Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Hold That Tiger | by Jay

• Right now it looks like we're 8.5- to 9-point underdogs to LSU.

• On the stat sheet, LSU is incredibly balanced between offense and defense, between the run and the pass. In fact, they're the most strongly-balanced team in the country (see table, below).

• Of course the stat sheet only tells one layer of the Tigers' story. What about the wins and losses? LSU went 10-2 this year, with a bunch of blowouts over crummy competition, a few decisive victories over decent teams, and two key losses. (Sound familiar?) For such a dominant statistical juggernaut, the final tally is mixed.

• Blowouts:

LA-Lafayette (6-6), Arizona (6-6), Tulane (4-8), Miss St (3-9), and Fresno State (4-8). Kentucky (7-5) was another blowout, the only one against a team with a winning record.

• Tight wins:

1. At Tennessee, 28-24. The Tigers needed a TD pass to win it with :09 seconds left, this despite the fact that starting Vol QB Erik Ainge had been knocked out in the first quarter. The Vols picked off Jamarcus Russell three times, returning one for a score, and took the lead with 7 minutes to go. Russell then put the Tigers on his back and hoofed it down the field, putting together a 15-play, seven-minute, 80-yard scoring drive to take the lead and ice the game.

Average Rank of Offenses, Defenses
rush O pass O rush D pass D average
LSU 37 23 15 3 19.50
TCU 9 49 4 34 24.00
Ohio St. 18 33 16 29 24.00
Wisconsin 26 48 23 2 24.75
Louisville 10 7 21 75 28.25
Notre Dame 76 10 50 50 46.50

2. Alabama, 28-14. The drive chart tells the story: LSU jumped out to an early lead, and Bama threw the ball all over the place trying to catch up. They were actually able to put together some decent drives, but four of the longest ones ended in a missed FG, a fumble, an interception, and another missed FG. LSU pitched a shutout in the second half.

3. Ole Miss, 23-20 in OT. More on this in a second.

4. Arkansas, 31-26. The Pigs' running game gouged the LSU defense for 298 rushing yards, including an 80-yard score by Darren McFadden, and Arkansas outgained LSU and forced two fumbles on long drives. But LSU controlled the momentum throughout the game and never trailed after their first score. Every time Arkansas threatened, LSU answered; an interception deep in Arkansas territory set up an easy 4th-quarter score, and after the ensuing McFadden run, kickoff returner Trindon Holiday took the kick ninety yards for a final LSU touchdown. A solid victory despite the final score, this was the Tigers' lone "signature" win of the year over a tough, full-strength opponent.

• And the two losses:

1. at Auburn, 7-3. A classic defensive struggle that could have gone either way. LSU actually outgained Auburn by almost 3:2, but Auburn clamped down when it counted and forced six punts. LSU nearly won it at the end of the game with a frantic, last-ditch drive. With :02 left on the clock and the ball on the Auburn 24, Russell hit Craig Davis on the left sideline for about twenty yards, but he was tackled before he could reach the end zone, and time expired.

2. at Florida, 23-10. Worst game of the year for the Tigers, and possibly one of the worst self-inflicted losses by any team this year. It was a comedy of errors for LSU, including: a missed field goal, a blocked punt, three interceptions, a muffed punt for a fumble, a TD pass called back on a penalty, a safety on a muffed kickoff return, and a fumble on the Gators' one-yard line. LSU outgained Florida and forced a couple turnovers of their own, but the Tigers couldn't get out of their own way; their second half possessions went safety, punt, missed FG, made FG, interception, interception.

So, despite the Tigers' impressive statistical rankings, the actual game results have been mixed. I think there are some analogs here to ND's season: losing to its two toughest opponents (one in a particularly mistake-filled game), coming from behind to defeat a couple of average teams with last-ditch drives, etc. Overall, this Tigers team hasn't really "put it all together" for a big game this season. That's either good news or bad news for the Irish, depending on your point of view and your general level of holiday cheer.

The official LSU website is pretty cool: it's got the full-length video available for every Tigers game this season. Late last night I dialed up the Ole Miss game (the 23-20 OT win) and watched most of it. My chickenscratch notes from 1am (you can skip this if you've got better things to do):

• LSU starts the game trying to establish the run, and it's not going anywhere. Ole Miss is stacking the box but the Tigers keep trying to pound it. Almost every look is I-formation, with one or two tight ends. Announcer: "They have not come out gunnin' tonight". Punt on first two possessions.

• This Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis is incredible, making plays all over the field. No wonder he's an All-American. OM still putting six, seven, eight in the box.

