by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
There's no question this Saturday night's event between LSU & Auburn at Death Valley will likely be another close affair, as is usually par for course in this SEC West rivalry's history; however, both teams possess certain strengths which could overtake each other's glaring weaknesses and decide this game.
Which team has the most to worry about headed into 2021's edition of LSU vs Auburn?
WEAKNESSES FOR LSU
LSU's offensive line has been careless in protecting their QB Max Johnson this season, letting big #14 take monumental hits, sacks or left as spectators by more aggressive D-linemen, forcing Max to take off away from their relentless pressure.
Their lack of cohesion up front disturbed LSU's offensive rhythm vs UCLA and absolutely cost us the game...not only from Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz feeling forced into deploying RB Ty Davis-Price in a maximum pass protection look on 2nd and long or 3rd down, but there were far too many routes which were just about to open up before Max had to escape the collapsing pocket.
Now, LSU's offense are moving faster in bursts, attempting to utilize Max Johnson's quick striking fervor to his large cache of receiving talents.....
In this high octane manner, LSU obliterated Central Michigan, as they should have. Although last week @ Mississippi State, Peetz's pedal to the metal style was seemingly curbed for a "wham, bam, thank you ma'am" approach, scoring from 3 plays of 41+ yards including two over 55.......but for all their big play flair or opportunistic execution, LSU's offense failed to ever find a legitimate, distinctive control over Zach Arnett's Miss St defense....
That's because we lost the game in the trenches.
When you look over and your best OL Ed Ingram is blocking the air on multiple plays across two different games, you have to wonder....
A unit that started a combined 147 games has become injured, tired, even jaded....especially when you hear the same words coming out of the mouths of starting LSU offensive linemen during press conferences.
While LT Cam Wire will return from a few weeks out to help bolster some of the "in and out" shuffling chaos, OL Coach Brad Davis has been handed an uphill task coaching up this year's group...a unit many believed would be successful due to returning veterans Austin Deculus, Ed Ingram, Chasen Hines etc....instead, the starting unit have barely played more than a few drives together, both Wire and Deculus going down vs UCLA.
Against a defense that held Penn State to under 3 yards per carry, Auburn's rushing stoppage is elite:
Allowing only 104.3 average rushing yards per opponent from 36 carries, Auburn's front surrendered just 2.9 yards per touch through 4 games....
Rushing the ball for 80.3 yards per game, the Tigers are in real trouble against this team if they can't run the football...
Will our OL be able to get off first contact and take it next level, getting hats consistently on linebackers rather than staying pinned at the line of scrimmage?
I don't think they'll be able to with consistency....it may just be for bits and pieces...a few chunks here or there......
......be hopeful for 150 yards rushing total.....expect 75....
Either they'll need an encore of last weekend's "big play festival" to paint over the O-Line's cracks, or LSU could lose this game at home to an inferior opponent.
Sure, LSU's steadily improving defense give up only 111 yards per game on average when you look at the paper.....but that number has been grossly helped by two teams that couldn't run the ball and a third, Miss St, who won't.....
Thus, the best judge for how LSU can handle Auburn's 257.5 yards per game attack behind All-American Tank Bigsby, talented stud Shaun Shivers and dual weapon Demetris Robertson????
How about we start with a better comparison than McNeese St or Central Michigan:
We don't have to go back that far to find a worthy selection for analysis here....
Week 1 @ The Rose Bowl against UCLA, a game in which LSU's trenches & linebackers were buried & bullied over 4 quarters for 223 yards, 5.2 per rush, and 2 monumental touchdowns which sealed the Bruins' biggest win of the 21st century.
After watching such disciplined coordination and fundamental tackling on the road, early in the morning @ Miss St, surely this Saturday night at home vs Auburn, with the big Bayou moon as our great forbidden witness, we should see a lively, fired up defense ready to deliver another victory.
But it won't be easy against Bigsby or Shivers, both producing excellent cutting abilities, change of direction in the hole, superb athleticism, violent power from Bigsby, and most of all.....while both are creative runners, their offensive line isn't forcing them to be.
If LSU are going to be able to prevent a huge rushing night from ultimately leading to defeat, Defensive Coordinator Daronte Jones must figure out how he can make his second level more mobile.
Our linebackers & safeties must continue their play-making spree, looking at Cordale Flott's INT & FF, Jay Ward and Major Burns combining for 15 tackles @ Miss St and Damone Clark's 15 alone.
I have said a few times that I felt Damone would be a deficiency vs Miss St....I was wrong.
Here, facing a team he struggled against last year, will Clark be able to attack the Auburn running game with pace or will he fall asleep on his gap assignments, much like he did vs UCLA again and during most of 2020?
Or will LSU's #18 continue his dominance over the past 3 outings?
If I'm Damone....I'm looking at Tank Bigsby and saying "I'm comin' for you every time you touch the ball..."
This is a game for LB Navonteque Strong to play a bunch of reps, the dynamite JUCO transfer possessing a much-needed mobility and raw strength combination....by that same token, Micah Baskerville should see plenty of action, of course.
But let's don't get it wrong here....however Damone Clark fares against the run will play a major role upon how well the LSU defense will play.
