College football premature post-game impressions – 9/25/2011

LSU 47, WVU 21. The ultimate conclusion for this game was that, to paraphrase Dennis Green, both teams were who I thought thought they were: LSU is one of the best, toughest, most physical teams in the country, and my undisputed #1; and WVU is intriguing but extremely young on both offense and defense, a team that I have high expectations for but one that needs to grow up to have true success. I did think how they got there was extremely interesting, however. West Virginia outgained LSU by close to 200 yards, and, purely from a production standpoint, the vaunted LSU defense has to be extremely disappointed in itself and West Virginia has to know there’s not a team in the country they can’t light up. The biggest bright spot for WVU — and biggest surprise — was the fantastic pass protection Geno Smith received throughout the evening.

I'll take that ball please

But in a strange way if I was an LSU fan I’d be encouraged: Here was a game where my defense, the strength of my team, got eaten up for a gajillion yards, but I still won for three reasons: (1) LSU’s defense still grabbed four crucial turnovers; (2) LSU’s special teams dominated, particularly in the field position battle (the punter was amazing) and the timely kickoff return by Mo Claiborne; and (3) the offense made very few mistakes and was extremely efficient, hitting some big passes in the first half and grinding out the run game in the second. That’s the mark of a great team like LSU: they took an opponent’s best shot and were able to control and win a game with the other phases of their team. LSU will win a lot of games if they can keep up things like this:

Sometimes, it’s less obvious — such as, for example, the fact that LSU’s average starting field position tonight was its own 43-yard line, while West Virginia didn’t start a single possession past its own 29, and only then following the opening kickoff of the game. (For the night, WVU started eleven possessions inside its own 20-yard line; LSU started zero possessions inside its 20.)

For WVU it’s a little more disappointing because there were opportunities, especially considering that they pulled it to 27-21 despite having dug themselves an enormous first half-hole. But the good news for the Mouintaineers is that what did them in last night — against what is in my view the best team in the country — were all fixable mistakes. Indeed, both of Geno Smith’s interceptions were not of the “bad read” variety, with the first being a ricochet off of a dropped pass and the second a bad decision to throw a quick lateral screen despite the presence of Tyrann Mathieu (after the game Holgorsen said Smith had the option to hand the ball off if he didn’t like the look of the screen). And while West Virginia’s special teams must improve, one reason that very talented teams have great special teams is because their rosters are deep. There isn’t anyone in the Big East that will present those kinds of challenges.

Ultimately, both teams have a lot of upside: For WVU, it’s to potentially run the table in the Big East and make a BCS game, while for LSU, it’s to solidify its spot as the best team in the country and to win Miles’s second National Championship. LSU has a big game coming up with Florida, but I can’t help look forward to November 5th, when the Tigers travel to Tuscaloosa to play Alabama. That game might have more BCS title implications than any other this season, including the bowl games.

Alabama 38, Arkansas 14. I love Bobby Petrino’s offense, and it’s typically one of the best, most well orchestrated attacks in the country, but Nick Saban always seems to shut it down. Alabama had an insurmountable 31-7 lead in the 3rd quarter, and whatever else Arkansas tried to do was too little, too late. Indeed, it’s fascinating to contrast Alabama with LSU: ‘Bama may actually have the better defense, though it’s close, but I actually like LSU’s offense a lot better. But LSU doesn’t have Trent Richardson, who kind mask a lot of weaknesses at quarterback, and Saban football teams continue to make a living capitalizing on your mistakes and not making any of their own. As I said above, I know there are other teams in the way, but I can’t wait for LSU/Alabama. As we used to say back home, son you better tie your shoelaces tight and buckle your chinstraps because there’s gonna be some hitting in that one.

Oklahoma State 30, Texas A&M 29.

It seems like all of Oklahoma State’s — and specifically Brandon Weeden’s — games against TAMU are like this: slow starts and a big hole followed by a furious and impressive comeback. A&M defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter had a great plan, using a mixture of coverages and overhang defenders to rush the passer, defend screens, and stop the run, but Oklahoma State got comfortable in the second half. There were some adjustments but there weren’t that many, the biggest thing was just settling down and throwing some quicker passes. (They also used a combination where the inside receiver sat down after about five yards while the outside guy — often Blackmon — ran a square-in behind him.) Of course the story of these games is often the turnovers, and TAMU’s four to OKST’s one were the real difference in the game.

