In today’s in-depth match-up, we take a look at how the Gator defense and Tiger offense will compete head-to-head on the field. Tomorrow’s special teams.
By: Mark McLeod
When the LSU and Florida defenses look across the line of scrimmage at practice, they must be thinking along the same lines. Offensively, the Tigers returned only two experienced offensive linemen and a plethora of talented and experienced skills position players. Their most decorated lineman will miss Saturday’s game to injury. Meanwhile, Florida’s most decorated defensive lineman will make his return this Saturday.
Veteran offensive guard Will Arnold will miss the next two to three weeks with an ankle injury. Arnold was a pre-season first team All-Southeastern Conference selection on every publication in the country. He will be replaced in the Tigers lineup by sophomore Herman Johnson who played in all of the Tigers games in 2005, but started only once.
The Tigers offensive line has drawn criticism for not blowing open holes for running backs Justin Vincent, Alley Broussard, Jacob Hester, or Charles Scott. They’re likely to find that road difficult against a Florida defensive front that is very good.
The Tigers have been very good in pass protection though. They have given up fewer sacks than anybody in the conference. Tucked safely in- JaMarcus Russell has time to hit standout wide receivers Craig Davis, Dwayne Bowe, and Early Doucet . LSU has one of the nation’s premier passing games.
“A little bit about LSU,” Meyer said. “They have done a great job recruiting. They are loaded. Last year there was no question in my mind that they were the most talented team in the Southeastern Conference. I can’t say that yet because we haven’t seen all the film on them yet. It’s gonna be hard to beat this talent and they lost a lot of guys a year ago. So that kinda tells you how well they’ve done. It’s a great way to evaluate recruiting and they’ve done a great job of it the last four or five years. They are a very talented team and we are gonna have to play our very best to win this one. I think this is two very good teams going at each other at this time of the year.”
The Big Uglies
Florida has a wealth of experience, speed, and athleticism throughout their defense. That is not lost on opposing offensive coordinators who have adjusted by shortening their passing game. The two and three step drops by quarterbacks hitting receivers who run a bevy of quick slants, screens, and skinny posts have cut into the Gators ability to sack the quarterback. Make no mistake though, the pressure has been constant.
Last week, senior Ray McDonald moved back to his defensive end position. Seldom used sophomore Javier Estopinan (6-1 282) got his first career start for the Gators at defensive tackle. He recorded three tackles. Estopinan was named to the Florida champions club for his performance. He had a 45-0 record as a wrestler at South Miami High School. The wrestling in south Florida is among the best in the south. He has the on-field temperament coaches absolutely love.
However, senior noseguard Marcus Thomas (6-3 305) returns this weekend against LSU. Thomas has only recorded seven tackles this season, but three of them are sacks. He has sat out the past two games. Thomas has an explosive first step, tremendous quickness, speed, and athleticism that is certain to help the Gators.
Playing alongside Estopinan is senior tackle Joe Cohen (6-2 296). Signed as a running back out of Palm Bay High School, Cohen has accumulated 10 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, ½ a sack, a forced fumble, and has broken up a pass. Reserve Steven Harris (6-5 285) is a former starter at defensive tackle. He has three tackles and has been credited with half a sack. Both Cohen and Harris possess great strength, athleticism, and speed.
The Gators are set at defensive end. Experience coupled with strength, speed, and good quickness on one side. There is tremendous speed and athleticism on the opposite side.
McDonald (6-3 280) has returned from having both knees surgically repaired. The senior appears to be fast approaching his potential. McDonald has 15 tackles, including two sacks, and three tackles for a loss. His leadership has been a boon for the defense.
You can’t begin talking about tremendous quickness, speed, and potential without mentioning the name of defensive end Jarvis Moss (6-6 251). His first step off the ball is unreal. Moss’ quickness is reminiscent of Georgia’s Quinton Moses. Obviously, Moss hasn’t yet produced to the level of Moses. Furthermore, the junior bulked up over the off-season and plays against the run very well too. Moss has 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, which includes 2.5 sacks, and seven quarterback hurries.
