Mississippi State football host the LSU Tigers on Saturday in Starkville. LSU is long known for having a fierce defense. What can we expect from the Tigers on that side of the ball?
Mississippi State football gets its first massive test of the season at 11:00 AM CT on Saturday at Davis Wade Stadium when they take on the 14th-ranked LSU Tigers. LSU sits at 1-1 on the season, having lost their season-opener to Florida State and rolling over FCS Grambling.
LSU is a program with a long reputation for playing dominant defense. But through two games, they haven’t looked quite so dominant on that side of the ball. Florida State racked up nearly 500 yards of offense and scored 45 points on the Tigers. Their QB, Jordan Travis, had a massive day through the air with 342 passing yards and 4 TDs.
Despite allowing just 10 points to Grambling, LSU still looked a bit uninspiring on defense. Grambling’s first three drives of the game traveled 83, 80, and 69 yards. LSU shut them down after that point, but the Tigers’ first team defense allowing a FCS program to easily move down the field to open a game is concerning.
Thus far the biggest weakness for the LSU defense has been the secondary, particularly their cornerbacks. It’s a spot were they lost a lot of experience from last season, and they loaded up in the transfer portal to address that. But so far, no one has emerged as a true shut-down player on the backend, which is obviously not what we’ve come to expect out of the Tigers.
As previously mentioned, the LSU secondary had a rough go of things in Week 1 against FSU. Along with the big numbers overall, Jordan Travis was highly efficient, completing 74% of his passes at 11 yards per attempt. He wasn’t just taking check downs all night. He was hitting downfield completions.
Mississippi State football vs. LSU Tigers preview: Studying LSU’s defense
FSU receivers were able to find plenty of open space downfield. LSU was aggressive in taking away FSU’s screen game and did a good job of shutting that down. But anything that wasn’t thrown near the line of scrimmage was usually open.
Here they connect on a deep shot to WR Keon Coleman, who had a monster performance, off of the Mills concept. Mills is a two-man route combination featuring a post route from an outside receiver and a dig route from the slot receiver. It was popularized by Steve Spurrier back in his days at Florida.
Mills is typically used to beat quarters coverage. Basic rules in quarters tells the safety that if the slot receiver goes vertical, usually defined as running 10-yards downfield, he will then follow that receiver in man coverage. What this means for the offense is that if you can get that safety to follow the slot, your outside receiver will be matched up one-on-one.
That’s precisely what happens here with LSU in quarters. The slot receiver hits 10-yards, so the safety follows him when he breaks on the dig route. Keon Coleman gives a subtle fake to the outside to widen the CB before breaking inside on the post route. He’s got him beat, and Travis delivers a great ball for the huge play.
Coleman caught three TDs against LSU, two of which coming on fade routes where he simply went up and won. You could be fair and recognize that he’s an incredible talent who just happened to be too much for LSU. But even Grambling found some success beating LSU one-on-one with the fade ball.
This is a LSU secondary that is still sorting things out and is vulnerable. Mississippi State will absolutely need to try and take advantage by testing them downfield. If WRs Justin Robinson and Zavion Thomas are back to 100%, this is a game where they need to shine.
But of course if State is going to try and attack downfield, their offensive line is going to have to give Will Rogers time in the pocket. That was an issue against Arizona, and life won’t be getting any easier for the OL against LSU.
As is always the case with LSU, they’re loaded up front. Maason Smith and Mekhi Wingo are monsters along the interior DL, and backup Jordan Jefferson looks strong. State had some trouble dealing with Arizona’s interior lineman in pass protection, so this is a key matchup to watch.
Despite their talent up front, LSU struggled to consistently pressure FSU QB Jordan Travis. They certainly had their moments of disruption where Travis simply made plays with his legs to escape, but they certainly weren’t dominant as pass rushers. It’s certainly worth noting that Maason Smith was suspended in that game, but there’s another player getting much of the attention for why FSU couldn’t generate enough pass rush against the ‘Noles.
LB Harold Perkins burst onto the scene as a true freshman last year. LSU used him almost exclusively as a pass rush specialist, and it paid off. He had 8.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, and 14 QB hurries. He single-handily won the Tigers their game with Arkansas.
But this offseason, Brian Kelly and DC Matt House made the interesting decision to move Perkins to inside LB. The reasoning is that Perkins was projected to be an inside LB coming out of high school and doesn’t have the frame to be a prototypical edge rusher. They’d still use him as an edge rusher in certain situations, but on standard downs, the plan was to have him in the middle.
LSU broke out this plan against FSU, and it didn’t go great. Perkins was frequently used as a spy on Jordan Travis to prevent scrambles. But with Travis having time to operate in the pocket and with their receivers running free down field, he was made somewhat of a non-factor. LSU really could’ve used him off the edge.
Against Grambling, the Tigers adjusted, playing Perkins as an outside linebacker and giving him more pass rush opportunities. Naturally, he made much more of an impact.
But as this film study from Max Toscano of And the Valley Shook points out, LSU still didn’t exactly put Perkins in the best place to succeed. He found himself playing coverage frequently against slot receivers, which still does not suit him. If you’re Mississippi State, you’re hoping Kelly and House wait at least one more week before finally unleashing Harold Perkins.
Obviously with Mississippi State in more of a run-heavy offense, there’s the question of how well they can run the ball against the LSU front. The Tigers had a lot of success in limiting a potent Florida State ground game. FSU builds a bunch of their offense off of Counter variations, meaning they’re regularly pulling lineman to either run Counter or run a play-action meant to look like Counter.
LSU had a great gameplan for this. Anytime a guard pulled, the defensive tackle over him immediately shot through the gap, avoided being down-blocked, and chased down the ball-carrier in the backfield. This created a ton of disruption for FSU.
The Seminoles adjusted in the second half by running a “Counter Lead” play out of 2-back sets with a guard and TE acting as the pullers and found some success with that. But that’s a team that makes that concept the foundation of their offense and already runs several variations of it.
Mississippi State, on the other hand, has only had Counter in their offense since the spring, and so far they’ve had mixed results running it in games. I’d say they might want to leave that out of the gameplan this week. Though I’m sure now that I’ve said that, they’ll gash the Tigers with Counter. I wouldn’t complain.
State, of course, bases it’s run game off of Wide Zone, and that’s been a far more successful play for the Bulldogs’ ground attack. Only once did FSU run Wide Zone, and it went for a short gain. Grambling, however, did break out the concept on a few occasions and managed to find some success with it early on.
We know State will want to try and establish a running game, but to me, their success offensively will be dictated by how well they can throw on LSU. The Tigers have a weakness on the backend, and State has a roster that’s been running the Air Raid for the last three years. If there were ever a game for Kevin Barbay to try and open things up, this is the one.