You don’t get jobs at LSU, Auburn, Texas and Florida without being able to coach a little defense. Obviously, Will Muschamp can do that, especially when he’s got some really good players. Without question, he’s got some excellent athletes down in Gainesville. There are NFL players on every level of this Florida defense which has been pretty good through four weeks. Holding Texas A&M and Tennessee to 17 and 20 respectively is pretty salty. LSU has to be better at holding on to the ball and in the penalty department. Those two aspects of the game have crippled what looked like a pretty good offense on paper heading into the season. We’ll see how the Tigers fare this week against the best defense they’ve faced thus far.
LSU Offensive Line vs. Florida Defensive Line
Well we saw the flip last week as Alex Hurst moved from right tackle to left and true freshman Vadal Alexander was inserted at right tackle. That sent sixth year man Josh Dworaczyk to the pine for the evening. Les Miles said after the game that Dworaczyk could have played, so what I inferred there is that the staff WANTED to look at the other option, not HAD TO. Miles said Monday that he expected Dworaczyk back at left tackle this week. After digesting the film, I liked LSU’s look with Hurst and Alexander in there. Of course, playing Towson doesn’t give you the best look. Without question this is still a work in progress. P.J. Lonergan has been steady in the middle. It appears those nagging back problems are a thing of the past. As we’ve said every week, the guard play has been really strong. Josh Williford and La’El Collins continue to be mean and nasty up front. Collins has become a real asset pulling from left to right and clearing out nice holes for the Tiger backs. His athleticism is rare in there, and it looks like the staff is using that more and more.
In the class of 2010, Urban Meyer put together on of the great defensive line groups in history. Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominque Easley were all blue chippers on the high school level. Now Floyd and Easley form the meat of the Gator front. Powell will miss the year with an injury. Easley plays the end at 6-feet-2-inches and 280 lbs. Floyd plays inside where he plugs gaps at 6-feet-3-inches and 303 lbs. Combined, those two have 4.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Floyd has 16 total tackles, Easley eight. Omar Hunter (6‘0“, 313), a massive senior plays the nose. He’s a run stuffer with 17 tackles, but he hasn’t made a play in the backfield. That’s not his job. Leon Orr is the first man off the bench. He’ll replace Hunter in passing situations. He’s 303 lbs., but caries it better at 6-feet-5-inches. He’s made three tackles in the backfield. These guys have combined for exactly one sack, Easley’s, in four games. They play at the line of scrimmage and free up the four linebackers behind them to roam. Teams have enjoyed moderate success running the ball, not a ton. Tennessee only ran for 83 yards, but they were behind in the second half and had to throw. Texas A&M gained 134 and Bowling Green eked over the 100 yard mark. Still, allowing 3.8 yards per carry isn’t all that bad.
LSU’s offensive line hasn’t been great this year. At times, the Tigers have struggled to run the ball, and protection has been an issue. It’s tough to really predict what will happen here because we can’t know for sure what group will play for LSU. We believe it’ll be Dworaczyk-Collins-Lonergan-Williford-Hurst. I still can’t be certain Dworaczyk is an SEC left tackle. He struggles with speed rushers, and that makes Zach Mettenberger uneasy. None of the Florida edge guys are near the quality of Corey Lemonier (Auburn), but they can certainly get off the ball as well as Idaho. Dworaczyk is going to need some help out there at times. I think Florida’s size and athleticism up front is going to be a stiff test for this LSU line, especially early in the ballgame. Expect the Tigers to try to establish the ground game early to take the Florida crowd out of it. I’m not sure LSU can do that right now. This will be a really physical battle. I don’t see an edge.
LSU Running Backs vs. Florida Linebackers
Life after Alfred Blue is proving to be manageable for LSU. One more ding, and things get a little bit more dicey. Spencer Ware sat the second half last week with what looks like a shoulder injury. Ware is doing this to himself it appears. He seeks out so much contact, and eventually it catches up to you. We haven’t heard anything about Ware being limited, but it wouldn’t come as a total shock. Michael Ford ran the ball tough last week, even between the tackles at times. He just about broke off a long one off right tackle, but one Towson tackler got a hand on him and tripped him up. I think he could see some more work this week. He’s plenty strong. Kenny Hilliard has been a little distant the last couple of weeks. He became the father of twins this week. No word on whether or not he missed any practice time because of it. Finally, hold on to the ball. All three of these gys put it on the turf last week. That can't happen.The best news of the week came when Miles said Wednesday that J.C. Copeland practiced fully and could play this weekend. Copeland has just been excellent this year, and no matter who LSU inserted in there, they would not have been as dynamic as Copeland, whether it be blocking or carrying the ball.
Florida will get a huge lift this week as junior Jelani Jenkins returns to the lineup. The weak side linebacker injured his thumb three weeks ago at Texas A&M and had it surgically repaired. He’ll likely wear a cast this Saturday, but expect him in there. Jonathan Bostic is the senior in the middle. He’s got 24 tackles and a team best four for loss. He’s also got a sack and two hurries. Bostic is fast and strong. He can play the run. He can play the pass. Sophomore Neiron Ball mans the strong side. He’s a big boy, but he’s only got five tackles this year. The final one to watch is fifth-year senior Lerentee McRay. This kid is as versatile as they come. He lines up on either side of the field at defensive end or linebacker. Muschamp loves these kids of guys. So does his mentor, Nick Saban. Think of what Courtney Upshaw did for that Alabama defense last year. That’s McRay’s role here. He’s got 10 tackles, he’s picked off a pass, he’s got a sack and he’s hurried the quarterback twice. Mettenberger and his front will have to know where this guy is.