Redshirt sophomore Derrick Harvey (6-5 252) adds a nice blend of speed and quickness off the bench. He doesn’t have Moss’ first step, but he can run. However, his experience is even more limited than Moss. Harvey has nine tackles, three sacks, and six quarterback hurries.
Weakside linebacker Earl Everett (6-3 234) is one of the centerpieces to this extremely talented defense. He was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week for his monster play against Tennessee. He led the Gators with 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Everett can run, hit, and has a nose for the football as evidenced by his 31 tackles, two tackles for loss, and two quarterback hurries. Everett is second on the squad in tackles. He should garner plenty of votes for the all conference team after the season.
Brandon Siler (6-2 235) is one of the Gators tremendously experienced linebackers. Describing Siler is rather easy. The All-SEC selection is simply a great football player who might even be a better leader. He had terrific game against the Volunteers with seven tackles, two for a loss, and a sack. He is currently third on the team with 27 tackles, including five tackles for loss, including a sack, two quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.
Fifth year senior Brian Crum (6-3 235) mans the strongside linebacker position as a first year starter. Crum has seen significant action on special teams throughout his career, while playing as a reserve at tight end moved to linebacker in ’03 where he saw very little action. He played pretty well against Tennessee. Crum has 12 tackles and one and a half tackles for loss. He also has a quarterback hurry.
While there is plenty of talent playing behind the linebackers, experience is virtually non-existent. True freshmen Brandon Spikes (6-3 240) and Dustin Doe (6-0 215) have been impressive in practice and are beginning to see playing time off the bench.
Overview: The Florida interior defensive front received a huge boost with the return of Marcus Thomas. Joe Cohen and Steven Harris are still very good football players. Adding Estopinan has provided the Gators with a quality player and depth against an LSU offensive line that hasn’t run blocked well at all. The Tigers who are averaging only 2.46 yards per carry in conference play figure to struggle mightily against the Gators.
The numbers certainly bear that out. Opponents are averaging just two yards per carry and 50.2 yards per game rushing against the Gators. That is tops in the conference and fourth best in the nation.
The speed and athleticism at the defensive end position blend perfectly with Florida’s strong inside game. The premier battle will be between Jarvis Moss and redshirt freshman left tackle Ciron Black.
Siler (23 starts) and Everett (34 starts) are the only experienced linebackers at Florida. They must stay healthy.
LSU has proven to be outstanding when the chips are down. In red zone, they’ve covered 20 of 22 (90.9%) opportunities with 18 going for touchdowns. The Tigers are fifth in the nation in converting third down conversions at 56%.
Florida has been pretty good defending the red zone, allowing three touchdowns and three field goals in ten opportunities. However, the Gators have allowed far too many third down conversions against quality opponents. When combined, Tennessee (6 of 13) and Alabama (8 of 15) converted on 14 of 28 (50%) attempts.
The Florida secondary has allowed an average of 227 yards passing in conference play. Erik Ainge of Tennessee and Andre’ Woodson of Kentucky had solid passing performances against the Gators. The pair have combined for 44 of 71 (61.9%) for 441 yards and a pair of touchdowns with two interceptions. Alabama’s John Parker Wilson had a tremendous first half, but struggled mightily in the second half against Florida.
Florida received a tremendous boost when cover corner Ryan Smith (5-10 165) graduated and transferred to Florida from Utah this summer. He has been a blessing in the wake of the Avery Atkins departure. There was no learning curve as he has a fine understanding of the defense. Smith has 18 tackles. He intercepted two of Wilson’s passes last weekend against Alabama. He should have had a third, which he would have taken it to the house if not for getting a little too excited when he realized that nothing lay ahead of him but green grass. .
Playing the opposite corner is senior Reggie Lewis (5-10 196), who is best remembered for making the play of the game against Vanderbilt a year ago. Lewis has good speed, has improved his cover skills dramatically, and solid hands. Lewis is a former wide receiver who started several games in place of the injured Vernell Brown last year. He has an interception, which he returned for 35 yards. Lewis has also knocked down three passes.
