Monday, January 01, 2007

Tiger Beat - Offensive Edition | by Pat

Here's our take on the LSU Tigers, done in a similar style to the preseason position previews. I also added a Matchup Analysis wherein I attempt to mesh what I wrote about LSU's talent at each position with how it relates specifically to ND's personnel.

QB - JaMarcus Russell. 211-308, 2797 yards, 26 TDs, 7 INTs.

One needs only to read the first two sentences of his official bio to confirm JaMarcus Russell's folk hero status:

One of the most physically gifted quarterbacks to ever wear an LSU uniform... Can throw the football the length of the field...
The scary thing is that I don't doubt either of those for a second. At 6-6, 260 pounds, Russell is quite possibly the biggest quarterback that ND has ever faced. In practice he Irish have resorted to putting defensive end Victor Abiamiri at QB to simulate the size of the massive Russell. But his skills go far beyond his size.

In the 2006 season, only Colt Brennan of Hawaii and John Beck of BYU finished with a higher passer efficiency rating than Russell. He's a first round draft pick if he comes out early (he's only a junior), and he's probably the most talented QB that the Irish will have faced all year long. Depth: Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux are clearly backups as they only totaled 24 pass attempts all year long. If Russell goes down, career backup Flynn will get the nod but shouldn't be too scary for the Irish.

Matchup Analysis: Russell has shown that given time he can be deadly accurate, and with the Tigers' fleet collection of receivers, Russell can destroy the Irish if they fail to consistently pressure him. When ND does get pressure, they are going to have to make sure they wrap him up and bring him down, which is no small task; Russell has the strength and size to shrug off weak shoulder tackles.

Russell can throw on the move, but like most drop-back quarterbacks, he's more accurate when in the pocket. If ND can keep him moving, that bodes well. Russell is also used to getting off to a hot start. In the first quarter of games in '06, Russell completed 79% (!) of his 1st quarter passes, had 8 TDs, 0 INTs, and, oh yeah, LSU outscored teams 122-20. ND will have to figure out a way to get Russell out of his comfort zone early on. If Russell has one flaw, it's a propensity to put the ball on the ground; he fumbled eight times this year (losing three); Quinn, by comparison, only fumbled four times (losing one).

The Sugar Bowl is a home game for Russell; good news for LSU, as JaMarcus was chopped down to size while on the road this season. In eight home games, Russell threw 20 touchdowns and only 1 interception. On the road, he threw a far more pedestrian 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Then again, all four road games were against teams ranked in the Top 10 (Auburn, Florida, Tennessee & Arkansas), while LSU only played one team with a winning record at home (Kentucky).

Can the Irish -- and Irish fans in the Superdome -- put enough pressure on Russell that he reverts to road game form? In other words, can the Irish play like a Top 10 team?

Running Backs

Jacob Hester. 91 carries, 415 yards, 6 TDs.
Keiland Williams. 62 carries, 329 yards, 2 TDs.
Alley Broussard. 74 carries, 281 yards, 4 TDs.

The Tigers have employed a "running back by committee" this year, with 6 rushers totaling more than 45 carries (ND's #2 rusher, James Aldridge, only had 34). And while there is truth in the old Lou Holtz adage that "if you have two co-starters you really have two backups", the Tigers' stable is very talented, strong, and fast.

Jacob Hester (above, left) led the team in carries, yards, and TDs despite rotating between running back and fullback during the year. He had minor knee surgery a few weeks ago but that isn't supposed to slow him down that much. A terrific blocker, Hester will help out Russell by both picking up blitzes and providing a dependable safety outlet as a receiver. On the year Hester finished as LSU's 4th leading receiver with 34 receptions. Keiland Williams is only a freshman, but has the best per carry average of the regular ball-carriers with an impressive 5.3 yards per carry mark and has really emerged lately as true weapon for the Tigers. The biggest running back on the team at 250 pounds, Alley Broussard is a load to try and bring down, but after missing 2005 with an ACL injury, he came back too heavy and hasn't matched the impressive 6.1 yards/carry he posted as a freshman in 2004. Depth: Freshmen Charles Scott and Trindon Holliday were the #4 and #5 ground gainers for the Tigers with the 5-5, 165 pound Holiday, the team's fastest player, being a dangerous weapon on reverses and special teams.

Matchup Analysis: Stopping the rushing attack is maybe the biggest key to the game for the Irish. Stop the run, and stop the Tigers. JaMarcus Russell will make some plays, but if LSU is able to run on the Irish too, ND won't have a chance. A successful running game by LSU will force ND's safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, and open up that much more room for the fast LSU receivers. And while tackling has been a hit and miss proposition for the Irish this year, it's going to be a major issue in the Sugar Bowl: each of the three LSU running backs weigh more than every starting Irish linebacker (Hester-228, Williams-225, Broussard-250). Shoulder tackles aren't going to cut it.

A ray of hope: like their QB, the LSU running backs are far less effective away from the cozy confines of their home turf. LSU scored 20 rushing touchdowns at home but only 2 on the road. To emphasize the importance of shutting down the LSU running game even more, in their 10 wins, LSU put up 22 rushing touchdowns, but in their 2 losses, they failed to get even one. The only win where LSU failed to score a rushing TD was the 23-20 overtime close call against 4-8 Ole Miss. Shut down the running game, beat the Tigers. It's an obvious prescription, but much easier said than done.

