Thursday, August 28, 2008

App State: Is the Past Prologue?

OK. I'm now going to stop calling them "Appy State". I've been executing this little passive aggressive verbal/written joust on purpose ever since I found out that it sorta tweaks some of their more passionate fans. I've had my childish fun - mostly on message boards with some great, if not slightly dorky, Mountaineer fans.

Anyway. Tuesday night, while riding my stationary bike, I watched the 2005 App State @ LSU game. Yes, I pedaled for that long. Fortunately, without TV timeouts, the game went relatively quick.

No, I don't for a moment think I can predict this Saturday's performance based on a game played three years ago. But, there are some interesting points of convergence that can provide insight.

LSU won the game 24-0. But they only led 14-0 in the fourth quarter, and the box score was surprisingly even at that point. At the end of the game, LSU outplayed the Mountaineers, but not by as much as you might expect the #6 BCS team to outplay an FCS opponent.

My Observations of the Mountaineers.

Excellence. These folks aren't anyone's bitches. They stood toe-toe with a very good 2005 LSU football team. And kept coming at them.

App State continues to be a program that believes in itself and knows how to win. They are a dynasty inside their division. More than USC. More than Ohio State. More than LSU.

They've won 3 consecutive national championships and are favored to win a fourth. They dominate their conference and division All-Star team listings.

In many ways, football is a game of technique and strategy. App State is close to being equal to LSU on this front in my opinion.

When App State did the math in the 3rd quarter and realized they were not going to threaten to win the game, they took out their first team BEFORE the Tigers did. They knew they needed them healthy for conference play. That is a program focused on the prize - the one that counts.

GREAT Skill Players. They won't be big. But they will be dangerous. And talented. In 2005, App State's QB Richie Williams was a skinny, shifty kid with a decent arm, great downfield vision, and a knack for turning a near-sack into a seventeen yard gain. The Mountaineers spread out LSU's defense and then created big gains through misdirection and exploiting any seams that opened up. At the end of the day, Williams ran for 80 yards by himself, and the Mountaineers outrushed the Tigers 176 to 163.

This year, a new QB (Armanti Edwards) is even more dangerous. He had a ridiculous Tebowesque year in 2007 with 1960 yards passing, 1588 yards rushing, and 38 TDs. He was 67% on his throws with only 7 interceptions. AND HE MISSED FOUR GAMES!

And he's not alone. One of his favorite targets will be #6 CoCo Hillary, who also plays QB as a backup to Edwards. Plus, the Mountaineers are deep at RB, including a transfer from Virginia Tech (Devin Radford).

This is a dangerous offense that will require LSU to avoid over pursuit. If the Tigers don't stay in their lanes, they could find themselves chasing Edwards around the field all afternoon long.

My Observations of LSU.

Motivation. LSU looked very flat in 2005. Joe Addai was ailing, and Jamarcus Russell was inconsistent. The defense looked good at times, but there was no "fire". In fact, the entire team looked tired and disinterested. There was no Glenn Dorsey waving his arms to get the endzone maniacs going. There was no Herman Johnson racing into the endzone to chest-bump a Trindon Holliday. Frankly, the game looked more like work than play. And the crowd seemed more interested in getting back to their tailgate parties. Granted, it was the "Katrina" year - there was a different feel to everything in 2005, including football games.

LSU won't have that problem this Saturday. Since App State walked out of Ann Arbor with Michigan's scalp, there is no team in the country that is overlooking any FCS division team anywhere. Nobody wants to be this year's version of Michigan.

LSU will treat App State as if they were a BCS subdivision opponent. Player and coaches' interviews repeat this mantra over and over. If it's true, then the Tigers won't be flat and App State may just walk into a buzz saw in Tiger Stadium.

Uncertainty at QB. In 2005, Jamarcus Russell was not the #1 draft pick that he was a year and change later. He played well, but was inconsistent and, in spots, threw some bad passes. And the coaching staff clearly wanted no part of a wide-open game plan, choosing to run the ball and throw screens all day, with very few attempts to go vertical. Some of this was constrained by a very poor field condition. But not all of it.

The result was a very predictable gameplan that allowed App State to take risks with their skill players on defense and, in many cases, "stack the box". LSU should have been able to score on every possession based on the very clear imbalance of talent and size on the field. But they couldn't because of what looked like a very conservative gameplan. So the score was so close after three quarters that App State was a big play away from making a contest of it. And they had big play assets at their disposal.

Of course, we all understand the uncertainty at QB this year. But if LSU plays so conservatively that App State can take reasonable risks with their defensive backs and stop the run, then this game may look very similar to 2005. A turnover here and a caught ball there and App State is tied in the 4th quarter in 2005. That's unacceptable in 2008.

I'm hoping for a progressively aggressive gameplan that takes advantage of LSU's receiving height (Lafell and Tolliver) and TE (Dickson). If LSU just crams the ball down App State's gullet, the Mountaineers will find a way to keep the Tigers out of the end zone.

Free the QBs to play the game. That's what I'm hoping for. Take some risk.

MISTAKES. LSU did not turn the ball over at all in the 2005 App State game. That's a great stat, made impressive by the poor field conditions at the time. And the Tigers were only penalized twice in the entire game.

That will be an important goal again this year because App State is a team that can capitalize on a mistake and quickly shift the momentum of the game with one big play.

Keys to the Game.

1. Ball Control. LSU needs long drives or quick scores to put this game away early. If Armanti Edwards and the Mountaineer offense have the football in their hands, LSU is at risk.

2. Pressure outside, discipline inside. Edwards is the kind of runner that instantly turns a broken play into a huge gain. It's going to take disciplined team play on defense to keep Edwards from cutting back across the field for big yardage.

3. Emotion. The Tigers seem to be respecting this team. That bodes well. Not only will respect keep them from underestimating the Mountaineers, but it will keep the Tigers emotions high. The football team and the stadium feed off each other. When the stadium is roaring, the players are pumped. And when the players are jumping around, the stadium responds. If LSU plays with emotion and aggressiveness, their talent and size will quickly overwhelm App State.

4. Fatigue. LSU's great strength has been depth at key positions like RB and DL. App State doesn't have as much depth. If LSU can rotate quality depth throughout the ball game and across the field, WITHOUT CONFUSION OR MISTAKES, then the Tigers will make easy work of App State.

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