Know Your Foe: LSU

Facing its highest-ranked opponent in a season opener since 1995, No.14 Wisconsin travels to Houston to take on No.13 LSU at NRG Stadium. Badger Nation gets the inside scoop on this week's opponent from Tiger Sports Digest Publisher Ben Love.

1) Leonard Fournette is one of the most talked about true freshmen in the country. How has he looked in fall camp and what are the expectations of him in the opener from the coaching staff?

Love: It really is pretty remarkable how well Fournette has handled his celebrity status for the past three or four years as his legend continued to grow across the country. He is humble despite his accomplishments, doesn’t get caught up in off-the-field shenanigans and is genuinely motivated every day to master his craft. According to the LSU coaches and his teammates, Fournette has carried that businesslike approach over to the weight room and practice field since he arrived on campus during the summer.

At 6-1, 230 pounds, Fournette showcased equal parts physicality and elusiveness during camp. There were also whispers that the former five-star back was a dominant force during 7-on-7 team work prior to camp. The staff certainly has a role carved out for him in the Wisconsin opener, but I would expect seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to be the first two tailbacks out the gate for the Tigers. Look for Fournette, who catches the ball well out of the backfield, to factor in more as the game wears on, giving LSU fresh (and talented) legs late.

2) The big question mark with Wisconsin in fall camp was at quarterback. What’s the status of the quarterback battle with the Tigers?

Love: Les Miles was as definitive as he gets on Monday when he said on the topic, “If there was one quarterback that gave us all the advantages to play, then at some point in time that guy would be our starter … from start to finish. That separation has not occurred. We are preparing to play both guys.”

Miles went on to say he does know who will start the game between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris, but he’s not announcing it publicly. The smart money is on Jennings, who has one career start under his belt, to get the nod, but I believe Wisconsin will see a generous helping of Harris, who is a more decisive runner and throws a better deep ball. Jennings is probably the more accurate of the two, but LSU’s passing game gets horizontal awfully quick with him under center.

3) LSU's projected starting offensive line averages 6-6 and 321 pounds. How is that group looking to take advantage of the Badgers’ young front seven?

Love: From a sheer X’s and O’s standpoint I believe this is the biggest advantage of the ballgame for either side. LSU will trot out three returning starters up front in left tackle La’el Collins, left guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins along with a mammoth senior at right guard in Fehoko Fanaika and up-and-coming sophomore Ethan Pocic at center, who was good enough in camp to supplant returning starter Elliott Porter.

But in the Tigers’ rushing attack, it’s about more than just those five. Couple them with a few 260-pound-plus tight ends and senior Connor Neighbors at fullback, and it would be reasonable to expect LSU will try to pound and pound away at Wisconsin’s new defensive front. It’s a strategy that worked for LSU three years ago versus Oregon in one of these kickoff classic games and again last Labor Day weekend against TCU. In the minds of Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, it’s about running at defenses in waves – fresh backs, 6-7 linemen who can play at a moment’s notice and 3-4 tight ends capable of serving as an extension of the offensive line.

4) Defensive tackle was one of the areas of weakness entering fall camp for LSU. How has the group improved over fall camp?

Love: To be honest several of the players at that position have improved, but I’m not sure the overall situation at defensive tackle has gotten better. In fact, with projected starter Quentin Thomas partially tearing his bicep and stud signee Travonte Valentine having major issues getting past the Clearinghouse, it’s probably fair to say there are even more questions at DT than at the start of camp.

The one no-doubt starter and impact player is sophomore Christian Lacouture. He was a part of the rotation as a true freshman in 2013 and is now a major leader for the entire defense. After LaCouture LSU will likely turn to redshirt freshman Frank Herron, who filled in for Thomas while the player was out immediately following his injury sustained the opening week of camp. But Thomas has returned of late, opting not to have surgery and play through the pain. It’s hard for me to imagine he’ll play more than 25-30 snaps on Saturday, meaning Herron’s role increases as do those of platoon players Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore. One final name to mention here: Lewis Neal. LSU has moved the undersized Neal (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) from end to tackle for depth purposes, and he could feature in during obvious passing downs in the middle.

5) Who was a previously unsung player who flashed during camp and will likely play a role for LSU this season?

Love: There are a couple of decent answers to this question, but the best in my opinion is running back Kenny Hilliard. With all the hype surrounding Fournette, the nation’s No. 1 freshman, and Magee, who averaged 7.3 ypc last season, Hilliard became a forgotten man. In fact his praises really haven’t been sung consistently since the end of his freshman season in 2011.

