Louisville’s defense is coming off of one of the worst performances any Card defense has put together in recent memory. Kentucky was able to average over 8 yards per play at PJCS on senior day and they were able to put up 352 passing yards in the rivalry game. Louisville has been up and down on defense in some ways this season. They played very well against Florida State and against some lesser opponents, but they have had extremely poor performances against Kentucky and Clemson in losses.
LSU has been (rightfully) labeled as a team with a bad offense but things have shifted a bit in Baton Rouge. Les Miles and Cam Cameron were let go earlier this season and Ed Orgeron looked to Steve Ensminger to run his offense. Ensminger is a 58 year old tight ends coach, but he immediately looked to “open things up” with the offense. LSU has always had the talent there to be good on that side of the ball but they held things back for some reason. The Tigers went on to score at least 38 points in their five wins under Orgeron and they did it with a strong running game as well as deep passes and misdirection plays. They started to take advantage of the athletes and the speed they have at their skill positions and the offense played much better.
The biggest struggle for the Tigers has been at the quarterback position. LSU hasn’t had a quarterback that you would trust to “win” you a game in a few years and right now they are depending on Danny Etling to run their offense. Etling ended up at LSU after losing his starting job at Purdue. Etling isn’t a guy that you want to hand the keys to if you’re trying to get to your destination quickly, but he’s definitely a guy that will get you there safely. He protects the football fairly well and he tends to put the ball in a place where his guy is going to get it or no one else will. However, the ball is not always going to be where his guy can get it, either.
Ensminger has stated that his goal when he took over was to keep the offense in manageable third downs. I think he’s done a great job with that goal by mixing up his run game. They don’t just run the same 4 or 5 runs where a team can adjust. They throw the kitchen sink at you and put Etling in win situations on third down if they get there. That’s where Etling can use his arm strength and timing to hit his receivers on short hitches, slants and outs and pick up the first. It’s also where he can rely on play-action to get favorable matchups outside with his big receivers. Etling throws a really nice deep ball and understands touch well. That’s where he could really excel as UofL gave up deep balls multiple times in their last outing.
Louisville really needs to put pressure on Etling. He’s a calm pocket passer when he feels comfortable but he gets very jumpy when he gets a little shook. The first game I watched of him was against Bama and I left that game thinking that UofL had a great matchup against a bad quarterback. But, when I watched the rest of his season, I felt that Etling was a guy that was much more than serviceable and he seemed like a guy that just didn’t handle the best defense in the country well. He will stand tall and he will face pressure, but he loses his accuracy and he’s liable to throw into a window without knowing if it’s clear or not. That’s where Louisville can gain the advantage. Get him rushed and uncomfortable and take advantage of his mistakes.
The running back position for LSU is one of the most overlooked positions in college football in my opinion. In the age where coaches recruit with the #WRU and #DBU titles, LSU seems to get overlooked as #RBU. Leonard Fournette will be one of the first running backs selected in the draft this spring and he will join 7 other running backs that ended up on an NFL roster after since 2010. If there is one thing you can count on with the Tigers it’s that they will have two NFL caliber running backs on their roster at all times. Fournette won’t play on Saturday so the Tigers will have to rely on that second running back in Derrius Guice.
Guice ended up with more carries than Fournette this season and he used those carries to average 7.9 yards per carry. To put that in context, that’s a little more than a yard less per carry than Lamar Jackson if you take out sack yardage. Guice is fast, he is quick, and he is violent when he runs. LSU loves to run stretch runs that allow Guice to find a hole and burst through it. He does that extremely well and he doesn’t even need a big hole to be able to squeeze through. I think Guice is one of the most talented backs in the country and I would say he’s the best back Louisville will have faced after Dalvin Cook.
The Tigers mix up their running game extremely well. Most teams have a preffered side to run the ball and they’re typically an inside or outside team. The Tigers have an all-american center and two all-sec guards. They don’t have to worry about which side they want to go because they can block it however they want. Their linemen are NFL level guys that can really move and they are massive. Guice is a young player but I find myself being impressed by his ability to be patient. He’s not great at it yet, but he has his moments where he lets his blocks develop and plays off of his best help.
