Know Your Opponent: LSU

Hunter Paniagua of the LSU website, Tiger Sports Digest, answered five questions from Ole Miss Spirit publisher Chuck Rounsaville concerning the Ole Miss Rebels. In turn, Paniagua answered five questions from Chuck about the LSU Tigers.

What Paniagua has to say about the Tigers

Spirit: Early in the year, LSU’s quarterback situation was shaky. Has that improved lately?

Paniagua: It has improved, but that position is far from steady. For better or worse, LSU is sticking with Anthony Jennings despite the fan base clamoring for Brandon Harris to get his chance to develop on the field. Harris is definitely the more talented quarterback, but the coaches lack confidence he can lead the offense. So that’s why they’ll continue with Jennings, even though his production has left a lot to be desired. He’s at the very least secure with the football, and that’s a big plus for him. With Jennings under center, LSU will rely heavily on its run game because the passing game just hasn’t shown it can get it done consistently. And if Jennings starts to struggle, you can expect the fans to voice their opinions.

Spirit: Can you tell a difference in Leonard Fournette from the first of the year to now in terms of early development?

Paniagua: That Florida game, where he went for 140 yards rushing, was the first time we’ve really seen the version of Leonard Fournette we’ve all expected. He ran timid early in the season, tiptoeing through holes and going down on first contact. He ran with anger against the Gators. He made moves to shed tacklers, and he required several defenders to bring him down. Now some of his early problems were because of the offensive line, and that unit has shown major improvement the last few weeks. Fournette wasn’t ultra-productive against Kentucky though, so he still needs to show it consistently. But the way he ran against Florida showed that it is all there ready to erupt.

Spirit: What went so terribly wrong against Auburn but then so beautifully correct against Kentucky?

Paniagua: There’s obviously a big difference in talent between Auburn and Kentucky, so tread lightly when reading too much into last week’s result. Auburn had the perfect recipe to exploit LSU’s defensive weaknesses. They had the power run game to gash LSU up the middle, and getting out to an early lead just shattered LSU’s confidence. It snowballed from there as Auburn rattled off big play after big play. Kentucky’s offense played right into LSU’s strengths. The Wildcats tried to test LSU around the edges, running into their speed. LSU has shown improvement in the areas in which Auburn beat them, but they haven’t exactly been challenged. We still aren’t entirely sure how this team will look returning to top-level competition.

Spirit: LSU has always been able to hang their hats on a very good defense. How good is the Tiger defense this year, considering they have had some masterpieces and some letdowns?

Paniagua: This year’s defense is not up to the standard set by past LSU defenses, like the 2011 version. But LSU has shown at times this year it can rely on its defense to win it a game, especially with the offense struggling to gain its footing. The biggest question mark going into the season was at defensive tackle, and that’s proven to be the biggest weakness so far. They’ve looked better there the last two weeks, but as I said earlier, how much have they really been challenged? The Tigers are getting better pass rush, and the secondary is very good. LSU’s also made a change at middle linebacker, and this has all led to better production. But LSU looked so bad against Mississippi State and Auburn that it’s still a legitimate concern. But the Tigers are very confident right now, and playing in Death Valley could provide the necessary spark to get this defense back to where they expect to be.

Spirit: Did the win over Florida help ease the pain of the losses to Mississippi State and Auburn and did that show up in the Kentucky game as it appeared to outsiders?

Paniagua: Things would have started getting very ugly had LSU lost that game to Florida. The Tigers would have been looking at an 0-3 start in the SEC, and the Chicken Littles across the fan base would have gotten louder and louder. But getting that win, especially one as emotional as it was, stemmed the tide to a certain degree. It gave the team a taste of victory and the swagger that comes right along with it. LSU definitely rode that into its dominant performance last week, but there are still issues that need to be addressed, particularly with the passing game. But confidence goes a long way, and had LSU fallen to Florida, there would have been zero confidence associated with this team.

What Rounsaville has to say about the Rebels

Paniagua: It's been a long time since Ole Miss came into this game as the higher ranked team. How have they handled being the favorites compared to that underdog role they've had in year's past?

Spirit: The Rebels not only sport a 7-0 record, they are 7-0 against the spread, whether favored or underdogs. This team has shown a lot of good qualities to this point, but perhaps their greatest attribute has been their ability to approach each game the same, even-keeled way. That stems from having good leadership in the older players and abiding by Coach Hugh Freeze’s mantra of “win the day.” They never seem to get too high or too low, regardless of the circumstances and, thus far, that has served them well.

Paniagua: LSU has never really seen "Bad Bo" considering how well he's played against them the last two years. What's led to that success against the Tigers and can he do it again in Death Valley? How has he managed to be more consistent this season?

Spirit: The “Good Bo-Bad Bo” narrative was created by the media and was entirely unfounded on results. When Wallace has been given time to operate, he has performed well. When he has not had time, he has not performed well – the same as any quarterback anywhere. He has been protected – for the most part – this season and the coaches have been more selective in when they have gone to the tempo offense. When they went tempo most all of the time his first two years, there were times he would make bad decisions. The third, and most important factor, is that this is the first year since he has been at Ole Miss that he has been healthy and full speed.

Paniagua: Ole Miss had lost three straight games before last year's victory against LSU. Since then, the Rebels are 11-2. How much of a turning point was that win for this program?

Spirit: The 27-24 last-second win over LSU was huge for the Rebels last year and for the program moving forward. The Tigers were ranked 6th in the nation at the time – elite territory. To be able to knock off a Top 10 program gave a young team the knowledge that they could beat anyone if they put that type of effort into each day, each week and each game. It was a giant springboard in terms of confidence, not only for last year, but for moving forward.

Paniagua: LSU will do its best to move the ball on the ground, even though that'll mean going right at the strength of Ole Miss' defense. If it's even possible, how can the Tigers manage to establish their run game against the Rebels?

Spirit: To this point, that has been the $64,000 question for the Rebs’ opposition. Nobody, not even Alabama, has been able to consistently run on this defense. The only team that has had much success, Boise State, caught them the first game of the season, had a terrific back and set up the run with the pass, so maybe that is the formula.

Paniagua: Mississippi State and Auburn took advantage of LSU's biggest defensive weakness by exploiting them with the power run game up the middle. Though the Tigers have improved the last two weeks, neither Florida nor Kentucky were really equipped to test them there. Is the Ole Miss offense built to challenge LSU in that way, and how will they attack the Tigers offensively?

Spirit: The Ole Miss coaches have been able to successfully devise a new plan each week that has worked. What they will try to do this week will not be unveiled until Saturday, but one thing is certain – they will try to maintain balance between the run and the pass. While their run game has been average, it has at least kept defenses honest and that is the goal, make the opposing defense respect the run, at the very least. They have refused, even when the run game was doing very little, to become one-dimensional. As long as they are within striking distance on the scoreboard, they will most likely continue with that mindset.

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