Mississippi State football will take on the LSU Tigers in Starkville on Saturday. What can we expect out of the LSU offense?
Mississippi State football plays its SEC opener for the 2023 season this weekend at Davis Wade Stadium. They’ll face off with the LSU Tigers, who sit at 1-1 in their second season under HC Brian Kelly. LSU fell 45-24 against Florida State to open up the season before destroying FCS Grambling 72-10 in a get-right game.
Scoring 72 on any opponent is impressive. The Tigers scored touchdowns on their first ten drives of the game. But, its Grambling, and there’s very little that can be taken away from LSU scoring at will in that matchup.
The FSU game, however, is certainly one from which conclusions can be drawn. LSU moved the ball exceptionally well on the ‘Noles in the first half, racking up 287 yards and punting just once. But twice the Tigers were stopped on 4th & 1 in the FSU redzone, and as a result, they managed just 17 first half points.
They were slowed down considerably in the second half with just 172 yards. 75 of those yards came on one play in garbage time on LSU’s final possession. That’s just 97 total yards on LSU’s first four second half drives. The result of those drives? Punt, interception, punt, turnover on downs.
FSU shut down the LSU offense in the second half. They ramped up the pressure on QB Jayden Daniels, played good coverage to prevent downfield throws, and make tackles in space. The Tigers never really got a ground game going outside of Daniels keeping on designed runs and scrambles, so once their quick passing and RPO game went away, the sustained drives stopped.
That RPO game is where it starts for LSU. Nearly every run call will have some sort of quick pass or screen tagged to the outside. LSU hasn’t consistently produced a strong between-the-tackles run game under this regime, so they use the threat of getting their talented pass-catchers the ball out in space to spread out the defense and create running lanes.
And of course they also utilize Daniels’ legs within their RPO calls. Their go-to RPO in Inside Zone Read with a backside arrow screen, either by a TE or WR. Sometimes, this is run as a Split Zone Bluff RPO. On Split Zone, the backside DE is initially left unblocked before a TE comes across the formation to trap block him. For Split Zone Bluff, the TE will pass by the DE and get out ahead of a the QB keeping the ball around the edge either as a lead blocker or, in the case of a RPO, a potential option for the QB to throw to on an arrow screen.
But LSU’s preferred way of running this concept is not to leave the DE unblocked for the initial read. They’ll have their tackle block the DE and instead read the backside LB. If the LB flows with the TE or WR coming across the formation to run the arrow screen, Daniels will hand off the ball to the RB. If the LB either stays in the box or makes a move towards the RB, Daniels will pull the ball and run around the edge. If a defender comes up to tackle him and the arrow screen is open, he’ll throw it. Otherwise, he keeps the ball and gets up-field.
If this sounds anything to you like the triple option, that’s because it is. It’s just modernized. Here’s an example of the play against FSU. LSU puts a WR in motion to come across the formation and run the arrow screen. Daniels’ mesh point with the RB holds the LB, so Daniels pulls the ball and runs around the edge. He can probably throw the screen here, but he trusts his own athleticism and picks up eight yards.
LSU loves to get into empty sets. Empty formations can be great for simplifying reads for the QB. It’s tougher for a defense to disguise it’s intentions with the field spread out, and you can isolate specific receivers to get them the best matchup. Empty is a particularly good tool for offenses that have a mobile QB because if the defense is forced to choose whether it wants to keep numbers in the box to respect the threat of a QB run or stay strong against the pass.
Naturally, LSU makes good use out of empty with Daniels, and that includes using it for their RPO game. Here they run Stick Draw. It’s a classic RPO with roots in the Air Raid. Receivers run a stick concept while the OL blocks for a draw play. The read is simple for the QB, who will key off a LB. If the LB stays in the box, the QB will throw the stick route. If that LB flies out to cover the stick, they’ll run the draw.
The stick concept is to the trips side. Daniels is reading the LB #4. The LB runs with the receiver on the stick route, so Daniels keeps the ball up the middle for a huge gain.
Much of LSU’s passing game is designed to attack underneath zones, creating easy completions for Daniels while allowing their pass-catchers to have run-after-catch opportunities. They’ll run lots of shallow crossers and quick hitters out to the perimeter. If they have a one-on-one opportunity on the outside, they’ll take it.
We see both those ideas put into one play here. LSU again goes empty, this time with four receivers to one side of the formation. Three of those receivers align in a bunch set and are going to run a follow concept meant to overload an underneath zone as well as create natural picks against man coverage. WR Malik Nabers (a former Mississippi State commitment…) aligns as the lone receiver to the boundary.
Nabers gets matched-up one-on-one and runs a stop route to beat CB playing press man. Daniels likes this match-up pre-snap, and hits Nabers on the numbers for the first down. He had a receiver open out of the bunch had he chosen to work that side. But again, empty is meant to isolate receivers and get the best match-up available, and few DBs are covering Nabers one-on-one.
In last year’s matchup, Mississippi State struggled mightily to contain Jayden Daniels on scrambles. LSU’s scoring drive to end the first half was almost entirely a product of Daniels taking off while MSU’s defenders were in coverage. That’s not to say they didn’t try and have a spy on him. They often did. But in many cases the LB or DL responsible for spying Daniels simply wasn’t stopping him in the open field.
FSU, on the other hand, did a masterful job of containing Daniels on pass plays. His longest scramble was no more than about four yards, and he only even had the opportunity to take off on a handful of plays.
The ‘Noles kept a spy on him almost the entire night, usually a LB with enough athleticism to run him down, and their defensive front also managed to regularly collapse the pocket around him to take away those running lanes.
Early on in last year’s game, State did a nice job of keeping everything in front of them and swarming up to make tackles without much run after catch. But as the game progressed, many of those quick passes out wide that LSU thrives on went from being minimal gains to first downs.
The Tigers didn’t hit many chunk plays, but they were able to nickel and dime their way into points. You obviously have to wonder how much of this was a result of the defense wearing down as the offense failed to consistently move the ball.
You certainly hope that this time around, the Bulldog offense doesn’t have nearly as many quick possessions to help keep the defense energized. The ultimate key for State will be their ability to pressure and contain Daniels. He’s at his most dangerous scrambling in situations where his OL actually provides him with solid protection, and a running lane opens up. But when he’s actually under pressure, he isn’t nearly as elusive.
MSU’s defensive front has to get after Daniels, and they need someone who can reliably spy him. If that means walking down a safety, such as Shawn Preston, so be it. Of course, then you run into the question of whether or not you want to take someone out of coverage against a talented group of pass-catchers when you already have concerns about your secondary.
This is a tricky matchup for Mississippi State. We don’t yet know how good their pass rush and secondary are in a game where those are huge factors. Add in that State has struggled in the past to contain mobile QBs and plays that stress the perimeter, both things that obviously apply to LSU, and it becomes a bit worrisome.
In many ways, the Arizona game served as somewhat of a tune-up for defense. There’s a lot of parallels in how Arizona attacked the Bulldogs to what LSU wants to do offensively. Ideally, they’ll be better prepared versus LSU because of that game.