The Cards will have to bring bodies to Guice to stop the run. He’s not a guy that’s easy to stop in space with one player. He can run past you, around you, or through you and Louisville is not a great tackling team in the open field. This can’t be a game where JHC or Chucky Williams are left on their own with Guice coming at them at full speed. Stacy Thomas and Keith Kelsey have to be able to get outside and collapse on him. Cornerbacks also have to get off blocks to force Guice inside where there’s more help. Louisville looked flat out slow against UK and that can’t happen if they want to stop the Tigers’ run game.
LSU’s has had a recent run of having high caliber wide receivers at their disposal but that hasn’t shown much over the last few years. Travon Dural and Malachi Dupree have been the starting duo for the Tigers for three years and they have not been able to put up the numbers fans are accustomed to. Most of this can be attributed to poor quarterback play as well as a vanilla offense. Now that things have opened up a bit, Dupree and Dural have played a little bit better. Dural is a guy that’s going to get you the sure first down and maybe a bit more while Dupree is more likely to push his routes down the field. Both have great size and both are veteran guys that know how to run precise routes and how to create separation.
The third and fourth receiver spots are where I think Louisville can see issues. D.J. Chark might be the fastest receiver Louisville has seen this year and he makes a good amount of big plays for the Tigers. Chark is 6-3 but LSU uses him like a smaller slot-type player at times. He is just as likely to run a deep post route as he is to run a fly sweep or end around. If Ensminger decides to play him in the slot, he could be a big matchup problem. Dee Anderson is a guy that hasn’t done a whole lot this year for the Tigers but I could see this being a game where he steps up. Anderson is long and lanky and he doesn’t have a problem playing across the middle of the field. LSU has a strong play-action game and they could use a guy like Anderson to run deep crosses or in routes behind the linebackers. He’s a guy that the see as a future focus point in their offense and they could look to get him more snaps in the bowl game.
Louisville has to keep the cover on the defense. What I mean by that is that the safeties and corners cannot let LSU’s big receivers get behind them. Etling has shown the ability to deliver the ball down the field in stride and that can lead to some easy touchdowns. Louisville has given up a lot of touchdown passes this season and in the games that they’ve lost, they’ve allowed guys to get behind them where they couldn’t at least make a play on the ball. Todd Grantham likes to play aggressive out wide and I don’t think that’s a bad idea. But, LSU has tons of size and experience and these guys know how to beat coverage. With the running game they have, it might be smart to give up the short passes with softer coverage. Louisville will likely have to bring their safeties up and that will leave the corners on an island. A little cushion might not be a bad idea.
LSU has one of the best offensive lines in the entire country. Led by all-american Ethan Pocic, the group as a whole has spent the year opening huge holes for their running backs as well as doing a great job of giving Etling time. Josh Boutte and Will Clapp are both all-conference level players and the three of them make up a great interior line. Pocic has the ability to pull on run plays, which isn’t too common at this level and I think it gives their running game a lot of versatility. Playing downhill and shooting gaps is a good way to stop a run game, but being able to have your guard block down and your center pull can really help stop that trend. It’s also just nice to have a 6-7 guy that is your best blocker out there leading the way for your running back. These guys also communicate well and do a really good job with blitzers and stunts. That keeps Etling’s vision clear and he can make throws with space to step up.
The tackle spots for LSU aren’t a weakness, but they are a step down from the interior. Maea Teuhema has started at right tackle for most of the season but he is listed with Toby Weatherby as “or” on the depth chart. I think that we will see Teuhema out there and he will have to handle the speed that Grantham likes to bring off that edge. Even without James Hearns, Louisville will blitz in positive scenarios and when they do they like to bring second level guys on that side. K.J. Malone mans the left side and I was impressed by his athleticism. The Tigers will run some screens and Malone is nimble enough to get out in front of them and take on defensive backs. He does well in pass protection also.
Louisville will probably have some trouble confusing Pocic and Etling who are veteran players that have faced Alabama and Florida’s pressure schemes already this year. What they will have to do is find ways to get pressure with timing. The Cards have a tendency to show their blitzes and make it pretty obvious where they’re coming from. If they’re going to have success against this line they absolutely have to blitz from their home. As in, if Stacy Thomas is supposed to hit the gap between the center and left guard, he needs to be in his natural spot over the guard and a few yards back. He can’t start leaning into the gap he’s supposed to hit. It’ll get noticed and they’ll pick up his blitz. I only used Thomas as an example, but those are the types of things you can get away with when you play Boston College. LSU will kill you when you make that kind of mistake.