Mississippi State's offense has a profile similar to Oregon's, but they're going to need to avoid mistakes to avoid facing the same fate as LSU's last ranked opponent.
NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom. Since we are only two games into the schedule, opponent adjustments are basically meaningless thus far, and most of the numbers below fall into one of three categories: 1) opponent-adjusted "+" numbers that are mostly culled from preseason projections, 2) raw, unadjusted numbers reliant on the quality of teams' first two opponents (they are the categories lacking the "+"), or 3) 2010 numbers.
Time to make some sense out of tonight's big game on ESPN. Or at least, as much sense as can be made through a Benadryl coma and a two-week-old's sleep schedule.
Two weeks into the season, LSU's profile has risen. They have gone from receiving one first-place vote in the AP poll to 17, and from two to seven in the USA Today poll. If they are to remain that high, however, they are going to have to put on some miles. In the coming weeks, they face West Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama on the road, but first, it's a Thursday night trip to the home of the cowbell: Starkville, Mississippi.
Mississippi State is coming off of an oh-so-close loss at Auburn, and they are three- to 3.5-point home underdogs to Les Miles' Bayou Bengals.
In LSU's last trip to Starkville, the undefeated, seventh-ranked Tigers needed a goal line stand to fend off Dan Mullen's Bulldogs in just Mullen's fourth game in charge. LSU handled the Bulldogs rather easily in Baton Rouge last year, but MSU should have a chance in their own backyard. The style of play for these two teams differs quite a bit, especially in the Pace department.
When Mississippi State Has The Ball…
Let's see ... fast-paced, run-heavy team that looks infinitely better on standard downs? I thought LSU already played Oregon?
|2011 SD % Run||64.3%||49.4%|
|2011 S&P Rk||10||26|
|2011 Success Rt Rk||11||41|
|2011 PPP Rk||10||25|
|2011 Rushing S&P Rk||3||19|
|2011 Passing S&P Rk||31||51|
Mississippi State has their identity, and they're going to pound you over the head with it. They're going to run just about two-thirds of the time on standard downs and take few chances on passing downs. Running 83 plays per game, they have averaged 588 yards in their first two contests against Memphis and Auburn. As we see on the Standard Downs table to the right, theirs is an efficiency-based offense with no major home run threat.
The Man in the MSU offense is running back Vick Ballard. The 220-pound senior has been used early and often, needing only ten carries to generate 166 yards against Memphis and grinding out 26 touches (21 carries, five catches) for a combined 199 yards against Auburn. I joked about Oregon above, but Ballard is to LaMichael James as MSU is to Oregon, except stronger, sturdier and slower. He's a really nice back, and his ability to bang between the tackles might give LSU some trouble. Sophomore LaDarius Perkins (14 carries, 83 yards, 1 TD) will spell Ballard at times; at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Perkins gives a different look, to say the least.
If Ballard is comparable in usage to James, quarterback Chris Relf is similar to Darron Thomas as well. He produces both through the air and on the ground, but Mullen and staff don't trust Relf quite as much as Chip Kelly and company trust Thomas. They attempt to protect Relf as much as possible, throwing quite a bit on standard downs but keeping things on the ground and close to the vest on passing downs.
As a result, you see a pretty good passing line -- 397 yards, 7.4 per pass, 61% completion rate, 3 TD, 1 INT in two games -- that probably gives a misleading view of the passing game's actual quality. Relf will get his numbers, but they won't necessarily come against good defenses. In this sense, Mississippi State's is sort of a Dinosaur Jr. offense: good at what they're good at (be it running the ball or unleashing killer J Mascis guitar solos), but pretty limited elsewhere (passing when they have to pass, writing intelligible lyrics). They can go from gorgeous to iffy in a heartbeat, but when they're good, they're phenomenal.
|2011 PD % Run||51.0%||26.2%|
|2011 S&P Rk||68||10|
|2011 Success Rt Rk||96||11|
|2011 PPP Rk||58||10|
|2011 Rushing S&P Rk||47||20|
|2011 Passing S&P Rk||83||17|
Heading into the season, MSU returned three pass targets who all averaged more than 14 yards per catch: Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Brandon Heavens. These three are among eight Bulldog receivers who have caught between three and five passes through two games. Thanks to an 80-yard touchdown catch against Memphis (which should really just count as about 40 real yards, ahem), redshirt freshman Jameon Lewis leads the way with 116 yards in five catches, but the jury is out for this receiving corps. Ballard was actually the leading receiver against Auburn, and odds are decent he will be again tonight.
If the Bulldogs are going to pull the upset, somebody is going to need to make some big catches, but it is difficult to figure out who that may be, even if there are plenty of candidates. As LSU proved against Oregon, you won't be able to rely on the ground game to generate big yards against the Tigers: LaMichael James, DeAnthony Thomas and Kenjon Barner combined for just 73 yards on 24 carries in Dallas two weeks ago.
Oregon's line generated just 2.63 line yards per carry and a 32 percent success rate on the ground; last year, LSU's line was surprisingly vulnerable to strong run blocking. Initial impressions this year, however, suggest quite a bit of improvement. A big, strong MSU offensive line, however, should provide a nice challenge.
The key for Mississippi State: for the love of God, stay on schedule. Ballard and Relf led the way for a 57% success rate on standard downs against Auburn, and it allowed them to post 531 yards and 34 points. But things fell apart almost immediately on passing downs, and they almost certainly will against LSU as well; LSU has had a rather consistently strong passing downs defense over the years. You do not want them to be able to pin their ears back and attack when you don't have much faith in your passing game.