But, motivated for his senior season (and with bell cow Jeremy Hill gone from the picture), Hilliard has enjoyed a dynamite month of August. He’s been LSU’s leading rusher in two of three scrimmages and continues to draw rave reviews from coaches and teammates about his level of conditioning. There are a lot of carries to go around in LSU’s backfield, but based off his camp performance, don’t expect Hilliard to get cheated out of his.

6) What has been the mood, tempo and productivity of fall camp this year for the Tigers?

Love: Maybe the biggest difference between this camp and others I’ve witnessed in Baton Rouge is just how much additional time went into teaching on the offensive side. There are just so many freshmen in the fold, particularly ones that should factor in right away from Harris at quarterback to Fournette at running back to Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn at receiver. It meant things didn’t always run at the frenetic pace Cameron demanded in practice when Zach Mettenberger was pulling the strings on an offense that also included Hill, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.

All things considered, though, the mood has been positive and upbeat. LSU went through August with only the one legitimate injury (Quentin Thomas), and there were no arrests or real off-field fireworks like we’ve seen in years past during August. Plus the opponent to open the season, and the big stage the game will be played on, continue to serve as motivating factors.

7) LSU always plays big games in the SEC and has big rivalry games. With that having been said, how excited is the fan base for this game?

Love: I think most LSU fans are very excited with a dash of nervous energy thrown in. There’s always some doubt when you play a top-25 team (and a program that perennially is even better than that) to begin the season, but it’s even harder to feel completely at ease about a game or a matchup when youth is so prevalent in your two-deep. Still, some of that uncertainty aside, LSU and Houston go very well together. It’s one of the biggest alumni bases for LSU throughout the nation and is only four hours from Baton Rouge. So I think the combination of a big-name opponent, an accessible and fun location and a nationally televised game has purple-and-gold supporters jacked. Looking at how the excitement level compares to kickoff classic opponents of recent years for LSU, I’d say it ranks in anticipation behind Oregon – which was a top-5 team at the time – but ahead of TCU and North Carolina.

8) What areas of Wisconsin do you expect will give LSU trouble? Where do you think the Tigers have the edge over the Badgers?

Love: See my answer above to No. 3 for LSU’s biggest edge over Wisconsin. Elsewhere, though, the Tigers have two lock-down starting corners in Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White, both of whom will make it difficult for a retooled Badger receiving corps to gain separation or take advantage of run-after-the-catch opportunities.

On the flip side it’s easy to forecast Wisconsin’s offensive line, particularly the interior, will cause problems for LSU’s scrapped-together collection of defensive tackles. In a way, given the strength of both teams’ offensive lines, much of this game will come down to which defensive front seven can adjust the quickest and hold its own against a relentless rushing attack. I also think the Tigers will have to be careful with Wisconsin’s tight ends, particularly Sam Arneson, in pass defense. LSU’s linebackers weren’t the best in coverage last season, and if they don’t show improvement there Saturday night, Arneson could be an offensive edge for the Badgers.

9) What is the one thing LSU needs to do well in order to win Saturday?

Love: I’ll rattle off the obligatory “don’t turn the ball over” comment first – and it will be important in a game neither team wants to trail in and be forced to pass more often – but for the sake of originality here’s another one. LSU has to win the field position battle. That matters in some games more than others, but when you have a young quarterback in a big spot, it’s paramount. Short fields will allow Cameron to call the game differently, playing more to the strengths of Jennings and Harris while not getting out of their comfort zones and asking them to do things that could result in turnovers.

The thing about field position, too, is it can be accomplished in various ways. Big special teams returns or blocks can get you there, as can stingy, opportunistic defense. LSU will take either, but it’s hoping for more of the latter. The Tigers staff knows John Chavis’ defense will have to carry the team until a new offense gets its footing. Saturday night represents the first chance for LSU to put this team concept to the test, and it’s critical the defense puts the offense in good – or at least manageable – situations.

10) What’s your prediction for the game?

Love: I know I keep looking back to recent kickoff classic games for LSU, but I think they provide good roadmaps for how these season-opening encounters usually go. The Tigers won all three, versus North Carolina in the Georgia Dome and then Oregon and TCU at Jerry World, scoring a total of 107 points and no less than 30 in any one game. Now, LSU also didn’t have a two-QB system going into any of those affairs, so it’s reasonable to think the Tigers may not score quite as much.

But I feel the Tigers defense, minus the DTs, has a chance to be exceptional in 2014. Melvin Gordon will get his rushing yards, and I think the game will be close for two-and-a-half quarters, but ultimately I suspect LSU will pull away. I’ll say the Tigers win 27-14.

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