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LSU vs. BYU should be a trench-warfare beauty to open 2017

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The matchups dictate both teams taking to the ground in one of the year’s best openers.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron and BYU’s Kalani Sitake.
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Season openers like the Texas Kickoff in Houston are great events. Fans get to watch some football in Week 1 that pits national programs, the programs get to play in a talent-rich city, and the networks get to show compelling games.

This year’s Texas Kickoff pits LSU against BYU (Sept. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Playing in front of a Houston crowd is a big win for LSU, which is likely to have three Houstonians on its depth chart. BYU has a few DFW Texans and would love to broaden its reach into Lone Star recruiting.

BYU gets a warmup before this game, hosting FCS Portland State on Aug. 26. This game is one of many intended to build the Cougars’ brand as a national program in the mold of fellow independent private school Notre Dame. They’ll need it in order to get the jump on Ed Orgeron’s Tigers.

BYU’s run game will get to test an inexperienced LSU front.

BYU is replacing dual-threat QB Taysom Hill (at long last) and lead running back Jamaal Williams, who ran for nearly 1,400 yards last year. The assumption about the Cougar offense is that it will lean on the arm of QB Tanner Mangum.

For its part, LSU has a reputation for dominant play up front and played stifling defense last year under new coordinator Dave Aranda. The Tigers finished third in Defensive S&P+ and were similarly great against the run and pass.

All that said, BYU is likely to have firm footing in its run game, and LSU has a lot to figure out and replace before butting heads with the Cougars. Just look at Orgeron’s defense from last season:

They have so much youth across their roster that Aranda is focusing on basic fundamentals and teamwork at practice, not the most complex elements of his scheme.

Aranda proved a year ago that he’s effective at teaching talented players to execute team concepts, but he was inheriting a much more experienced bunch. LSU will have growing pains. Not having Jamal Adams to clean up errors could only confound mistakes by the young linebackers in keeping the ball properly leveraged.

This is where BYU should focus its game plan, and it’s where the Cougars are best equipped to do so. The strength of what LSU returns on defense is its pass defense, which includes dominant edge rusher Arden Key, CBs Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson, and safeties Ed Paris and John Battle. They also have some rising youngsters, like blue-chip freshman safeties Jacoby Stevens and Grant Delpit, who were early enrollees this spring. There’s also redshirt freshman corner Andraez “Greedy” Williams, who could start in the nickel.

BYU’s lost production in the passing game resembles what LSU is losing across the defensive front. For Kalani Sitake’s offense, new names like Moroni Laulu-Putatu and Talon Shumway will be getting lots of the targets.

But while the Cougars are losing Williams in the backfield, they return much of their offensive line. That includes an effective interior, which often made life for Williams easy last year. The key blockers here are still in the fold:

The Cougars are returning four starting linemen, with left tackle Andrew Eide graduating but starting right tackle Thomas Shoaf sliding over to replace him. The key is the interior, led by 6’0, 290-pound center Tejan Koroma.

Koroma is an example of why BYU would love to recruit Texas more. His limited stature had him as a two-star, but he blocked for five-star QB Kyler Murray on an Allen Eagles team that dominated Texas high school football at the highest level, with a 31-1 record over two years that included two titles.

It was easy to assume that Murray, or perhaps five-star LT Greg Little, was the dominant force behind those Allen teams. But Koroma’s 110 pancake blocks in high school suggest he was an underrated factor.

Koroma’s success at BYU has often come on outside zone runs, like that one Williams took to the house against Wyoming in the Poinsettia Bowl. It’s OK to be only 6’0 if the scheme emphasizes reach blocks, in which you are aiming to reach a shoulder and seal a DL or LB. Mike Shanahan’s best lines with the Broncos featured short, light, quick guys blocking the same play.

This returning interior OL was good at passing off defenders and executing the zone scheme and is now loaded with seniors who could to make the transition from Williams easier than expected.

Good outside zone teams put stress on young defensive fronts to maintain leverage and discipline while adjusting to shifting locations. If BYU is going to be competitive with LSU, this is how it’ll get there.

LSU will try its new version of ground-and-pound against the BYU defense.

The expectation for LSU’s defense is always dominance, and while the Tigers could have a learning period, they’ll probably finish as one of the stronger units in the country.

The real anticipation is seeing new LSU OC Matt Canada directing the offense after years of plodding Les Miles teams that struggled to pass. The Tigers are returning three starters on the OL, running back Derrius Guice and his escort J.D. Moore, and QB Danny Etling.

Their battle up front will be a heavyweight bout. The Tigers will be fierce up front, particularly when utilizing Canada’s tactics for creating confusion and multiple gaps by combining concepts like the jet sweep and inside zone from unbalanced formations.

On the other side, BYU has a variety of fronts and blitzes it likes to bring to stuff the run. BYU mixes bracket coverages with fire zones to keep teams guessing:

Michigan State QB Tyler O’Connor seemed to think he was getting a two-deep coverage, and you can notice the Cougar weak safety on the bottom right selling a deep-half drop until the snap before bailing to the deep middle.

That safety, Kai Nacua (No. 12), was excellent in disguise and had six interceptions on the year. The strong safety, Micah Hannemann, (No. 7) was a converted cornerback who helped BYU play strong outside linebacker Fred Warner all over the place, bringing him on the blitz here and perhaps dropping him wide in coverage on the next snap. Warner led the team in tackles, making 10.5 behind the line of scrimmage and adding three interceptions and six pass break-ups.

The Cougars will have to replace Nacua, but much of the rest of the defense is intact, and they always have a flow of stout DL and LBs. The crucial matchup may be how well LSU’s run concepts work against BYU’s fire-zone blitzes.

Take LSU’s new inside zone/jet sweep combo:

The goal is to stretch out the defense by sending lead blockers on one edge for the sweep while running a standard zone play to the opposite sideline. The challenge against BYU is in the Cougars’ willingness to use their outside linebackers to aggressively box the ball back into a limited space and the ability of their inside linebackers to patrol that space.

In this example, Fred Warner (S) is charged with limiting the horizontal space for the sweep, the blitzers look to force a cutback on the zone play, and middle linebacker Butch Pau’u scrapes into the narrow crease.

Last year the easier path to attacking the Cougars was going after their secondary, which leaned on underclassmen at both cornerback positions, but there’s no reliable path for LSU that doesn’t feature Guice.

This is liable to be a low-scoring slog of a game.

The Tigers unquestionably have better talent than the Cougars, but there aren’t many teams out there that can dominate a scrap with BYU in the trenches. A convincing victory here for Orgeron would have to be chilling for the rest of the SEC West.