• On defense LSU blitzing off the edge, up the middle, zone blitzing. Different blitzes from different angles, but not much pre-snap movement. Ole Miss not very imaginative on offense: simply handing off left or right, and the QB Schaeffer looks shaky when having to pass. On 4th down OM tries a fake punt, a pass, but it's covered well by LSU, giving the Tigers the ball on the Miss 41.

• Three or four straight runs by LSU, and Russell finally connects on a nice pass to the WR Davis down to the 7. No blitz by OM on this play. Two runs, a holding penalty. LSU lines up with 4 wide and Russell in the shotgun (they use shotgun almost exclusively when there are 3 or 4 receivers in the formation); Russell hits Dwayne Bowe on a post from the right. Big target (Bowe's a tree) and nice rope from Russell finding the open man.

• Ole Miss has 3rd & 4; calls timeout. After the break they quick-snap it and catch LSU napping. First down. Later this drive they have 3rd & 9. Recognize a big blitz from LSU, run a screen pass left and score from 22 yards out. Tie game.

• Ensuing kickoff, OM goes onsides and recovers on the LSU 39. Tigers caught napping again. OM runs a swing pass and five dives and punch it in. 14-7 Ole Miss.

• OM still stacking it. LSU goes to pass, OM blitzes & sacks Russell. Another blitz, Russell wings it and it's almost picked off. When Russell gets in trouble, he just chucks it down the field. LSU punt.

• GREAT punt return by Ole Miss (31 yards). FG try to end the half and misses.

• Begin second half. Another great return by OM (60 yards). Common theme here: napping on onsides kick, lousy coverage on ST, etc. FG good. 17-7 Ole Miss.

• LSU still running: dive, dive, inside handoff to WR Early Doucet. Russell hits Davis after being flushed out of the pocket, threw across his body. Incredibly strong throw. Another inside handoff out of the shotgun bottled up by Willis. Great tackle. Russell pressured again, just puts it up for grabs; it's tipped and should have been picked off. LSU tries FG and misses.

Impressions of Russell: great on reading & executing the short throws, not much touch on the long ones (plenty of overthrows), and will throw the ball into danger when pressured.

• Ole Miss runs a few more dives. New QB for Ole Miss (Adams). Seems a better passer; at one point, play-action, pump-fake, and hit the TE over the middle. Great set up with all those dives; linebackers bit and middle was open. (Cue John Carlson here).

• LSU still blitzing from different positions. On third and six they send 7 and get a sack. Ole Miss kicks FG. 20-7 at the end of 3Q.

Big play for LSU: on first down on next drive, big pressure by OM, Russell avoids a sack, and another sack, scrambles around and finds Doucet for 42 yards. It's a total Hail Mary, but it works out. A couple of plays later Russell has Davis wide open down the sideline on a blown coverage and he just overthrows it. Not great on the long throws. LSU goes for it on 4th & 8 and pass is incomplete.

• OM gets the ball back and seems to want to sit on the lead. Run, run, 1-yard pass, punt.

• LSU finally goes into panic mode. Four wide on every play, Russell in the shotgun on every snap. He completes a shallow cross for 18, a swing pass to the RB Hester for 8, a short out to Doucet for 7, a short out to Bowe for 9. Russell comfortable with the short, quick pass and excellent at finding the open man. Why didn't they do this earlier?

• Second and goal, Russell hits Doucet on a Jarrett-esque jump ball over the middle for the TD. Terrific grab. 20-14 Ole Miss.

• Ole Miss stalls out, punts. LSU still in passing formation, completes a couple, then Russell is sacked & fumbles, but recovered by LSU. LSU punts; touchback.

• Ole Miss just trying to hang on. Rush, rush, rush, rush, then a sack on 3rd & 7. Punt.

• Last drive of regulation. LSU on its own 42. Ole Miss blitzes on almost every down. Russell hits Davis for 20 yards on a crossing pattern; a couple of plays later it's 3rd & 6 and Russell rushes up the gut on a called QB draw for the first, and down to the 5. Ballsy.

• First and goal: big blitz, nearly sacked, threw it out of the end zone. Second & goal: goes off the hands of Bowe on a cross, incomplete. Third and goal: wheel route to Hester, he drops it. Fourth and goal: Bowe lines up left and crosses right on the slant, Russell fires a bullet, complete. Touchdown. 20-20.

• Extra point for the win: blocked by Ole Miss! Going to OT.

• OT: Ole Miss starts with the ball, LSU forces a fumble. LSU takes over, rushes 5 times up the middle and then kicks a field goal. Winner.

Some more stuff on Les Miles, Jimbo Fisher, Jamarcus Russell, and Bo Pelini coming up.