Randy Rosetta of the New Orleans Times-Picayune knows the LSU Tigers as well as anybody. He's been covering the team for a number of years, and does a fantastic job on the beat. So I'm honored and pleased to have Randy answer my questions about Saturday's game.
If you aren't already, I encourage you to follow Randy on Twitter at @RandyRosetta, as well as his colleague on the beat, Jim Kleinpeter, at @JimKleinpeter. The Times-Picayune has strong LSU coverage on its site: www.Nola.com.
In addition, Randy and I participated in an online video discussion of the game for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Watch it here at this link.
Now that we've blown smoke up everyone's butt and promoted my own interests, let's get to the questions and answers:
Q: Let's start on defense: LSU, much like Georgia, lost a lot of guys to the NFL and is young on that side of the ball. The Tigers looked vulnerable, at times, on defense against Auburn and TCU. Right now, where are the biggest concerns on defense?
Rosetta: Not sure it’s a concern or just an area of uncertainty after four games, but a lot of different guys have rolled in and out at the linebacker position, which is a unit LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis called his most talented collection of players there since he got to Baton Rouge in 2009. LSU has been susceptible to the run at times, especially the read-option and jet-sweep type of stuff and the linebackers are where that has to be shored up. The secondary has given up a handful of deep pass plays, which is uncharacteristic for the Tigers the last few years, but that’s also been circumstantial to a degree since LSU has been comfortably in front in all four games – 21-0 in the first quarter of the last three – which has forced opposing offenses to start chunking the ball.
Q: Having said that, what about the LSU defense should still scare a team like Georgia, which is talented at the skill positions but questionable on the line?
Rosetta: That’s a bad combination for the Bulldogs, because LSU’s surprising strength has been the front four, which had to be rebuilt after all four starters departed after the 2012 season, three veterans to the NFL Draft. The Tigers have been able to put a lot of talent on the defensive line for a long time, but the core group of Jordan Allen, Ego Ferguson, Anthony Johnson, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter (three ends rotate at two spots) may be the best crew LSU has had up there since 2003. Ferguson has blossomed tremendously as a first-time starter and is a rarity – a defensive tackle who is among the team leaders in tackles (21). He’s had to be stout because Johnson has battled a sore shoulder and constant double teams, so Ferguson is getting tons of chances to stuff the run. Allen and Hunter have been keys as well at setting the edge on a regular basis, and they have to play well to funnel Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall inside.
Q: Now the LSU offense: Much has been made of Zach Mettenberger looking more comfortable and less mistake-prone this year. How much of that is legitimate improvement, and how much might be the competition?
Rosetta: In two of the four games, the competition has left something to be desired, but Mettenberger has been sharp against a very solid TCU secondary and then adjusted well in the second half against Ellis Johnson’s Auburn defensive scheme and delivered another well-played performance. So the round-about answer is, yes, Mettenberger is greatly improved this season in a lot of key areas: Footwork, decision-making, pocket presence and, perhaps most importantly, confidence. That confidence is both from Mettenberger and in the fifth-year senior. This is as comfortable as Les Miles has seemed with a quarterback to make plays and be the focal point of the offense since JaMarcus Russell’s final season in 2006 and Mettenberger has fed off of that as well. He’s making throws to his receivers – Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry for the most part – that he might’ve never thought about uncorking last season.
Q: Now a strategy question: LSU's running game appears to be as good as it always has been. Let's say Georgia stacks the box for the run, and hopes that its edge rushers (Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins) can force Mettenberger into some mistakes. Is LSU's running game so good it can still impose its will on the game - and what's more, could Mettenberger burn Georgia's secondary?
Rosetta: This is the most diverse LSU offense since the 2007 national championship season, and there’s more talent at the skill positions with this crew than that season – Mettenberger is physically more gifted as a passer than Matt Flynn, Jeremy Hill is an NFL-ready tailback and Beckham and Landry are the best receiver duo the Tigers have had since Michael Clayton and Devery Henderson (2003). On top of that, the LSU offensive line, which seemed to be a huge question mark before the season, has really congealed and played well, both in run blocking and pass protection. So stopping LSU’s offense isn’t likely an achievable goal. Taking one element away at times might be, but Hill – like Gurley – is one of those special backs who can find holes or make them against a stacked front and start to wear down a defense.
Q: An intangibles question: LSU hasn't had a true road game yet. Big deal or no?
Rosetta: It’s certainly a factor because LSU is playing a lot of younger players who have four games under their belt. There was some “road” element to the TCU game since it was in Dallas, which made it very easy for Horned Frogs fans to be there. But it was still very much a pro-LSU crowd. What helps LSU is that it has veterans at key positions – Mettenberger, La’El Collins at left tackle, the two receivers, Hill, Johnson, Lamin Barrow at linebacker, Craig Loston, Ronald Martin and Jalen Mills in the secondary – so the shock value of a loud opposing crowd won’t knock them off their feet. The biggest question marks are how well do the young o-linemen (Jerald Hawkins and Elliott Porter) handle the noise and intensity, and how will two very talented cornerbacks (Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson) operate when Aaron Murray gets in a rhythm and the crowd gets revved up.
Q: Finally, what do you think are the two or three keys to this game for LSU?
Rosetta:1. Mettenberger and how he manages his emotions. He can downplay it all he wants, but going home to Georgia is a BIG deal to the kid, and he is at his best when he feeds off his emotions instead of suppressing them.
2.As prolific as the LSU offense has been – and quick-strike capable – it would be huge if the Tigers can go back in time and grind out some time-consuming drives behind Hill to keep the Georgia offense on the sideline.
3.Get to Murray early and often. LSU has limited the Bulldogs to 274 and 296 total yards in the last two meetings, although Murray had Georgia clicking in the first quarter of the 2011 SEC championship game. If the Tigers can keep him from gaining confidence in the early going, that could take the crowd out of the game quickly – especially if combined with No. 2 above.
For further discussion of the LSU-Georgia game, please plan to join our live chat, Friday at 1 p.m. here on the blog.