By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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For LSU's fifth game of the campaign, on the back of their 34-31 back and forth "offense first" win over Arkansas, Brian Kelly's Tigers face a tricky road trip against newfound SEC foe Layne "Joey Freshwater" Kiffin's Ole Miss Rebels....a game that will likely be anything but straightforward.
Last season, LSU fell down to a 17 point deficit at home against this very team & staff, at the time a top 10 ranked, undefeated squad, only to rebound in spectacular fashion. Daniels & Co erupted for a 25 point win....thanks to a ridiculous 28-0 second half scoring margin.
Now, much is different about these squads:
In fall 2022 when LSU faced Ole Miss, they were the hungry, 2 loss, down and out, desperately dangerous side, while Kiffin's Ole Miss were riding a wild top 10, 7-0 wave that only served to massage their ego in the end; over 4 quarters, LSU's complete desire won out.
This time around, Kelly's Tigers are the team riding a wave, on the cusp of the top 10 where they started, winning 3 in a row after a nightmare opener @ Florida State. On the flipside, Layne's Rebels are licking their wounds after a 24-10 belittling at the hands of Alabama....losing control of a 7-6 lead at halftime to finish 18-3 during a 2nd half death march. Unable to match Saban's running game with their own, Kiffin was left emasculated.
That's a dangerous place for a man to be....angry, defiant, enraged, humiliated, defeated...but unlike most men in that situation, Kiffin's gig affords him no "mental health days"......each week, just like Kelly, Saban or Smart, he is forced to embark upon furious vengeance or suffer another kicking....ending in complete meltdown from a rabid fanbase.
Kiffin is a dangerous man for LSU this week....never short of confidence, Freshwater actually appeared more distraught and timid than his typically stoic demeanor at press conferences following defeat;
There was an antsy, anxiousness to his every answer, unsure if he wanted to face the realities of Ole Miss's inability to bolster star sophomore running back Quinshon Judkins (57 carries, a very respectable 4 scores, yet Judkins is only averaging just 3.5 yards per carry...nearly 4 yards under his All-SEC freshman production).
Is this a team ready for the meat grinder of an LSU freight train on a mission??
Or is this earlier than usual September meeting in Oxford a possible trap game ready to open its jaws and devour the Tigers' promising year with a 2nd loss??
Well, let's dig into some important, key, telling film and statistical analysis:
Their offensive line continues to be a concern when I viewed their near defeat vs Tulane; former LSU DL assistant / current Tulane DL Coach Gerald Chatman's D-Line and linebacking corps (including former 2019 Tiger Jared Small) absolutely roasted Kiffin's offensive line and sent QB Jaxson Dart running for his life for 4 quarters.
Much has been made of their failures to free up Quinshon Judkins (just 2.63 yards after contact and 10 missed tackles forced; for comparative context, Logan Diggs registered 5 missed tackles forced vs Arkansas from just 14 carries....Judkins has been fed 57 times), but the Ole Miss O-Line's lackadaisical protection for QB Dart is even more highly suspect:
Their OL and primary blockers surrendered 36 pressures, although only 5 hits and 3 sacks allowed over 4 games, coupled with Dart ranking as the #1 SEC QB rusher........he isn't pulling off a ton of designed runs, Dart is mostly running for his life (tackle Micah Pettus is specifically vulnerable to pressures, allowing 9 and 2 sacks, both team leads).
At the same time, LSU's defensive front may contain some of the best names in college football in one unit, Harold Perkins, Mekhi Wingo, and Maason Smith, yet in total, the Tigers' pressure rating ranks 11th within the SEC alone (57 pressures, 9 sacks, 11 QB Hits, 37 QB hurries).
For example, LSU delivered 20 pressures vs Arkansas, their best marks out of 4 games, and only produced 3 sacks.
With a few starters' playing time in question, as a slew of hungry substitutes made their mark during Week 3, could a personnel shakeup along LSU's front affect Ole Miss' shaken O-line even more???
Ole Miss possess a duo of 300 yard receivers, Dayton Wade and Jordan Watkins, however just 1 TD catch between the pair through 4 contests is alarming, although Tre Harris matches LSU's twin powers Nabers & Thomas at 5 scores (188 yards, 8 catches).
Throwing the ball over 20 yards, Jaxson Dart is 8/16 for 291 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT, with the bulk of his passing success centering around the middle 10+ intermediary segment of the field, hitting 14/19 passes for 348 yards, 1 interception, and 5 touchdowns.
Yes, Layne Kiffin will demand his Rebels run the ball, but he'd be a fool to let our struggling secondary off the hook.
Ole Miss will try to run the ball down LSU's throat and test the durability of that front seven, but don't be shocked if they open this game by lighting up our DBs in an attempt to get their crowd whipped into a frenzy.
Defensively, Ole Miss are racking up numbers, a remarkable 73 pressures (43 hurries, 16 QB hits), 33 tackles for loss, 14 sacks, 15 pass break ups, 3 forced fumbles ending up as 3 fumble recoveries, while allowing 905 yards (419 after catch), 11.8 per grab, 4 TDs, intercepting 3 passes, and giving up 20 points to Tulane, 23 to Georgia Tech and losing by 14 to Alabama.