Strong safety Tony Joiner (6-0 208) leads the team with 32 tackles. He also has two tackles for loss, has broken up two passes, an interception, and safety to his credit. The junior packs a wallop. Joiner is a first year starter, who has seen quite a bit of time on special teams and as a reserve.
The most feared member of the Florida secondary is free safety Reggie Nelson (6-1 193). The junior is a fantastic football player who brings speed, quickness, football savvy, and hits like a brick. Furthermore, Nelson can do it all- play cover corner, strong, free, or nickel equally well. He is the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Week for his play against Alabama. He returned a Wilson interception 70 yards for a touchdown. Nelson is tied for the Southeastern Conference with four interceptions.
Reserve safety Kyle Jackson (6-1 200) was a starter as a freshman, who struggled last season. However, he is playing well and figures to be the first man out playing safety when Florida goes nickel.
Overview: Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson completed 10 of 15 passes in the first half against the Gators. However, he was only able to complete 11 of 25 in the second half. Kentucky and Tennessee were able to utilize a short passing game to keep the chains moving. Neither was able to do much in the second half either, as the heat was significantly been turned up on Ainge, Woodson, and Wilson after the intermission. LSU has very talented wide receivers and throws the ball down field more often. While every week is an opportunity to prove yourself and evaluate, this weekend should provide some keen insight into the Florida secondary.
The Tigers have pass protected very well all year. The Gators got a huge bonus with the return of Marcus Thomas, while the Tigers lose their best offensive lineman. If Florida can get any pressure on Russell and force him to make mistakes or at the very least shorten the time that he has to find these outstanding receivers…
SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida
Fine adjustments by the staff, the second half fire of the defensive unit, and seemingly some tiring by opponents has allowed Florida to allow just one touchdown in the second half.
Last week, every Florida defensive player received nomination into The Champions Club. The Champions Club is a weekly recognition for outstanding play. That followed the previous week when no Florida defensive player received nomination into the club. Their first half performance against Kentucky was enough to warrant the coaches’ decision. The players admitted that they came out flat and made numerous mental mistakes. A bevy of mental errors in the coming month will cost them dearly.
LSU seemingly employs the running back by committee system, which has proven largely ineffective to date, except in the red zone. Florida has faced two feature backs- Southern Mississippi’s Damion Fletcher, who is currently eighth in NCAA rushing averaging 122.8 yards per game. Fletcher gained just 89 yards on 18 carries for the Golden Eagles against the Gators. Last weekend, Alabama’s Kenneth Darby gained just 77 yards on 14 carries in a game where Florida’s tackling was average at best. Still, LSU will be hard pressed to gain yardage on the nation’s fourth rated run defense.
LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell has made tremendous strides over last year. If given time, he is very dangerous. They’ll have to find ways to pressure him and knock him down when they do. He is an enormous quarterback at 6-6 252. Disguised coverages worked very well at times against Wilson, but Russell is a veteran. He has seen much more. Russell is currently second in the nation in passing efficiency. The Tigers also have three outstanding wide receivers, who are the best tandem that Florida will see in the regular season. Florida will need pressure from Moss, RayMac, Thomas, Cohen, and Harvey. Meanwhile, Smith, Lewis, Nelson, Joiner, Jackson, and McCollum will have to be at their best.
The Gators are 13th nationally in total defense. They are currently fourth nationally in run defense. They have given up very few big plays. LSU is one team that will challenge them deep if they have the time.
by Matt Deville
The LSU Tigers have had two weeks to lick their wounds after a physically trying and emotionally draining 7-3 loss at Auburn on Sept. 16.
The Tigers took out a little frustration on the likes of Tulane and Mississippi State and again scored 40-plus points in a pair of home games. LSU beat the Green Wave 49-7 and roughed up the Bulldogs 48-17. The Tigers have scored over 45 points in all four home games this season.
It is back to the real thing this week as LSU prepares to travel to Gainesville to meet the No. 5 ranked Florida Gators. The Tigers racked up 309 yards of offense at Auburn, but managed three points. LSU’s defense rated No. 1 in the nation, allowed just 182 yards to Auburn, but still lost the game 7-3.
