LSU's visit to West Virginia has certainly been the most well-publicized game of the weekend, and probably for good reason: it features the most fascinating matchup of the weekend. There are plenty of big games on the docket -- Oklahoma State-Texas A&M, Arkansas-Alabama, etc. -- but it is really fun to think about Dana Holgorsen's offense taking on probably the most vicious defense of the young season. Chris Brown wrote about it, Bruce Feldman went behind the scenes, etc.
So what can I add to the narrative? How about some targets-and-catches data? This data is still not as widespread as I need to make it (in that regard, stay tuned to Football Study Hall in the coming weeks), so let me share some interesting data.
LSU's defense is just devastatingly fast. They don't rush the passer incredibly well (their sack rates thus far rank among the nation's midsection), and they don't force a low completion rate (like recent Nebraska defenses have been known to do on occasion). What they have done thus far is almost take a page out of the TCU book: they swarm without conscience. Some targets data will show you how and why.
(The "N/A" in the tables below means there was no target data associated with the pass in the play-by-play. Usually, but not always, that means the pass was intercepted.)
|Oregon vs LSU
|Lavasier Tuinei (WR)||10||7||47||70%||4.7|
|LaMichael James (RB)||9||6||61||67%||6.8|
|De'Anthony Thomas (RB)||9||6||47||67%||5.2|
|Josh Huff (WR)||6||5||28||83%||4.7|
|Justin Hoffman (WR)||6||2||22||33%||3.7|
|David Paulson (TE)||7||3||21||43%||3|
|Kenjon Barner (RB)||2||1||9||50%||4.5|
|Will Murphy (WR)||2||1||5||50%||2.5|
|Tra Carson (RB)||1||0||0||0%||0|
|Rahsaan Vaughn (WR)||1||0||0||0%||0|
Against LSU's defense, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas completed a semi-healthy 57 percent of his passes, but they didn't go anywhere. Dump-offs to LaMichael James and De'Anthony Thomas had more success than anything else (other than the fumbles that were forced once Thomas got past the line of scrimmage), but no matter where Thomas went with the ball, the Yards After Catch were minimal at best.
It was the same story against Mississippi State. Passes to receivers did not result in many completions (just six in 12 attempts), while shorter passes to running backs and tight ends were completed (nine for 13), but LSU made immediate tackles.
|Mississippi State vs LSU
|Marcus Green (TE)||5||3||46||60%||9.2|
|Arceto Clark (WR)||4||1||11||25%||2.7|
|Vick Ballard (RB)||3||3||32||100%||10.7|
|Chad Bumphis (WR)||3||2||7||67%||2.3|
|LaDarius Perkins (RB)||3||3||2||100%||0.7|
|Malcolm Johnson (WR)||2||1||22||50%||11.0|
|Chris Smith (WR)||2||2||21||100%||10.5|
|Brandon Heavens (WR)||1||0||0||0%||0.0|
So looking at these two games combined (and omitting Northwestern State for the time being), here's what you get.
The checkdown passes and screens are actually a better option than passes to actual wide receivers.
So what does that mean for West Virginia? Well, first of all, they don't actually list tight ends on the roster. They do, however, differentiate between "Wide Receivers" and "Inside Receivers." Here are their season stats thus far:
|Tavon Austin (IR)||26||20||236||77%||9.1|
|Stedman Bailey (WR)||24||15||229||63%||9.5|
|Ivan McCartney (WR)||20||17||211||85%||10.6|
|Devon Brown (IR)||16||10||164||63%||10.3|
|Tyler Urban (IR)||6||4||31||67%||5.2|
|Andrew Buie (RB)||6||6||18||100%||3.0|
|Dustin Garrison (RB)||5||5||60||100%||12.0|
|Brad Starks (WR)||4||2||41||50%||10.3|
|J.D. Woods (WR)||4||2||14||50%||7.0|
|Willie Milhouse (WR)||3||2||40||67%||13.3|
|Vernard Roberts (RB)||3||3||11||100%||3.7|
|Ryan Nehlen (WR)||2||1||13||50%||6.5|
|Trey Johnson (RB)||2||0||0||0%||0.0|
(Note: table updated to reflect Stedman Bailey as a wideout, not as an inside receiver as reflected on WVU's official site.)
More often than not, Geno Smith has looked inside-out, first to Tavon Austin inside, then to Stedman Bailey or Ivan McCartney; really, though, he is going to be looking to throw wherever space is granted. Knowing what we know about how LSU played Mississippi State and Oregon, however, one should probably expect that space to be indeed occupied by inside guys. If you've got Bailey or McCartney in your fantasy league, I hope you didn't start him today.
In all, if West Virginia is going to move the ball, it is likely going to be with repeated 6-8 yarders to Austin, Devon Brown, etc. LSU's safeties are just so good, and WVU has not distinguished itself with any wideout other than McCartney. (And yes, obviously the inside guys don't ALWAYS just line up inside, but they usually do.) Plus, West Virginia's running game has been, to put it kindly, lacking. Freshmen Vernard Roberts and Andrew Buie have combined to average just 3.2 yards per carry, and LSU's line has forced decent offensive lines to implode upon themselves thus far. Smith will have almost no choice but to pass, pass, pass, and success will require extreme patience and strong decision-making.
WVU has been successful in batches this year -- they are unstoppable for possessions at a time, then they encounter extended droughts (first half versus Norfolk State, last quarter and a half versus Maryland). They might get away with this routine against an LSU team that is lacking in consistency itself, but it isn't hard to picture the doomsday scenario. LSU grinds out a couple of long drives against West Virginia's bend-to-the-max-but-rarely-break defense (whether they score on these drives is almost irrelevant), while WVU quickly goes three-and-out a few times. By the time WVU finds a rhythm, they are down six to 10 points, and their defense is completely exhausted. Suddenly, the holes for Spencer Ware and Michael Ford are a little bigger; WVU gets hot, but as with last year's game, they surge just to make it close and never take the lead.
If WVU gets hot early, however, and forces LSU to play from behind (which may be difficult with Jarrett Lee facing a defense that forces turnovers and swarms pretty well itself)? Completely different story. One of my four truths relates to the importance of the first quarter. It is incredibly important tonight.