Impact of the Game and Recent Trends
The LSU Tigers will begin SEC play with a trip to Starkville to face Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are coming off an overtime home win against Arizona. They’ll be looking to add to their positive momentum with an SEC win. LSU appeared to improve in its second game of the season, but Mississippi State will be their first true test since their opening season loss. Despite the nine-and-a-half spread in favor of LSU, only a few key elements will decide this game. With Alabama’s apparent vulnerability this year, the winner of this game will have a leg up in the wide-open SEC West.
The all-time series lead between the two football programs leans heavily to LSU, but don’t expect a blowout. Of the Tigers’ last four trips to Starkville, they’ve only beaten Mississippi State by more than three points once. The Bulldogs will feed off an energetic, passionate, cowbell-clanging crowd that LSU will need to take out of the game early. On that note, it’s time to delve deeper into the keys of the game.
LSU Must Establish the Run
Mississippi State uses scheme, effort, and coaching to make up for what it lacks in talent. This is not to say they’re not talented. They don’t seem to have the first-round defensive linemen or corners we’ve seen on Bulldog teams of the past. However, the defensive personnel is gap-sound and physical. Linebackers and leading tacklers Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson are both over 230 pounds and bring big intentions when meeting ball carriers. The defensive backs are not hesitant to help in run support. The numbers back up the tape, as the Bulldogs are only allowing 87 yards per game on the ground.
LSU head coach Brian Kelly stated earlier this week that true freshman Lance Heard would play but not start. Kelly is smart to ease the inexperienced Heard into this game at right tackle. Mississippi State disrupts offenses without sending extra pressure by moving constantly before the snap to cause confusion. The Bulldogs were able to get sacks and tackles for loss by only sending four defenders on several occasions against Arizona because the Arizona offensive line did not know which four were coming. A missed assignment could put LSU behind the chains on early downs, which isn’t ideal for any offense.
Not only is it important for LSU to run effectively, but it’s also important that they do it with running backs. Fortunately, they’ll be better equipped to do so this week. Logan Diggs was impressive in his debut as a Tiger last week. The former Alabama high school track champion Armoni Goodwin returns to the lineup as well as John Emery. The Tigers might not have a bell cow back in Cowbell Country, but they do have talented options.
Adjust to Mississippi State’s Offensive Approach
Close followers of the sport knew that the Bulldogs had moved on from the Air Raid offense since the unfortunate passing of Mike Leach last year. That said, nobody would’ve expected Mississippi State to rank 128th in pass play percentage, only throwing on 33% of their offensive plays.
It’s rare to see such an extreme change of offensive philosophy in one year. There are reasons to wonder if that approach can persist to that extent. Earlier this week, head Coach Zach Arnette spoke on conservative play calling hurting his team after a momentum-changing turnover. The Bulldogs caused a fumble, but Arnett advised his offensive coordinator to keep the clock running so the defense could rest.
“If I can do that all over again, I would’ve told us to be super aggressive. You’ve got a chance to firmly take all the momentum in that game,” said Arnett about his decision.
The Bulldogs won’t have to pass if the Tigers are as undisciplined defensively as they were against Grambling. Running back Jo’Quavious Marks leads the SEC in rushing with 125 yards per game. Runs that went for 20 yards last week against LSU could go for 70 yards this week. LSU will have to get back to the basics and fundamentals to have success.
Most of LSU’s issues with stopping the run stemmed from a lack of gap responsibility and going for big hits without wrapping up. Bad technique can be corrected, but the more troubling trend for the Tigers is that some of the tackling issues in the secondary look more like a lack of athleticism in the open field. Runs from Marks and wide receiver bubble screens will continue to challenge LSU to tackle in the open field.
The misuse of Harold Perkins has been well documented in 2023. LSU can take a page from the Mississippi State playbook to get Perkins involved and help stop the run. In the first play of the tweet below, State blitzes Jett Johnson resulting in a tackle for loss.
𝙒𝘼𝙏𝘾𝙃: these three, consecutive plays by Jett Johnson. 𝙎𝙏𝘼𝙏𝙀 preserved a chance to win the game by holding them to a FG here. The play on 3rd & 1 👀 Jett takes the OT to the ball carrier and stands him up – Pickering there as well – THE play of the game that doesn't… pic.twitter.com/CPv03lbCus
— Matt Wyatt (@RadioWyatt) September 10, 2023
The Tigers should simplify the game for Perkins and let him do what he does best – disrupt. If LSU can force the Bulldogs to move the ball by passing in their newfound prostyle offense, it could bode well for the Tigers.