LSU struggled to run the football against Auburn, which proved to be its undoing. And while the Gators have one of the better defensive units in the land, the Tigers may not face another defensive squad as complete as that of Auburn three weeks ago.
Here we take a look at the LSU offense from top to bottom, examine its strengths and weaknesses and catch you up on whose done what so far this season.
Probably the biggest question mark coming into the season for the Tigers was the offensive line.
LSU lost three starters from last year’s O-Line, including all-American Andrew Whitworth. Also lost were veterans Rudy Niswanger and Nate Livings. Replacing all three of those key players was to be the toughest task for Les Miles.
However, the cupboard wasn’t totally bare for the Tigers as three players returned who had started games last season including all-American candidate left guard Will Arnold, center Brett Helms and right guard Brian Johnson.
Slated to fill in the vacant tackle positions were redshirt freshman Ciron Black on the left side and fifth-year senior Peter Dyakowski.
With what many thought to be a stable of talented running backs, the initial thought was the front five needed to merely pass block well allowing JaMarcus Russell time to throw the ball. The running backs would need only a crease here and there to make things happen.
However, the Tiger runners have stumbled out of the gate (ran for 42 yards at Auburn) and a portion of the blame has been on the offensive line. Miles said both the backs and linemen are at fault, but one thing is for sure, LSU is struggling to move the football on the ground.
As bad as LSU has been advancing the ball via the rush, the big men have done an excellent job protecting Russell. The 6-6 signal caller has been sacked only four times this season, including only one coming at the hands of the blitz-happy Auburn defense.
Coming into the Florida game, LSU will be hurting in a big way on the offensive line. Arnold severely sprained his right ankle against Mississippi State and is doubtful for Saturday. “Big” Herman Johnson is expected to step into his place at left guard.
Johnson returns to the lineup at right guard after missing the last two games with turf toe.
Overview: LSU has most definitely struggled running the ball and people want Miles and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to throw the ball to set up the run.
With Arnold out of the lineup, this even further lessens LSU’s chances of effectively running the ball especially against a Florida rushing defense that is giving up just 50 yards per game (4th nationally).
Johnson is a very capable replacement for Arnold and can move quite for a guy his size, 6-8, 340. Johnson is a seasoned veteran on the other side of center and he should be ready to go after nursing turf toe for the last two weeks.
THE SKILL GUYS
While LSU has really struggled running the ball, the Tigers have tossed it around as well as anyone in the country.
JaMarcus Russell was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week this week after completing 18 of 20 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns versus Mississippi State last Saturday.
The junior from Mobile has shown tremendous presence and poise this season and is much more composed and mature from year’s past. Russell no doubt wants to atone for the poor showing he made in his last visit to the Swamp in 2004.
“It’s going to be a good one,” Russell said of the impending SEC showdown with Florida. “And I promise you I’m a whole different person than from back then. It’ll be a lot different, and I’m really looking forward to play.”
Nearly two years ago that October night, Russell was 6-of-10 passing for 56 yards with two interceptions and the stat sheet also shows two rushes for minus eight yards.
My how things have changed.
Russell is currently ranked second nationally in passing efficiency. Completing 68-percent of his passes, Russell has connected on 83 of 122 passes for 1,246 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has thrown just one interception this season, versus Arizona, and has gone 84 straight pass attempts without throwing a pick. Since throwing his only interception of the year, Russell has completed 59 of 84 passes (70.2 percent) for 889 yards and 6 touchdowns.
One of the big reasons for Russell’s high passer rating is that he has arguably the best group of wide receivers in the nation. The Tiger wideouts are big, physical specimen blessed with lots of speed.
Dwayne Bowe (6-3, 217), Craig Davis (6-2, 200), Early Doucet (6-0, 206) and Brandon LaFell (6-3, 190) provide big, physical targets for which Russell to throw. Bowe is LSU’s dominant receiver, but Davis has been Russell’s favorite target with 25 catches for 394 yards and one touchdown.