Hell, you don't want that even if you do have faith.
When LSU Has The Ball…
In terms of quality, LSU is as or more reliant on standard downs as Mississippi State is. Last year the Tigers ranked 10th in Standard Downs S&P+ and 74th in Passing Downs S&P+. Thus far with Jarrett Lee at quarterback instead of the suspended Jordan Jefferson, LSU has shown more ability to make plays in passing situations ... and less stability on standard downs. Fair trade? We'll see.
|2011 SD % Run||77.8%||65.3%|
|2011 S&P Rk||55||64|
|2011 Success Rt Rk||74||56|
|2011 PPP Rk||44||70|
|2011 Rushing S&P Rk||62||84|
|2011 Passing S&P Rk||35||49|
Lee obviously does not provide the run threat that Jefferson does, so when you see on the right that the Tigers run the ball almost 80 percent of the time, you know that is coming almost entirely from the running backs. Big, 223-pound sophomore Spencer Ware saw the lion's share of the work against Oregon two weeks ago, though he really didn't get anywhere. His 26 carries generated just 99 yards (3.8 per carry), though with turnovers allowing LSU to generate a double-digit lead against the Ducks, it didn't matter much.
Meanwhile, fellow sophomore Michael Ford, a smaller-in-comparison 215 pounds, hammered out 96 yards and two touchdowns in just 14 carries against Oregon. Those per-carry averages carried out this past weekend against FCS opponent Northwestern State. Ford had 72 yards in 13 carries (5.5) while Ware managed only 20 yards in six (3.3). Ford's upside has been quite a bit higher in 2011, though Ware remains No. 1 on the depth chart. Sophomore Alfred Blue has done little with his opportunities so far, averaging just 3.4 yards in his 16 carries.
|2011 PD % Run||37.8%||31.1%|
|2011 S&P Rk||33||29|
|2011 Success Rt Rk||39||44|
|2011 PPP Rk||31||22|
|2011 Rushing S&P Rk||35||7|
|2011 Passing S&P Rk||38||50|
At first glance, LSU's lean on the run game, and their occasional effectiveness in doing so, could cause problems for Mississippi State. Auburn's Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb combined for 218 yards on 29 carries (7.5) last Saturday, leading those Tigers to 41 points despite an ineffective passing game. As you see above, Mississippi State ranks 84th in raw Standard Downs Rushing S&P thus far; Auburn generated 3.42 line yards per carry against MSU last week as well. Neither of these are encouraging stats if you're looking for an upset tonight.
Mississippi State's strength thus far has, as with LSU, come on passing downs. All defenses are better on passing downs than standard downs, but as you see here, both defenses rank considerably higher in pass-first situations. LSU runs more frequently than the national average in these situations, but they appear to also put more trust in Lee than MSU puts in Relf.
Of course, if you had Rueben Randle and DeAngelo Peterson, you'd probably trust your quarterback quite a bit too. The two have combined for 11 catches so far this season -- seven have come on passing downs and five of those seven have gone for first downs. Both of their touchdowns have come on third-and-6 (a passing down), Peterson had a big 18-yarder on third-and-12 early against Oregon, and Randle went for 15 on second-and-11, 11 on third-and-13 and 24 on third-and-8 against Northwestern State. Odell Beckham actually leads LSU with seven receptions, but he has been used primarily as an underneath threat -- his catches have gone for just 50 yards, and his longest reception has gone for just 11.
Through two games, neither team has been particularly good or bad in special teams. Each team has made its field goals under 45 yards (MSU's Derek DePasquale missed a 47-yarder against Memphis, LSU's Drew Alleman missed a 50-yarder against Northwestern State). Neither team has done much damage in the return game just yet.
Both teams have been solid in the punting department. MSU punter Baker Swedenburg has been outstanding: his 40.6-yard average has been supplemented by six fair catches (in 11 tries) and six kicks planted inside the opponent's 20. Meanwhile, the LSU-Oregon game shifted when Tyrann Mathieu stripped Kenjon Barner on a punt return and took the fumble in for six points. LSU has allowed a minus-2.2 average in five returns, which is even better than fair catches.
In other words, we'll call special teams a draw.
This is a glaringly obvious statement, but to win this game, Mississippi State is going to have to move the ball.
LSU has shown that they have no problem riding the "defense, special teams and field position" strategy to success, and they are good enough at those things that they will almost certainly put themselves in position to score at least 20 points. That means the Bulldogs will either have to ride Vick Ballard for 200 yards or pull a couple of passing downs rabbits out of their hats. With receivers like Bumphis, Clark and Heavens, there is certainly a bit of speed and ability in the MSU receiving corps. However, a) there is even more speed in the LSU secondary, and b) it's never good to rely on any sort of out-of-the-ordinary magic to beat LSU. Les Miles hat is a bit madder than yours.
Oregon couldn't ride pace and rushing ability to a win over LSU, but Mississippi State will certainly have a chance if their power matches up better than the Ducks' speed did. The F/+ numbers predict a relatively easy, 10-point win for the Bayou Bengals, but nothing ever seems quite that simple when LSU's involved. Thursday night in a hostile, cowbell-clanging environment? This should be a fun one.
A Quick Glossary
Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.
F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.
Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.
PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.
Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.
Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.