What a miserable few weeks it has been for the LSU Tigers. They lost to Missouri. They didn’t play Florida (though that might have actually helped them in the long run; we’ll see).
On Wednesday, they self-imposed penalties, including scholarship reductions, to avoid stiffer NCAA penalties in the future. Morale surrounding the program is low. It is a 180-degree turn from last season’s 15-0 joyride to the national championship. Yes, LSU fans would probably tell you that the 15-0 season in 2019 was worth any subsequent hardships over the next few years. It’s a deal they would have accepted if offered it two years ago. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make the 2020 season any better or more pleasant. It’s still a mess. LSU has to begin to dig out of it against the South Carolina Gamecocks, who just beat Auburn and will try to beat LSU and Auburn in the same season for the first time in program history. The problem for the Tigers is that they won’t have the right man under center, and will have to scramble to get results.
1 – Replacing Myles Brennan
The Bayou Bengals come into this game without quarterback Myles Brennan, who did what he was supposed to do against Vanderbilt and Missouri. The total implosion of the LSU defense is the reason why Ed Orgeron’s team is 1-2. Brennan has been fine – not perfect, but certainly as good as one could have reasonably expected. He wasn’t going to be the next Joe Burrow. He just needed to do the best he could and get help from his defense. That latter part of the equation didn’t emerge against Missouri or Mississippi State. Now, though, Brennan is most likely out for this game. Freshmen T.J. Finley and Max Johnson are both expected to get snaps in Brennan’s place. The Tigers have to somehow stitch together a decent-enough performance to win this game. Obviously, the playbook won’t be too complicated. Finley and/or Johnson will need to make simple throws consistently. They need to avoid daring or adventurous plays – throwing into traffic or across the body – and they need to take deep shots down the field only in man coverage without safety help. Hopefully, one of the two will get hot and stay hot, but it’s a lot to ask.
2 – Ball-control passing
LSU, under Brennan, was equipped to throw the ball and score. Obviously, getting a strong performance from the running game against South Carolina would be great, but at some point, Finley and/or Johnson will need to make clutch passes to win this game. The Tigers and their coaching staff need to think of the forward pass as their foremost instrument of ball control in this game. Lots of receiver screens and hitch passes (and screen passes in general) can become extended handoffs. It’s not in LSU’s interest to regularly throw downfield – take the opportunity if it’s wide open and there’s an easy seven points to be had, but don’t try to hunt for the quick score if it isn’t there. Completing a lot of five-yard passes can keep the chains moving and lead to long, sustained drives which have the effect of keeping the LSU defense off the field. LSU needs to balance production with time of possession, at a point in the season when the defense needs help not just on the scoreboard, but in terms of being kept on the sidelines.
3 – Guard against the big play
Missouri’s inexperienced quarterback, Connor Bazelak, lit up the LSU defense for 406 yards on 29 completions. Bazelak completed over 80 percent of his passes. The completion rate was noticeable, but the worse part of that stat line for LSU and coordinator Bo Pelini was that the completion percentage was accompanied by a huge yardage total and lots of touchdowns.
If South Carolina completes 80 percent of its passes in this game, those completions need to be for 250 yards instead of 400, and for two touchdowns instead of four. LSU isn’t going to magically fix all of its problems in one game; the Tigers have to focus on not allowing chunk plays and forcing an opposing quarterback to complete 50 passes instead of 29 to beat them. South Carolina might dink and dunk all evening; fine. Force the Gamecocks to do that throughout the game and finish drives in the red zone. If LSU can force South Carolina to throw shorter, it can set up red-zone stops and force enough field goals to turn a loss into a win.