STRENGTHS FOR LSU
ANDRE CARTER & COACH O'S D-LINE
Whether Bo Nix or TJ Finley start at quarterback is inconsequential when discussing the LSU Fighting Tigers' brilliant, national powerhouse defensive line.
Leading the country in sacks with 18, Carter's vicious and deep unit only grabbed 1 sack vs Miss State last week because that was the defensive game plan....every other outing, the Tigers grabbed 4+ sacks and registered 33 tackles for loss over the past 3 games.
More than just showcasing sackmasters such as B.J Ojulari (5 sacks in 4 games) or Ali Gaye (2 sacks in 2 starts during 2021), LSU's DL have a varied group of chaos hunters, just chomping at the bit to disrupt the backfield, blow up hand offs, force fumbles, smash QBs, block passing lanes, deflect passes, whatever is needed DL scientists Jaquelin Roy, Neil Farell, Maason Smith and the ever-improving Jacobian Guillory.
If LSU can force TJ Finley or Bo Nix into repeatedly predictable downs, this highly athletic, incredibly quick unit should pressurize either Auburn quarterback into making mistakes.
Both Finley & Nix have turnovers in their game, struggle against pressure, and still, at the end of the day, have just enough talent to beat LSU on Saturday... if Auburn's running game can establish itself and their receivers make repeated big plays...the latter of which isn't likely.
But.....Can LSU sustain pressure against Auburn?
Only allowing 3 sacks all season, Auburn's OL have played okay, keeping two teams from registering a single sack, headlined by their ability to hold then-#10 Penn State to 0 sacks on the road.
Despite giving up the ball only once this season (from a fumble), Bo Nix's 5 touchdowns and 0 INTs is just as bad as it appears:
Bland, putrid and lifeless over his past two Saturdays, Bo Nix hasn't thrown a touchdown pass since the beginning of the 3rd quarter vs Alabama State on September 11th, recording back to back weeks with 0 TDs......since then, backup (??) QB TJ Finley threw 2 TDs in only 2 limited substitute appearances.
The recipe is there for LSU's defensive line to absolutely eat, rattling Finley or Nix into colossal errors, and getting home often to punish the Auburn QBs.
Still, the Grade A- trajectory from this Auburn offensive line cannot go unnoticed, it can't be discounted....and LSU's defensive line must prepare for their most intensive test, both in stopping the run (as we previously covered) and pressuring these two quarterbacks.
LSU'S SKILL POSITION WEAPONS
If Tigers' Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz is in the mood to trust his sophomore QB Max Johnson with the keys to the offense, this vengeful LSU Tigers' offense could electrify the hometown crowd all night long, riding dirty all over the Auburn secondary & linebackers.
But that miraculous dream is only possible if Jake Peetz is willing to put the pedal to the metal, use more RPOs, stop forcing his quarterback to look to the sidelines for an audible, and let him run and gun.
When Max Johnson and Kayshon Boutte are able to take the field together, even against top defenses, bad offensive play-calling, avoiding an offensive shutout @ Auburn last year when Max came off the bench, etc, there is no defense I've ever seen that's been able to shut this duo down.
Not one bit...
Kayshon Boutte has 13 touchdowns during his 14 appearances, while Max has tossed all 13 of Boutte's scores across 2020 and 2021 from just 9 total showings with the Biletnikoff shoe-in (including Kayshon's first ever as a Tiger, his long TD down the sidelines vs Auburn last Halloween).
Pencil him in for a touchdown...no matter what.
Then there's the matter of who will rise up and play Robin to The Boutte Batman?
I'm looking for a Jack Bech revival here...why was he curiously, sickeningly only targeted 3 times @ Mississippi State?
That must be rectified and I'm hoping Jack will receive targets early and often; he's a freshman who already displays the capacity to take over games, dominate opponents, influence his teammates for the better, and catch just about everything....including that crazy, low bobbling pass he juggled twice just to keep it from bouncing on the ground behind him, before snagging the ball in tight with both hands (ref wrongly reviewed the catch and called the play incomplete).
Get him the damn ball...
Featuring a cast of proven, unproven and "kinda proven" uber-talents supporting Boutte, from the rising Trey Palmer (2 TDs in his last 3 appearances), the returning pace of Jontre Kirklin, the dynamic freshmen Deion Smith, Malik Nabers & Brian Thomas Jr's afterburners, or Jack Bech's underrated yards after catch majesty, if LSU cannot utilize their speed at receiver on the outside, they will lose this game.
In the SEC, you cannot waste such a wide range of offensive talents, keep a litany of your core playmakers adrift, leave big time yardage and TDs off the board, or be so remarkably one-dimensional without losing a lot of games.....
LSU aren't putting up big time passing touchdown numbers because they want to advertise Max Johnson's passing prowess at every turn....they simply have to throw the ball to convert 3rd down plays, score points or win games.
CHECK OUT OUR FIRST PREVIEW FOR LSU VS AUBURN, ALL ABOUT TJ FINLEY'S RETURN BACK TO THE BAYOU, HIS LSU CAREER & MORE....
CHECK OUT OUR PREDICTIONS PIECE & POSTGAME SHOW ON SATURDAY, FOUND AT LSUODYSSEY.COM AND THRU OUR YOUTUBE CHANNEL.
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
SHOUTOUTS My fiancee Chelsea, our dog Rivers & ferret Auri The Fuss, whom this is all dedicated.