As we approach the SEC clash between No. 6 LSU and No. 18 Texas A&M, we'll take a closer look at the Aggies' opponent with Gary Laney, who covers the Tigers for ESPN's GeauxTigerNation. Here are three questions for Laney and his takes on the Tigers:
1. Clearly LSU's defense has thrived so far this season. What's been the key for them on that side of the ball, and how have they defended mobile quarterbacks since they'll see one on Saturday?
LSU lost some big play ability when Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team, but really, the defense may be as a good as last year. At linebacker, the Tigers are definitely better as Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow are both rounding into solid linebackers, definitely upgrades from a season ago. If the secondary took a half step backwards after losing Morris Claiborne, Mathieu and Brandon Taylor off last year's team, the linebackers are clearly at least a half step better.
What's interesting about this week's matchup with Manziel is LSU has been spending the last few weeks preparing for mobile quarterbacks. It really started when Auburn began getting mileage out of a wildcat package with freshman Jonathan Wallace, a move that caught LSU a bit off guard, but was a sign of things to come. The next week, Towson's Grant Enders was a dual-threat type who had some big runs, then LSU dove into the heart of SEC play with Florida's Jeff Driskel and South Carolina's Connor Shaw, two more runners, in back-to-back games.
I don't think any of these guys are as talented as Johnny Manziel, but LSU should be well versed on containing a running threat in the pocket, staying in gaps on the cut/read option and all the other tricks you have to pull out against a running QB. They've been preparing for that for four straight weeks now.
2. What's your take on Zach Mettenberger's play and LSU's potential with him as the starter as opposed to other guys who have been in that role in recent years?
Clearly, most were expecting better production from the quarterback position than LSU has gotten this year from Mettenberger. His talent is obvious. He's a big, tall kid who can sling it around. But he's made some bad reads and his receivers and blockers have struggled around him. He's been sacked 16 times and his receivers have dropped a ton of passes. They really have missed Rueben Randle at wide receiver this year. Nobody has stepped up to be that go-to receiver.
If there's another gear in the passing game, they will be extremely hard to beat. Right now, we're wondering if they are capable of reaching that gear.
3. I see that the Tigers have used five different starting offensive line combinations and have had three running backs go for over 100 yards in a game this year. To what do you attribute the ground game success?
I thought the loss of Chris Faulk at left tackle after the season's first week was a bigger loss than Mathieu. Faulk was really LSU's most talented offensive lineman and since then, the Tigers have struggled to find the right combination in his place. A healthy Josh Dworaczyk at left tackle could settle things down. Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior, got his first start at left tackle against Washington and played great and LSU won big. But the knee injury that sidelined him all of last year started bothering him and he missed most of two games after the Auburn game. He was finally healthy again for the South Carolina game last week and, lo and behold, LSU played its best offensive game since Washington. Having him healthy makes them much better not so much for what he brings physically, but because he is a coach-on-the-field type of player who helps the line play with purpose and confidence.
As for the running backs, LSU enjoys an embarrassment of riches. Even after Alfred Blue was lost for the season after three weeks, LSU is still running out four tailbacks who frankly look like future pros. A different guy stars every week and they'll never have to worry about lacking fresh legs in the fourth quarter.