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What to watch in LSU-ULM

9/11/2014

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles is a perfect 11-0 as LSU’s coach against in-state opposition and only once – a 24-16 homecoming win over Louisiana Tech in 2009 – has the outcome been particularly close.

LSU (2-0) has beaten its various fellow Louisianans by an average score of 43-7 in the 2000s and has not lost to an in-state opponent since falling 31-28 at Tulane in 1982. In other words, there is good reason that the Tigers were favored late this week to beat Louisiana-Monroe (2-0) by 31 points on Saturday. The day is probably not going to end unhappily for the Tigers.

That said, major-conference coaches are apparently required to remind us of the disastrous possibilities, so that is one of the storylines to watch as Saturday’s kickoff approaches.

1. Monroe’s history: One of the first points that Miles made in his Monday news conference was that ULM has knocked off SEC opposition in the past. In fact, the Warhawks have beaten four teams from the conference: No. 8 Arkansas in the 2012 opener, Alabama in 2007, Mississippi State in 1995 and Kentucky in 1994.

“When we invite an in-state team to play us, we think it makes the majority of the state want to come to that stadium, at that time and watch that game and we’re thankful that this opportunity’s here,” Miles reiterated on his Wednesday call-in show. “We think that ULM is a very, very quality team and will challenge any team and certainly will be a difficult team to play this Saturday in Tiger Stadium.”

Miles didn’t happen to mention that the Warhawks are 4-40-1 overall against SEC teams, though. That includes an 0-2 mark against LSU, which defeated ULM 49-7 in 2003 and 51-0 in 2010.

2. Aidin’ Travin: Let’s assume that receiver Travin Dural will play on Saturday, as Miles predicted, despite Dural having suffered a head injury that required stitches in an auto accident late last Saturday night. The Tigers probably will still need other wideouts to take over some of his production as he works his way back to 100 percent.

Through two games, Dural (six catches, 291 yards, four touchdowns) has been far and away the Tigers’ most prolific receiver. His absurd average of 48.5 yards per catch leads the nation, he’s fourth in receiving yards and tied for second nationally in touchdown catches – all despite being targeted on fewer than half as many passes (15) as national leader Amari Cooper of Alabama (32).

Redshirt freshman John Diarse (4-77, TD) and true freshmen Trey Quinn (3-37) and Malachi Dupre (2-23, TD) would probably be the leading candidates for extra looks if Dural isn’t 100 percent on Saturday.

3. Jennings vs. Harris: LSU quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris figure to have their battle for playing time continue on Saturday. ESPN Stats & Information reports that their production is similar, although their workload isn’t particularly comparable.

In 113 plays with Jennings under center, LSU’s offense averaged 6.5 yards per play and scored touchdowns on 35 percent of its possessions. Jennings posted the best single-game Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) of any player this season when he scored a 98.7 last week against Sam Houston State by going 7-for-13 for 188 yards and three touchdowns and rushing eight times for 43 yards.

Harris took 27 snaps last week against SHSU after getting only three (one series) in the opener against Wisconsin. He led five drives and the Tigers scored three touchdowns against SHSU, including one on a 46-yard Harris run.

In Harris’ 30 total plays, LSU averaged 6.9 yards per play and the Tigers have run the ball 83 percent of the time, compared to 70 percent with Jennings under center.

4. Playing the pass: Another interesting matchup pits LSU’s defense, which is third nationally in opponent Total QBR at 5.3 – only Baylor (4.4) and Florida (5.1) are better according to ESPN Stats & Information – against an active ULM passing game.

The Warhawks have already attempted 86 passes with only one getting intercepted. LSU, meanwhile, has picked off four passes out of 52 opponent pass attempts. The Tigers’ pass defense leads the nation by allowing a 32.7 completion percentage and ranks seventh by allowing 3.96 yards per pass attempt. LSU is also tied for 13th with seven sacks, while ULM is tied for fourth with 10.

LSU got all seven of its sacks last Saturday against SHSU, but ULM presents a different challenge for the Tigers. ULM quarterback Pete Thomas (47-85, 573 yards, 2 TDs, INT) runs the Warhawks’ no-huddle spread offense at a brisk pace. He wouldn’t rank 10th in the nation in pass attempts if the Warhawks’ offense moved slowly. ULM has surrendered four sacks, so pass-rushers like Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco will have to move quickly to earn a quarterback takedown.

5. Pounding the run: Thus far, LSU has run the ball on 73 percent of its plays (105 of 144), which creates an interesting matchup for Saturday. ULM is tied for ninth nationally against the run, surrendering just 57.5 rushing yards per game. Opponents Wake Forest and Idaho averaged 1.8 yards per carry (115 yards on 63 attempts) against the Warhawks. Wake Forest actually had 27 attempts for minus-3 rushing yards and finished with just 94 yards of total offense in a 17-10 loss.

Kenny Hilliard leads the Tigers with 165 rushing yards on 29 carries and freshman Leonard Fournette is second with 110 yards on 21 attempts.