Thursday, October 1, 2009

Georgia Game Preview

A crossroad.  A turning point.  Do or die.   You can pick your cliche', but no matter how you want to say it, this is the most important game of the season for both LSU and Georgia.  Both teams are in similar spots.  Both find themselves where they expected to be at this point in the season with 2-0 conference records, but neither is terribly pleased with their performances on the field.   Frankly, both teams should be playing better considering their respective talent level.  As a result, neither fan base enters the weekend with a whole lot of confidence. 

Looking ahead, LSU is in a position where they need to find a way to win two of the next three games if they want to have the kind of season that the players and fans expect.  Losing the first of those three would put them in a difficult spot.  Georgia already has a non conference loss on their record, and they still have Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee ahead.  A second loss for them after Week 5 is not what they had hoped for entering the season. 

When Georgia Has The Ball:

"Spotty" is the best word I can come up with to describe Georgia's offense this year.  They're often inefficient.  They're often explosive.  They're often their own worst enemy.   As good as some of their skill players are, the success of the offense largely depends on quarterback Joe Cox...and he's been inconsistent.  Cox is very much a "rhythm" passer.  He can get hot and look fantastic at times.  But he often finds himself in a funk and looks downright awful.  And when he's off, he has a tendency to turn the ball over, having thrown five interceptions so far.  Stuffing the Georgia running game is the best way to cause Cox, and the entire offense, to bog down. 

The Dawgs' running game has mirrored that of LSU's.  In fact, they're averaging fewer rushing yards than LSU thus far this season.  Their top back, Richard Samuel, is averaging 4.5 yards per carry while Caleb King is at 5.2.   But the consensus is that the running backs haven't been the problem.  Their offensive line has struggled to open holes for the backs.  Sound familiar?   The recipe for stopping Georgia seems pretty simple.  Stop the run and force Georgia into obvious passing situations.  Then get after Joe Cox and force him into making  more mistakes. 

It would be simple if Georgia didn't have some serious big play ability in the passing game.  That big play ability also goes by the name of AJ Green.  Green may be the best wide receiver the SEC has seen in quite some time.  The super soph is leading the conference in receptions and yards, and he's doing it when every opposing defense knows he's getting the ball. 

Any football fan will be able to appreciate the match up of Patrick Peterson covering AJ Green.  Watching the pair of future NFLers go at it will be interesting.  It will also be interesting to see if LSU lets Peterson shadow Green wherever he goes on the field or whether LSU sticks to their normal defense.  You can bet that Georgia will move Green inside to find some mismatches.  I think we'd all prefer to see Peterson on Green rather than Danny McCray or another safety trying to cover him in the middle of the field. 

The big story for the game may be whether Georgia can find a playmaker in the passing game other than Green.  Georgia may try to force the issue with Green, and that would play to LSU's favor if Peterson can stay with him.  Some other guys to watch are receiver Tavarres King, freshman speedster Rontavious Wooten, and freshman tight-end Orson Charles.  Wooten may get the ball on a slip screen or a reverse and Charles looks like the next great receiving tight-end in college football.  He is very good and a match-up nightmare against any linebacker. 

When LSU Has The Ball:

LSU has been trying to force a square peg into a round hole on offense in terms of their running game and needless to say, the peg hasn't fit.   Running the ball from the I formation, a staple to LSU's offense in 2007 and 2008, just hasn't worked in 2009.  A lack of an adequate blocking fullback and insufficient holes to run through have prevented any kind of success.  Despite consistent efforts to make it work, it just hasn't.

On the flip side, LSU's passing game has improved each week and quarterback Jordan Jefferson enjoyed a career day last week with 233 yards.  A pair of future NFL players at wide receiver and an All-SEC tight-end are helping Jefferson develop quickly and become more comfortable. 

So will LSU will continue to be stubborn in regards to their running game?  Or will they open things up a bit more and turn to the passing game as a primary means to move the ball?  If LSU chooses the latter, I think they can loosen things up for the running game, achieve balance on offense, and have a real chance to win the game.

LSU has shown a few unique looks in their running game, and they have worked.  Freshman Russell Shepard was the Tigers' most efficient runner last week against Mississippi State, but he inexplicably didn't carry the ball in the second half.  I suspect the Tigers will utilize Shepard a bit more this week, and we could even see some additional wrinkles thrown at Georgia's defense by #10. 

Georgia is adequate at stopping the run.  They rank sixth in the SEC in run defense, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry.  A pair of very good defensive tackles, Jeff Owens and Geno Atkins, anchor the interior of the Dawg's defensive line.   However, Georgia struggles defending the pass.  They don't get much pressure on the quarterback and are tied (with LSU) for last in the SEC with just five sacks.  Furthermore, they are tied for last in the SEC with just two interceptions.  These numbers point to a pass-first strategy having success for LSU this weekend.  Brandon Lafell and Terrance Toliver should be able to get open and Jordan Jefferson should have time in the pocket to find them. 

Some other players to wach include linebacker Rennie Curran, the star of Georgia's defense the SEC leader in tackles, as well as free safety Reshad Jones. 

One key to the game for LSU will be improvement in their red zone offense.  Twice against Mississippi State, LSU had a "goal to go" situation and they failed to get into the endzone.  LSU needs to finish drives and come away with touchdowns in order to win on Saturday. 

One stat that really jumps off the page to me is that LSU leads the SEC with a +7 turnover margin while Georgia is last in the league with a -9 margin.  If that trend continues, then it will be tough for Georgia to win the football game.  LSU needs to force the issue by pressuring Joe Cox and forcing him to look somewhere other than to AJ Green. 

Before the season, most figured this game would be a toss-up with huge implications.  Even though both teams aren't playing great ball, the ramifications of the game are still significant and the outcome still looks to be a coin flip.  To this point, I haven't seen enough from LSU to believe they can go on the road to a place like Athens and bring home a victory.  I hope I'm proven wrong on Saturday. 


Georgia 34  LSU 24


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