As the fourth-ranked LSU Tigers invade Gainesville, FL, for a showdown with the 10th-ranked Gators, many of the college football nation’s eyes will be fixated on this clash of SEC titans. Florida will attempt to avenge last season’s 41-11 loss in Baton Rouge, while LSU aims to silence some of the mounting criticism recently thrown the Tigers way. Here are five keys to the Tigers escaping The Swamp with a win on Saturday:
1. Protecting the Football
Turnovers have been perhaps the biggest head scratcher for LSU this season. The Tigers have been a model of consistency during Les Miles’ tenure as far as holding onto the ball, but its obvious that something is amiss this season.
The last two weeks have been particularly sloppy. In last week’s ugly victory over Towson, LSU put the ball on the ground five times, and the visitors from Maryland recovered three of them.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has also experienced puzzling issues with fumbles, having coughed up two at Auburn, and another last week. If the Tigers think they can keep up this act in The Swamp on Saturday afternoon, they will assuredly return to Baton Rouge that evening as a one-loss team.
2. Pressuring Florida Quarterback Jeff Driskel
The strength of the LSU defense thus far appears to be its defensive line. Defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo are both projected to be first-round draft picks this year, and may be the nation’s top pass rushing tandem. Watching the dynamic duo regularly meet up in opposing backfields, giving each other high-fives while standing over the top of fallen quarterbacks, does nothing to dispell that notion.
With Driskel improving each and every game, the Tigers cannot allow the talented Florida sophomore to sit back and find a comfort zone. But for LSU to pressure Driskel, they must first force him to throw, and that entails shutting down running back Mike Gillislee and the Gator ground game. The normally stout LSU rush defense gave up 188 yards to Towson, and often looked sluggish and passive, which points to the Tigers’ third key to the game.
3. Playing with Intensity
If there’s a single criticism that applies collectively to these Tigers, it’s that they have not played with intensity. There has simply been a profound lack of fire from this team, especially in the last two weeks. However, considering where they are in the season, the Tigers may deserve a pass.
LSU’s next four opponents are Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Alabama. That’s three top-10 teams, including No. 1, and another tough road game. Given the challenges looming this month, the fact that a sleepwalking LSU team was so uninspired against Towson is understandable. Meanwhile, it also goes without saying that a similarly lackadaisical effort against the Gators will not be nearly as forgiving.
4. Balancing the Run and Pass on Offense
It can be stated with certainty that LSU can run the football. The Tigers rank 18th nationally in rush yards per game, and have four different backs averaging over five yards a carry. The Tigers’ massive offensive line is built to run block, and they have done so consistently. But against an athletic, attacking defense like Florida’s, LSU will have to prove it can throw down the field to keep the Gators defense on its toes.
LSU’s passing issues in the first five games have largely been attributed to protecting the quarterback. Mettenberger has been on his back often, and if improvements aren’t made, he won’t last through the month without an injury. When given time, Mettenberger has shown he can make all the throws, and LSU has demonstrated flashes of what could be a scary offense, if it all eventually comes together.
5. Withstanding the Crowd at The Swamp
Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, also known as The Swamp, is one of the loudest, most intimidating venues in all of college football. The Gators haven’t hosted a top ten matchup since 2006, so the home crowd will be exceptionally boisterous.
Enter LSU, which struggled mightily on the road once already this year at Auburn. The Tigers were plagued with penalties that night, symbolic of a lack of focus. While Jordan-Hare Stadium is loud in its own right, the home fans at The Swamp can make other venues seem mild. LSU must keep its focus, or the penalties will continue to mount.
The LSU-Florida matchup is perhaps the most intriguing amidst a full slate of big-time games this Saturday. The Tigers have come under fire for their recent lackluster performances, but many feel as though this LSU team has been a wolf in sheep’s clothing, waiting for the perfect opportunity to pounce on a formidable opponent under a big stage. This game certainly provides that stage. On Saturday, the nation will see if these Tigers’ bite is for real, or if they’re merely paper Tigers.
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