Offensive Line

LT - Ciron Black.

LG - Hermann Johnson.
C - Brett Helms.
RG - Brian Johnson.
RT - Peter Dyakowski.

Ciron Black is only a redshirt freshman, which at left tackle is a rarity. But the efforts of the 6-5, 315 pounder earned him mention alongside ND's Sam Young on many freshman All-American lists this year. Another full-time starter for the first time, redshirt sophomore Hermann Johnson is massive at 6-7, 351 pounds and mentioned as the biggest player to ever play football at LSU. He didn't enter the starting lineup until halfway through the season when LSU's best lineman, Will Arnold, went down with a season-ending injury. Center Brett Helms shifted from guard to center this year but has been a solid in the middle. Brian Johnson also moved positions as he started every game at right tackle last year but moved to right guard this year. Taking his place at right tackle is Peter Dyakowski, a career backup who finally earned a starting spot in his final year of eligibility.

Matchup Analysis: Getting through this line to pressure Russell will be a very tough task for the Irish defensive line. Over the course of the 2006 season, this OL only gave up 18 sacks. The size of the line -- three starters over 310 pounds -- could wear out the Irish if LSU decides to keep hammering away at them with runs. But LSU likes to pass a lot, and while someone like guard Hermann Johnson is enormous at 350 pounds, that size could work against him in pass protection against the quick Derek Landri. Even though it's his first year starting, the LT Black seems pretty talented and could keep Frome away from Russell.

I'd focus the pass rush against RT Dyakowski, who sounds like he got the job based more on LSU's lack of line depth than anything else. If Victor Abiamiri can beat him off the ball more often than not, LSU will have to keep a tight end or running back in to help out blocking, and that can only help the rest of the defense. No LSU lineman committed more false starts than Dyakowski, so a few early successful rushes by Victor could have Dyakowski jumpy the rest of the game.

Tight End

Richard Dickson.
6 receptions, 96 yards, 0 TDs.

Richard Dickson, a true freshman, entered the starting lineup in the second game of the year when returning starter Keith Zinger went down with a stomach ailment. He started nine games this year and while the stats show he wasn't a threat in the passing game, he was voted All-SEC 2nd team by SEC coaches so he clearly was doing something positive out on the field. Depth: Mit Cole started two games at tight end during the year, presumably when LSU opened the game with a two tight-end set. The junior only had 2 receptions for 28 yards, but did see plenty of time on special teams.

Matchup Analysis. The LSU tight ends are primarily blockers, and ND's linebackers won't have to spend too much time trying to cover them in the passing game. Then again, Dickson is a very athletic freshman, and with the extra month of practice he might be able to add a new wrinkle for the Sugar Bowl. The All-SEC Second Team nod is impressive -- he was the only freshman named -- but I still have to think that a freshman is susceptible to blocking mistakes if ND is able to dial up a few well-designed blitzes.

Wide Receivers

Dwanye Bowe. 60 receptions, 912 yards, 11 TDs.
Craig Davis. 52 receptions, 786 yards, 4 TDs.
Early Doucet. 51 receptions, 657 yards, 6 TDs.

Dwanye Bowe (right) is the biggest name on a team loaded with talented receivers. At 6-3, 220 pounds he's a nice target and his 15.2 yards/catch average indicates a potent deep threat. As the career TD reception leader at LSU and a likely first-round draft pick in this year's draft, Bowe has great hands and will be tough to jam at the line of scrimmage. Craig "Buster" Davis doubles as a very fast wideout and as one of the team's punt returners, which should give Irish fans a clue as to his ability to shake tackles and run with the ball in his hands. Similarly, Early Doucet moonlights as the team's kickoff returner and, like his counterparts, has speed to spare. Doucet also lined up at QB a few times this year (a la Ted Ginn at Ohio State and Derrick Williams at Penn State) and picked up two rushing touchdowns on only eight carries.

Matchup Analysis: This seems like the matchup that is getting the most attention from various pundits, and for good reason: Ginn, Holmes, Manningham, Lymon, Jarrett, etc, etc...the list of tall and fast receivers who lit up the Irish goes on and on. That LSU has three such candidates is a scary proposition for ND fans.

Terrail Lambert and Mike Richardson are physical enough to avoid being pushed around too much, but trying to continuously jam the LSU receivers at the line likely isn't a winning strategy. On the other hand, I don't want ND to give up a 7 yard cushion on every play, either. The truth is there's not an easy strategy here, other than rattling JaMarcus Russell as much as possible and forcing bad throws. As with the running backs, ND's secondary is going to need to make solid tackles and limit the yardage after the catch. LSU will take their deep shots on ND, so it's vital that Nedu and Zibby don't get sucked out of position by play-action fakes and help out the corners over the top. And when ND does blitz a corner or safety, the rest of the guys are going to have to avoid the communication problems, lest we see a repeat of last year's Fiesta Bowl aerial attack.