Bowe has 21 catches. for 353 and three touchdowns. The Russell to Bowe combo ran their TD streak to 15 with a second quarter score against Mississippi State. The 15 touchdowns between the pair (Russell throwing and Bowe catching) ranks as the second most prolific scoring combo in school history. Russell and Bowe hooked up for 8 TDs in 2005 after combining for 4 scores in 2004. This year, the duo has combined for 3 touchdowns. They need seven more to become the program’s all-time leading touchdown connection.
Doucet is coming into his own as a junior and actually leads all Tiger wide receivers with five touchdown catches. He has 18 catches on the season for 252 yards.
Freshman tight end Richard Dixon has became LSU’s primary tight end. The true freshman has stepped in for senior tight end Keith Zinger, whose career might be over as he battles the abdominal ailment ulcerative colitis.
The running game has been the focus of most of the criticism from Tiger fans this season. LSU was supposed to be loaded to the gills with running backs, highlighted by the return of veterans Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent.
Both Broussard and Vincent suffered knee injuries last season, Broussard before the year even began. Vincent tore up his knee in the Peach Bowl win over Miami.
But with the acquisition of true freshmen Charles Scott, Keiland Williams and Richard Murphy, along with returning players Antonio Robinson, RJ Jackson and Jacob Hester, LSU was projected to be a run-dominated offense.
Both Broussard and Vincent have failed to return to full speed. Broussard is overweight and Vincent lacks the burst needed to hit the hole effectively. Robinson transferred to Northwestern State due to playing time while Jackson swapped positions to wide receiver because of the dearth of talent in the backfield.
Richard Murphy has decided to redshirt and Keiland Williams was late arriving because of NCAA Clearinghouse issues, has been used in mop-up duty and has proved to be a non-factor.
That leaves Scott, who has emerged as LSU’s go-to running back. Looking very similar to a young LaBrandon Toefield, Scott combines an equal mix of size, speed and a slashing running style. His 101 yards against Tulane was LSU’s only 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He leads all LSU rushers with 214 yards on 35 carries and five touchdowns.
Hester has been the Tigers only other successful player out of the backfield. Although the fullback/ tailback doesn’t possess the necessary speed to be an every down back, he can catch the ball out of the backfield and provide a safety valve for Russell when the blitz is coming.
Overview: Fisher hasn’t necessarily scrapped the running game totally, but the Tigers came out slinging the ball around against Tulane and Mississippi State. It seems the coaching staff has seen they must throw to set up the run after the offensive debacle at Auburn.
Russell has completed 35 of 43 passes in the last two games for 508 yards and five touchdowns. The Tigers have thrown on first down often, something they did not do in the earlier part of the season.
However, in bigger games like Saturday’s, Miles has tended to go more conservative on offense (i.e. Auburn, Florida, Alabama in 2005 and Auburn in 2006) and allow his defense to try and win the game.
Without Arnold, LSU will be even more limited in what they can do running the football. Scott is a quality back and Broussard showed some signs of running with the authority he showed two seasons ago, but the Tigers must throw first to be successful.
Granted Mississippi State’s defensive front isn’t as bad as the Bulldog offense, LSU should have been able to squeeze out more than 108 yards. Auburn exposed the Tigers’ ground game two weeks ago in LSU’s 7-3 loss holding Tiger runners to a combined 42 yards. Charles Scott had a coming out party of sorts against Tulane, but he ran for just 27 yards on 11 carries against the Bulldogs. Coach Les Miles insists LSU is going to continue to try and pound the ball between the tackles, but Florida is likely going to make him change his mind. The Gators’ defense ranks fourth nationally against the run allowing all of 50 yards per game. Florida held Alabama running back Kenneth Darby to 76 yards on 14 carries last week. Advantage: Florida
Folks around Baton Rouge have been screaming for Miles to allow offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher to open up the playbook more and allow quarterback JaMarcus Russell to toss the ball around. The offense has opened up more in the last two games, but with the Gators’ sporting a pretty stiff run defense, LSU might look to the air more often. As good as Florida’s rushing defense is, the Gators’ pass coverage is very average. Florida ranks 64th in the nation against the pass, allowing 197 yards per game. If JaMarcus is given the opportunity to exploit the Florida secondary with Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet, it could be long day for the Gators. Advantage: LSU