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LSU’s defense poses matchup problems for Ole Miss

The Alabama game proved Ole Miss’ ability to hang points on an elite defense, but the Tigers present an entirely different set of problems.

Southern Miss v LSU Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Against an Arkansas defense that ranked poorly by almost any statistical measure, Chad Kelly and Ole Miss’ high-powered offense struggled to an alarming degree. The run game took a step back, a typically sure-handed receiving corps dropped passes and Kelly’s usually deadly deep accuracy was lacking. Given the shaky state of the Rebel defense, Ole Miss can’t afford a similar offensive stumble this week in Baton Rouge.

That won’t be easy against an LSU defense that might present more matchup problems than any unit Ole Miss has faced this season. The narrative that the Tigers’ defense hasn’t quite proven itself against a great offense so far this season really doesn’t apply here. Given all the returning talent and the brilliant defensive coordinator hire of Dave Aranda, their defense was going to be elite this year no matter what.

There’s plenty of reason to believe Hugh Freeze’s offensive machine will get back on track on Saturday, but against a defense that seemingly never runs out of intimidating and complex names, the Rebs have their work cut out for them.

Ole Miss can’t rely on explosiveness alone.

It may be worth going back to see how Ole Miss managed to move the ball against a similarly dominant Alabama defense. That Freeze and friends™ were able to put up 36 offensive points against the Tide is an astonishing feat, especially considering their offensive efficiency was only 35 percent in that game. They overcame a lack of consistent ball movement with a number of explosive plays, which was a widely known imperative coming into the game.

(Explosive plays are defined here as runs of at least 15 yards or passes of at least 20. Bill C. uses IsoPPP to measure the magnitude of these plays.)

Against LSU, that may not be an option. While LSU’s defense ranks 76th overall in big plays allowed, it breaks down to 107th in rushing IsoPPP and 27th in passing. Thirty out of Ole Miss’ 44 explosive plays through the first six games have been through the air, as were seven out of nine against Bama, whose defense ranks 86th in passing IsoPPP.

In other words, the offense will need to find a way to gain steady chunks of yards at times. Achieving this isn’t out of the question, as they posted a 47 percent success rate in 2015 against an LSU defense that, despite having Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator for some reason, ranked seventh in passing S&P+. To get there, though, some semblance of balance has to exist.

Ole Miss needs to force LSU to respect the run, which might be tough.

With a few shuffling pieces along the Tigers’ defensive front during the offseason, the one question mark on this side of the ball coming into 2016 was its run defense. Considering LSU’s rank of 10th in defensive rushing S&P+, as well as Ole Miss’ latest struggles in achieving competence on the ground, this likely won’t be an issue for the Tigers.

The loss to Arkansas was a good indication of what happens when you abandon the option of giving the ball to your running backs entirely. The offense bottomed out to an overall success rate of just 40 percent after handing the ball off zero times in the fourth quarter. Aranda will have less trouble limiting the passing game if he isn’t conflicted with the decision of whether or not to put more men in the box.

(An offense’s success rate is a way of measuring how well the offense stays on schedule each down.)

Chad Kelly’s mobility will demand the defense’s attention to some degree, but if the backs struggle to run against even an undermanned front, the offense’s overall production will suffer in a big way. If the run game turns out to be dreadfully anemic, they shouldn’t force it like they did against Alabama with 33 stubborn-as-hell rushing attempts. But the run has to have somewhat of a presence, at least in early-down and short yardage situations.

The line has to limit the Tigers’ pass rush.

When Les Miles was still around, there may have been some legitimate concern about Aranda possibly being absorbed into the LSU aggregate in terms of play-calling, but those worries have abated with Ed Orgeron’s hands-off coaching style. LSU’s new DC specializes in maximizing how much pressure he can get out of sending just four rushers into the backfield without sacrificing coverage. Much of this is accomplished through disguising who’s rushing and who’s dropping back by limiting how many defenders are in a three point stance.

While he hasn’t had much time to fully implement a new scheme at LSU, Dan Davis suggested in the pod that this may be the week that Aranda may show more exotic looks in terms of blitz packages, and it makes sense considering the quarterback they’re going up against. The Tigers’ defense already ranks 11th in adjusted sack rate, and when they do succeed in getting the other team off schedule early, they excel in ending the drive, preventing offenses from getting the yards they need nearly eighty percent of the time on passing downs. For an Ole Miss offensive line that allowed six quarterback hurries and two sacks to a less threatening front from Arkansas, giving Kelly the time he needs to make a play and not die is critical.