Their coverage numbers almost mirror LSU's porous secondary, nearly matching number of yards (901 yards for LSU), per catch average (12.9 for LSU), although the Tigers gave up 5 more passing scores at the backend.
Nabers or Thomas Jr should have major success against safety Trey Washington or corner Deantre Prince: Washington allowing 196 yards already this campaign alongside 10 receptions, Prince giving up 109 yards from 7 catches, both scored on through the air.
This front aren't worrying me right now; against Brad Davis' O-Line, it should be tough sledding for the Rebels' defense.
The Ole Miss front seven earned most of their gaudy pressure numbers vs Mercer, Tulane or Georgia Tech. The question is: Will LSU be able to run the ball effectively, utilizing Logan Diggs (97 yards on 14 carries last Saturday), Josh Williams (41 yards on 1 carry vs Arkansas....I know that's weird to read), stud freshman standout Kaleb Jackson, and Noah Cain??
A main question I have:
What kind of impact could a defensive personnel shakeup have on LSU's front pressure, with Bradyn Swinson (8 pressures = 3rd among LSU defenders), Dashawn Womack (3 pressures & his 1st sack vs Arkansas), and Jordan Jefferson (10th in the nation regarding run stopping, 2nd on the team in tackles for loss at 2.5) all given increased playing time?
As for LSU's secondary, Jaxson Dart could find success, still, the key ingredient in LSU avoiding another rollercoaster showdown like last Saturday???
Our secondary refusing to allow Dart an early, easy rhythm through his intermediary crossing and slant route favorites would be ideal, still they'll need help from linebackers in coverage, as well.
Setting up the pass rush to wreak havoc on Dart, we also must remain cautious of his escape ability, the Utah native gassing teams for rushing gains via scrambling (156 of his 209 rushing yards are after contact, forcing a paltry 4 missed tackles....he's quick, but he shouldn't make our defensive speed & power miss).
This is where I believe Matt House's settled linebacking corps will pay maximum dividends, specifically in the speed and tackling departments. Perkins, Penn III and Whit Weeks combined for 42 tackles, 11 pressures, 5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBUs and 2 forced fumbles over their duo of appearances starting together.
But if Dart begins to complete explosive passes, or even build a sustained aerial rhythm, making the Tigers' struggling DBU a factor, it could be another back and forth shootout for the second straight weekend in a row.
As always, expect the unexpected.
Common sense tells us Our Tigers Roll Kiffin up in a tarp and send his ass out to sea with a 2nd SEC defeat, but history always proves the wiser:
This is a playoff game....whoever wins will be jettisoned above the other within the SEC West rankings, and in LSU's case, still holding 2023 CFP destiny in their hands (Ole Miss would need to finish undefeated and get a little help).
Because of the high stakes, any little advantage or play could swing this one, and I'll forecast this key to the game:
You've heard it many times before, still this cliche'd truth isn't any less valid: whichever team is able to physically impose themselves in the trenches will win this game.
OLE MISS 31
I believe we're about to witness a high scoring affair, although some of Ole Miss's points will arrive during garbage time after LSU build a 3 touchdown lead......remember, whatever happens in the first half may not be a definitive omen: Kiffin's Ole Miss tend to supply daring, dazzling first halves, only to come out of the locker room for the 2nd session scared, disorganized and lacking energy.
There is no getting around it:
Ole Miss are a poor second half program, and that fact, plus their lackluster 3rd down production compared to LSU's elite play on critical downs, will be their undoing.
Jayden Daniels will once again be the Tigers' smooth operating quarterback, and he's loving the deep ball right now more than any pass on the chart: On throws of 20+ yards, Daniels completed 13/18 passes for 513 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs & a QBR of 148.6 over 4 games.
Expect that trend to continue, even if the Ole Miss secondary somehow contain Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr (they won't), a deep ball for Chris Hilton Jr is always on the menu.
Daniels will throw yet another 300 yard game, hitting 371 for 3 TD Passes, another duo for Malik and one more for Mason Taylor inside the red zone, yet the scorching passing game will be set up by LSU's running game:
Averaging 191 yards per game rushing the ball prior to Week 5, expect that average to increase following the Ole Miss game:
Logan Diggs, Josh Williams and Kaleb Jackson all bash, burn and bully the Rebel front, while the Tigers' OL dominate inside the trenches.
On defense, LSU's woes still rise to the surface, however an increased pass rush finishing ratio (7 sacks on Dart) turns the Tiger front seven rabid, despite giving up plenty of yards through the air or on the ground....most of the gains remain fruitless thanks to big time red zone stops & 2 turnovers, a strip sack from Mekhi Wingo and an interception by Whit Weeks.
OFFENSIVE / DEFENSIVE STAT PREDICTIONS
Daniels: 371, 4 TDs
Diggs: 121 Rushing, 1 TD
Nabers: 157 Receiving, 2 TDs
Hilton Jr: 71 Receiving, 1 TD
Wingo: 1 Sack, 1 FF, 7 Tackles
Weeks: 6 Tackles, 1 INT, 1 PBU
Perkins: 8 Tackles, 1 FR, 1 Sack
Swinson: 2 Sacks
Jefferson: 0.5 Sack, 3 Tackles, 1.5 TFLs
Jones: 1.5 Sacks, 1 PBU, 4 Tackles
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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