite them into nickel, which allows Mills to come into the box and freshman stud Jamal Adams (Scout’s top safety in the country last recruiting cycle) replaces him in the back. Not many teams, save Alabama with Amari Cooper, have tried to consistently beat LSU through the air in the second half of the season.  

2.) The Irish have struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks this season. Can sophomore Anthony Jennings muster enough through the air to keep Notre Dame's depleted defense off balance? They might have a little bite left if defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can enter third-down situations ahead of the chains.

Love:   LSU more or less abandoned legitimate attempts to remain balanced on offense after the 41-7 thrashing at Auburn. Since then it’s been an offense labeled by some as “ground and pound” and by others as “ground and punt.” And, the honest truth is, it hasn’t mattered who the opponent is. The Tigers, content to ride things out with Anthony Jennings and his obvious passing limitations, are as one-dimensional as a non-option team can get, finishing the regular season with 583 rushes to only 262 pass attempts (69.0% run).  

I expect much of the same in the bowl game, especially when you consider LSU is a top five team in the country in a category you don’t often think about – time of possession. Les Miles, Cam Cameron and the Tigers have been keep-away artists this fall, finding ways to eke out first downs with runs and the short passing game. Drives with double-digit plays have been common for LSU the last month and a half, even ones that don’t end in points!

The only caveat to this balance discussion is that LSU did show more wrinkles in the last game at Texas A&M, with Jennings running plenty of read-option and finishing with more than a hundred yards rushing. That will force Notre Dame to respect Jennings keepers, but there’s not much in the passing game that should scare the Irish.  

3.) Leonard Fournette. Laying waste to would-be-tacklers. Discuss. (Actually, disgruntled Irish fans would likely sign up for LSU's ground-and-pound approach. Discuss how the offense fares against a defense that can stop the Tigers rushing attack on first down.)

Love:   It goes back to the points I laid out in the previous answer. LSU hasn’t really discriminated much by down, distance or spot on the field. If you’re a defense – any kind of defense – they’re running it at you just about 70% of the plays. If the Tigers get behind the sticks after first down, perhaps the creativity rises to the level of a read-option or a bootleg dump-off to the fullback in the flats. They keep it simple and keep it physical.

Two receivers are capable of beating DBs deep, and they are redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (758 yards, 7 TDs) and true freshman Malachi Dupre (318 yards, 5 TDs). But, considering LSU has failed to pass for 150 yards in each of the last seven games, they’re simply not involved on a consistent basis. Miles doesn’t mind watching Jamie Keehn, one of the SEC’s top punters, do his thing and then letting the defense take over.  

4.) Are LSU fans concerned about the Michigan opening vis-à-vis Les Miles? Or did that ship sail years ago when ESPN erroneously reported he was headed north? What impact would a Miles departure have on an LSU program that's been a contender for the better part of a decade?

Love:   Concerned would be a strong word. For most fans I hear from, I’d go more with “intrigued.” Every time that job opens up, LSU fans’ ears prick up to gauge how serious the interest is in Miles . . . and the antennas don’t go down until a new maize-and-blue coach is named. Some of those fans are intrigued just because there’s natural drama (alma mater comes calling for former player and assistant who’s winning big in a foreign place) while others are hopeful Miles and Michigan come to an agreement and would gladly drive the 10-year LSU coach and his family straight to the tarmac.  

Few get to the point of concerned just because they feel, perhaps erroneously, that LSU’s program is at a level where most good-to-elite replacement hires could come in and keep the train rolling. That portion of the fan base has also had it with Miles’ late-game clock management as well as his noted stubbornness with the offense and especially quarterbacks.

But the reality is, when Florida has to hire Colorado State’s head coach and Nebraska goes after Oregon State’s, the market isn’t exactly saturated with top-name coaches ready to move. Having to backfill for Miles would not be desirable given how much talent LSU is set to return in 2015. Could be a playoff-type season for the Tigers, and ushering in a coaching change – and alterations to the staff, no doubt – is not the way you want to approach a season with that kind of potential.  

5.) Notre Dame has a veteran offensive line (I didn't type "consistent", I typed "veteran"), a pair of running backs that can beat a defense, a quarterback that when he's rolling, is dynamite, and vastly underrated receivers. It's also proven to be its own worst enemy -- a turnover-producing machine. Is this thus a terrible matchup vs. a Tigers program that historically can wreak havoc on opposing offenses with defensive speed at every position?

Love:   To shoot you straight, I don’t think this game represents a good matchup for Notre Dame at all. But if I were an Irish fan, the bigger area of concern would be LSU’s relentless ground game going against, as you put it, a depleted ND defense. The other side of the ball you bring up in this question – Notre Dame’s offense against LSU’s defense – isn’t as decided a mismatch in my opinion. Part of the reason is that the Tigers haven’t been at their ball-hawking best, a la the years when Tyrann Mathieu was terrorizing opposing offenses.  

LSU does have a positive turnover margin (plus-4) on the season, but it’s more so because the offense doesn’t put it in the air a ton. The defense has only mustered 10 interceptions and has recovered 10 fumbles. So, as opposed to recent years, the Tigers are actually just more solid defensively (since the Mississippi State and Auburn debacles) than they are opportunistic.

Now, the team speed on that side of the ball is still there – from DE Danielle Hunter to OLB Kwon Alexander to a number of fleet-footed defensive backs that do come in the box for nickel and dime sets – but it’s used more to chase down ball-carriers and fill passing lanes. As long as the Irish don’t get caught up trying to run side-to-side, which is not the way to beat LSU’s defense, I suspect Everett Golson & Co. will be able to move the ball some. Top Stories