This Florida corps is active and aggressive. Now its leader is back. The beauty of the 3-4 is the freedom the linebackers have to roam and the versatility it gives the defensive coaching staff in terms of sending blitzes from different angles. That’s where we’ll start. Blue’s absence means someone is going to have to step up in the blocking department. Ware is the best at that, but he may not be 100 percent. Ford is not very good there, and Jeremy Hill has blown as assignment in each of the last two weeks. These linebackers are going to be coming from everywhere to pressure a quarterback making his second road start. LSU has to find them and help the line in picking them up. In terms of running the ball, LSU may have to run right at this group like it did last year. That means Ware and Hilliard have to buckle those chin straps. Ford has a role, and he’s done it really well. He may not have quite as much success beating these Florida linebackers to the sideline, but having them softened by a power attack early would help. There are a number of NFL players in this matchup. I give a slight edge to Florida, but only because of the home crowd and adrenaline. Without that, it’s a deadlock.
LSU Quarterbacks and Wide Receivers vs. Florida Secondary
No position in the country has been as scrutinized as badly as LSU’s quarterback. To tell you the truth, I think it’s gotten to Mettenberger a bit. It’s tougher than he thought it would be, and he has lost his left tackle and No. 1 tailback on top of that. Also, his receivers have struggled with the dropsies. He said it this week, though, one good showing this week would change everything. If you play by the numbers, Mettenberger has completed 65.5 percent of his throws and hasn’t thrown a pick in two weeks. Still, the first half last week was dysfunctional. Throws were off, and routes were miscommunicated. Even Kadron Boone dropped a nice throw. Things got better in the second half, but it’s still Towson. One thing we’ve also learned is that Mettenberger is not comfortable throwing the ball on the run. He’s misfired on all of those throws so far. On the bright side, Odell Beckham Jr. broke out last week and made some really nice plays on the deep ball. His confidence was obviously bolstered by the effort. He really took that Washington game hard. Beckham, Jarvis Landry and James Wright put in some extra work this week. They know it’s getting serous. This group has got to create more separation in its route running, and they have to catch the ball. The tight ends showed up last week. Chase Clement caught a 27 yarder and Nic Jacobs hauled in a 21 yarder. Travis Dickson was also targeted on a throw called back for a penalty. That’s something to watch.
This Florida secondary is really good. Really good. The corners are Marcus Roberson and Jaylen Watkins who are both six feet tall and super athletic. Roberson, a sophomore who started last season, has broken up six passes, good for 2nd in the SEC, and picked off another. Watkins has four breakups and a pick of his own. Both of these guys are elite cover guys who now have experience. The safeties might be better. Matt Elam, a junior, is third on the team with 19 tackles, two for a loss. He had 10 in the Tennessee game alone. He’s also intercepted a pass. Josh Evans lead the team with 26 tackles. He’s an Eric Reid-type at 6-feet-2-inches and north of 200 lbs.
We’ll find out a ton about this LSU offense this week, specifically the passing game. LSU has the talent to throw the ball around and score some points in this game. They just haven’t done it this this year. Every aspect of the passing game has gone awry at some point. Pass protection, inaccuracy, lack of separation, drops and confidence have all been problems. Expect Greg Studrawa to get Mettenberger’s feet wet with some quick, high-percentage passes around the line of scrimmage. The bubble screens and slants, most of which are called at the line of scrimmage, will be in action early. Gotta get the crowd out of it. I think Florida feels like it has the advantage on the outside in 1-on-1 matchups. That means two things. Elam may creep up from that safety spot to help with the run, and LSU will have chances to hit a big play. The sluggo has been the play of choice thus far, even going back to Mississippi State last year. How willing is Florida to let LSU run slants all afternoon? I really like Florida in this matchup because I’ve seen those guys play well against passing teams like Tennessee and Texas A&M. They gave up some yards but kept them out of the end zone. Obviously LSU runs the ball better than those teams by and large, but those teams are better than LSU throwing the ball right now. My thought? Show me something, Tigers. Until you do, I gotta go with Florida.
Pretty surprising that LSU doesn’t get a single edge here. Florida does have nine starters back off last season’s defense, and they are all now a year deeper into Muschamp’s scheme. They also have the home crowd with this this time around. Trust me, that’s going to matter. I think, much like in last season’s SEC Championship game against Georgia, the emotion and adrenaline that Florida comes out with will make this really tough on the Tiger ground game. I’m not sure if Miles will allow Mettenberger to try to beat it early. He saw what turnovers could do in 2006 when a really good LSU team got flattened in this stadium. That crowd can take over. Like I said, LSU will come out and try to run some conservative, high percentage plays to get themselves comfortable. As time goes on, Mettenberger and his guys have got to hit a minimum of two big plays on some single coverage. I think the running game may struggle. Florida is going to sell out on it and mathematically that makes things almost impossible. LSU has got to pick up blitzes. I know Florida’s defense hasn’t sacked the quarterback much at all this year, but I think Muschamp sends some pressure. LSU has to communicate in the noise and pick up assignments. Mettenberger will get killed if they don’t. The final key here may be totally off base. LSU made a point o feature the tight ends last week. Why? Because Florida was next. LSU may not be able to consistently work on those Florida corners, but the tight ends may be able to find some soft spots to move the chains. Something to keep an eye on. I haven’t seen enough from the LSU offense to predict a big output against a tough defense. This is a perception changing game for Florida. They win this, and people will start throwing the word “back” around. They know that. They’ll be inspired. I think this is a Tiger team without a ton of confidence.
Prediction: Florida 17, LSU 14