Michigan 28, San Diego State 7. Brady Hoke’s new team faced his old team, and I’m still not sure, despite their 4-0 record, that we know anything about this Michigan football team. The defense seems to be improving under DC Greg Mattison, but they’ve been using so much movement and motion to cover up their talent weaknesses it’s unclear how the defense will fare against a polished opponent. And while the offense has found a better rhythm running a Rich Rodriguez-lite Denard Robinson attack — including Denard’s long TD run on the speed option — his passing line was abysmal: 8 of 17 for 93 yards, no TDs and two interceptions. He’s obviously uncomfortable in the new offense. He looked like a more polished and comfortable passer last year. I chalk some of this up to the fact that the very techniques he’s using are new, but he’s going to have to improve for UM to have success. That said, given Michigan’s favorable schedule — no Wisconsin and the easy part of the Big 10 schedule up next — we may not learn anything about Michigan until the last three weeks of the season, when they play Illinois, Nebraska and Ohio State.

Georgia Tech 35, North Carolina 28. Georgia Tech’s offense didn’t savage the Tar Heels the way it had the Jackets’ previous opponents, but it was still ruthlessly efficient: another nearly 500 yards performance, including thirteen yards per pass attempt. But that passing game remains a bit of a rickety endeavor, and UNC gave them all they could handle. Despite the gaudy numbers I’m not ready to anoint GT the favorite to win the ACC, but that’s premature anyway; for now, after a down year last season, the option is still back, baby.

– Arizona St 43, Southern Cal 22. USC actually slightly outgained Arizona St, but, in the running theme for the evening, they coughed up four turnovers to ASU’s zero, and that’s almost impossible to counteract, especially Matt Barkley’s gruesome pick-six with six minutes to go in the game. Southern Cal has been somewhat of an enigma so far, but Arizona State didn’t seem at all confused: They ran right at the Trojans, and ASU QB Osweiler looked efficient enough, completing 78% of his passes, to steer the team to victory. Arizona State remains one of the most dangerous teams in the country, while Southern Cal remains, well, I just don’t know.

  • Have to agree on LSU/WVU. The Mountaineers, w/o mistakes, look like the class of the Big Least. Especially now that their o-line has passed an immense test.

    LSU deserves every bit of their ranking. But the DB woofing will stop rather quickly when Alabama hits them in the mouth. (Can you tell who I rooted for?)

  • Anonymous

    Jarrett Lee did an outstanding job, as he has so far this season. I wish media types would stop commenting as if he were a liability. Lee has worked himself into an outstanding QB.

    aTm had only 2 rushing attempts in the 3rd quarter and they were both on 2nd & 10. I think if Sherman hadn’t panicked & dialed up more rushes for Gray & Michael the Aggies would’ve won by a comfortable margin. 

  • Anonymous

    How many passes did West Virginia attempt — something like 40-50?

     I recall only one holding penalty on WV, and I think that was declined because of downs. To my eyes, at least 3-5 other times a holding call was deserved. Putting it another way, do you think WV’s blockers are THAT talented?

    LSU has one of the better defensive fronts in the game, even after losing two starters to injuries this year.  Would love to see your breakdown on the pass “blocking” after studying the film. 

    West Virginia had no ability to run the football, yet bore little pain from it. Smart move on its part.  Better to throw, throw, throw and put the onus on the refs to call holding, which they refused to do.

    I enjoy perceptive breakdowns on fancy pass schemes, yet I wonder if part of the success is that coaches are just playing the odds, believing you can hold with impunity in totday’s game, if you’re clever about it.

     WV’s run blocking was truly awful. Call me old fashioned, but it’s distasteful that a team that bad at run blocking should contend for anything substantial, although I suppose a Big East title isn’t that.

  • Eric Hoffpauir

    There were some pretty egregious holding non-calls during the game in LSU’s favor. I mean, LSU clearly was the better team and deserved to win, but still, it’s easier to bust big runs when the defenders are being wrapped up.

  • Anonymous

    Feel free to post any specific video incidents of holding. It does happen; I don’t know if WVU was holding on a majority of plays or not. I’m not sure your logic completely follows: LSU is very talented but didn’t get much pressure; ergo WVU must be holding. Chavis went away from the heavy blitz after the first touchdown drive by WVU. A lot of that had to do with the quick passes WVU was showing, and, likely, the lead LSU had: Chavis probably figured was better to play coverage with his excellent defenders and hopefully take advantages of turnovers rather than give up big plays. LSU played most of the second half with two very deep safeties (again, this was in disrespect to WVU’s run game).

    As far as distasteful, that’s not really analysis. I remember a game where Drew Brees at Purdue played Wisconsin — a bigger, much more physically imposing team. Whereas Purdue had, well, Drew Brees. So Purdue threw the ball 83 — eighty-three times. I suppose that was “distasteful”, so Purdue, with a future all-pro and potential hall of fame QB, would have shown more respect to the game by handing it off to some no name runningback? You ride the horse that brung you. WVU’s a passing team. To seriously contend the run game has to get on track, but they did what they thought they needed to do. Likewise LSU played their game: good, opportunistic D, outstanding special teams, and an efficient offense that hit some big plays and made no mistakes. I love this LSU team and think what they do and who they are is fantastic. I thought WVU played about as well as they could play other than some very crucial mistakes. Not sure why that’s the refs’ fault or that’s distasteful to the game.

