Hushing a Hostile Environment
Thanks to frenzied crowds and cowbells, Mississippi State’s Davis-Wade Stadium is usually a tough place to play. LSU neutralized the crowd Saturday with its most complete football game of the season. The LSU Tigers manhandled Mississippi State in a 41-14 win.
LSU not only dominated, but in doing so they addressed some of the most pressing issues of the team. After lackluster production in earlier games, Harold Perkins played a more aggressive role. The defense was dominant up front and much better against the run. For the first time this season, no cornerbacks were isolated and abused. Jayden Daniels threw accurately down the field early and often.
Although LSU might never return a punt again, the Tigers were hitting on nearly all cylinders in Starkville. The improved play could be attributed to multiple different factors. Here’s where we will give credit where it’s due.
The defensive improvements for LSU start with the improved run fits of the front seven. The Tigers played gap-sound football reminiscent of the first half against Florida State. Omar Speights was injured, so Perkins played outside linebacker while Greg Penn and Whit Weeks played inside. This lineup allowed Perkins to play freely and aggressively.
Several other players impacted the game. Mekhi Wingo continued to be a force inside as Maason Smith also generated pressure. Sai’vion Jones played his best game of the year. Denver Harris seems to have established himself as a starter at cornerback. Most importantly, Matt House has a better grasp on individual capabilities and is putting players in a position to excel.
Jayden Daniels showed why he had top-five Heisman odds before the season started. He completed a school record 88.2 percent of his passes for 361 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions. The main beneficiary of Daniels’ hot streak was Malik Nabers. Nabers flirted with Kayshon Boutte’s LSU single-game yardage record, making 13 catches for 239 yards. Nabers has made a living off hooks, curls, and stop routes during his time at LSU. Mike Denbrock capitalized on the prior tape on Nabers by incorporating double moves to take advantage of aggressive defensive backs. Mississippi State inexplicably fell for it every time as Nabers went on to put up video game numbers.
LSU’s performance on the road in a hostile environment bodes well for a veteran team entering the thick of SEC play. Jayden Daniels’ historic stat line should give him the confidence to continue to push the ball downfield. One would expect the upcoming opposition to commit more resources to stopping Malik Nabers, so Daniels will also need to be confident in his other receivers making contested catches. The efficiency and explosiveness of the passing game also increase the likelihood of Mike Denbrock calling more shot plays.
Although Daniels still led the team in rushing, Logan Diggs has emerged as the most complete running back. Diggs’ skillset and decisive running style can keep defenses honest and make an inconsistent offensive line look better. True freshman Kaleb Jackson adds an exciting element to the offense with his explosiveness and power. All signs point to LSU fielding a more balanced offensive attack as the season goes on.
Defensively, it looks as though the Tigers will have to play without veteran safety Greg Brooks for at least another week, as he remains unavailable due to what’s been described as a “medical emergency”. Fortunately for LSU, Marshall transfer safety Andre Sam has looked more comfortable and productive with every added week of experience in the defense. True freshman safety Ryan Yaites looked the part against Mississippi State. Moreover, Yaites’ emergence also allows Major Burns to be more aggressive in run support and blitz when called upon.
Room for Improvement
The only phase of the game in which the Tigers have not improved is special teams. The coaching staff has exhibited a fear of muffed punts by inserting Greg Clayton as the returner to simply call fair catches. That might not seem like a big deal, but by doing this they unknowingly instill fear into the players, making returning punts seem more complicated than it really is. A game-changing punt return could be the difference between winning and losing at some point. LSU will play Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri, and Auburn in the next four games. All of these games are winnable, but the gap between LSU and these teams is not to the point where LSU can leave untapped resources.
Photo courtesy: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports