MORGANTOWN, WV - SEPTEMBER 24: Tyrann Mathieu #7 of the Louisiana State University Tigers intercepts a pass against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the game on September 24, 2011 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Without three suspended stars in Tyrann Mathieu, Spencer Ware and Tharold Simon, how does LSU match up versus the visiting Auburn Tigers? Pretty well, actually.
More often than not, the deepest teams are the best teams. If a lesser team had lost three players the caliber of defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon and running back Spencer Ware for a conference game versus a ranked team, the situation could be dire. But LSU is more well-built for handling such losses than anybody in the country outside of Tuscaloosa. And against a thin, banged-up Auburn team, there is a good chance that nobody will notice the three are even gone.
Who Replaces Mathieu and Simon? In terms of playing time, senior cornerback Ron Brooks could benefit the most from the absences of Mathieu (35.5 tackles, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, five passes broken up) and Simon (25 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception, eight passes broken up). In a backup role, Brooks has posted stellar statistics himself (8.5 tackles, one tackle for loss, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, three passes broken up). Redshirt freshman Ronnie Vinson may play a few snaps as well. They may not be the optimal options for covering a team's No. 1 receiver, but a) they won't have to -- LSU still has Morris Claiborne (21 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, four passes broken up) -- and b) Auburn doesn't really have a No. 1 receiver, at least not a healthy one.
On almost any other secondary in the country, Claiborne would be the marquee name. His three picks lead the team, and against Tennessee last week, he picked off a Mark Simms lob at the LSU six-yard line and returned it to the Tennessee five. He is more than capable of covering whoever Auburn trots out at the receiver position.
Emory Blake (31 targets, 19 catches, 333 yards) is very much Auburn's No. 1, but he has missed most of the last two games to injury. Both he and previous No. 2 Trovon Reed (15 targets, 13 catches, 91 yards), who has also missed two games, will be game-time decisions. In their absence, Auburn quarterbacks have looked primarily at running back Onterio McCalebb (nine targets, four catches, 28 yards in the last two games) and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen (eight targets, five catches, 59 yards in the last two games). The top two wideouts, junior DeAngelo Benton and senior Quindarius Carr, have combined for just 13 targets and five catches in Blake's absence. Even if Blake returns, LSU holds extreme matchup advantages in the secondary without Mathieu and Simon.
If there is one concern for LSU, especially with Blake involved, it is that Auburn is occasionally capable of big plays. They are terribly inefficient (71st in Success Rate+, 84th in Passing Success Rate+) but semi-explosive (34th in PPP+). Auburn is comfortable playing in a tight, close game, and if they can rip off a couple of big gainers, then they may be able to withstand some down-to-down failures.
Who Replaces Ware? Spencer Ware has become the go-to back for the LSU offense, and his grinding style has been perfect for LSU's offensive style. On a per-carry basis, however, he has been only average. For the season, he has toted the ball 128 times and gained 512 yards (4.0 per carry). In his absence, more carries will likely go to fellow sophomores Michael Ford (67 carries, 359 yards, 5.4 per carry) and Alfred Blue (52 carries, 235 yards, 4.5 per carry). Be on the lookout for Blue, who has earned a larger portion of the backup carries. In the first four games, Ford earned 52 carries to Blue's 19; in the last three, with Ford suffering from some possible fumbleitis, Blue has carried 34 times to Ford's 15.
Regardless of who earns the most carries among these two, the likelihood of a dropoff is small. We have discussed a measure called Highlight Yards in the past: as discussed in each week's Heisman Watch, Highlight Yards are an attempt to isolate the yards a running back earned beyond what his offensive line gave him. Well, Highlight Yards do no favors to Ware's résumé.
Highlight Yards Per Carry, 2011
Spencer Ware: 1.0
Michael Ford: 1.8
Alfred Blue: 1.1
LSU's offensive line currently ranks 53rd in Adj. Line Yards (the measure that isolates credit for the offensive line in run blocking -- Line Yards + Highlight Yards = overall yards in a given carry) while Auburn's defensive line ranks 62nd in the same category. They should be able to clear decent paths for Ford and Blue, and each back is more than capable of taking advantage of what they are given. Ford is a bit of a higher-upside, lower-downside back, but at the very least, Blue should be able to offer the same grind-it-out style against an Auburn defense that has been improving, but is still less than stellar.
Who Replaces Mathieu As Punt Returner? This is obviously a lesser concern. Mathieu has averaged a respectable 7.9 yards per punt return in 2011, but between Rueben Randle (two returns, minus-5 yards), Odell Beckham, Jr. (two returns, 10 yards), Ron Brooks and Morris Claiborne, the options are diverse and multiple. Randle was No. 2 on the depth chart, but I'm curious if the staff goes with Beckham, who has seen an increased role overall as the season has progressed.
LSU is not No. 1 the BCS standings because they have stars like Mathieu. They are No. 1 because they are incredibly deep and athletic. Against a team like Alabama, the Bayou Bengals need all the star power they can get (and early indications are that these suspensions will last just one game). Against just about anybody else in the SEC (or in the country), players like Ford, Blue and Brooks would already be playing star roles.
We can mourn the lost opportunity of seeing the Honey Badger do his thing, but it would be a shock if LSU's overall level of play dropped enough in the three players' absence to cost them a home win versus Auburn.
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