    In any event, the one other point I wanted to make is that Les Miles has to be ecstatic about this game (other than some coaching moments for his D). Specifically, I don’t think he ever thought he was going to lose the game to WVU, neither before it or while it was happening. But, for a team heading into big-time SEC play that wants to contend for a BCS title, what a tremendous teaching experience: You get to go on the road for another night game and hostile environment against a team that you should absolutely beat (and did) but that is unique on both offense and defense (i.e. Casteel’s 3-3-5): all of that adds up to great preparation for the meat of LSU’s schedule, the kind of teaching you absolutely can’t simulate in practice. That LSU went in and handled business is all the more credit to the kind of team Les has put together.

  • Trey Palmer

    I’m curious what you mean by the ricketyness of GT’s passing game.  

    Don’t get me wrong, GT will never get by on passing as bread and butter;  but we know going in that’s not how the offense works.

    However, given the structure of the offense it’d be hard to be more pleased and excited by the passing game.   In addition to being better at completing deep throws to take advantage of run-focused secondaries, I’ve been particularly encouraged by Tech’s ability to throw on third down.  The Jackets have converted 8 times on 14 third-down passing attempts, including 3 conversions on 6 tries on third and 10+.    Ability to convert third and long through the air was a big factor in the UNC win.   By comparison GT was 9 of 52 on third and long in 2009-10 combined.

    Tech was sloppy on offense against UNC, fumbling once and stalling a few more times in the red zone.   The game should have more like 24-7 or 28-7 at halftime, giving GT a 20-24 point lead before UNC’s first possession in the third quarter.     Then they might have to stop giving the ball to Bernard, allowing Groh to tee off on Renner.

    Johnson also chose to punt when up 28-21 on 4th-and-1 from the UNC 45, which is very atypical and which he stated after the game he regretted.   GT almost always converts on 4th and 1, and a score on that drive would have come close to icing the game.   But GT did have a tougher time than usual running up the middle on UNC’s very physical defensive front.

  • Mr.Murder

    LSU usually has better HS quarterbacks in its secondary at every spot than the other team has on its entire roster, at all. Best athletes, etc.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, my estimate was conservative. WVU was in pass mode on about 70 snaps, counting sacks. My estimate on the number of holding penalties in pass-pro  — 1 accepted — may also be quite low, but that’s my recollection. Don’t have a video breakdown. Like I said, am going by what I saw, and what I saw was WVU holding with impunity on 3-5 pass plays (and that also may be low). 

    I enjoy reading and seeing the analysis of these intricate passing schemes. I think it’d also be interesting to see a thorough review of WV’s pass blocking against LSU. Maybe it was airtight. I’m skeptical that it was, not so much because of LSU’s reputation, more so on what I saw, especially in the interior.

    As for WV’s strategy and tactics, again, made sense to me. Part of playing the odds could be to put the onus on the refs to flag holding. So much passing and the quick tempo exhaust the defense, too. Smart of them. My comment that passing to that extent and holding with impunity is distasteful wasn’t meant as analysis, just my reaction. 

  • Mr.Murder

    As for the Ark.-Ala. massacre, Saban’s team always shows off new ways to win. At your other link I mentioned how they flipped the script on their ability to trick teams into run checkdowns. Not only do the find ways to matchup and formation you into a run checkdown on a nickle set, they do it in a way that makes it obvious if you passing or running and directs where you can run.

    This allows the nickle and dime defenders to rally hard on the line of scrimmage after the snap.

    Come out late, in a set you know they would have protection shift for, and form the front so late that the team has no time to do much of that. If they do check it lets you know it is a pass, if they don’t it is a run away from the front as well.

    His games are full of subtle yet strategic shifts like that.

    The week before they caught teams in nickle and made them go to run checks like that.  For Petrino they did it where the team would try and go with the call and then rallied to the only place that kind of call could go. Align in ways that limit where the other team can attack, late enough to help key alley rallies occur with the extra pass defenders.

  • Ant Peek

    Morris Claiborne’s big kickoff return had a huge hold during it.  It was going to be a big return without the hold (if it was called from the spot), but you can see in the replay the WVU player’s jersey being stretched out.  

  • Rah

    College football is
    important to a lot of people so I feel really bad for those customers of
    DIRECTV that might be losing it in less than a week. I work at DISH and I know
    all about the take down and I know it can’t be easy to have to worry. I love my
    football so I couldn’t be without it. You shouldn’t take the chance of losing
    the FSN channels and come to DISH. We just signed a long term contract with FOX
    and you have nothing to worry about.