Darrion Weems and co. are going to have to answer the critics and out-physical the LSU defensive line.
The story goes that LSU is an interesting matchup for Oregon because it gives Oregon the challenge of doing what they have failed to do in the past, whether it be Auburn, Cal, or Ohio State -- and that is showcase the spread offense against a big, physical defensive line. A big part of this game, of course, will come down to just that. If Oregon can win the battle at the line of scrimmage, Oregon will win the game, and probably going away. The Ducks will run their bread and butter, the zone read, and the ancillary plays off that. Yet, I am excited for what else we might see, because there are a ton of things we've seen flashes of that LSU will have to prepare for. Will we see two back sets with James and Barner, or even a two back sets with James and DeAnthony Thomas with Barner as the slot receiver (Barner at slot is something we saw in the spring game)? Will we see two tight end sets, or did the injuries to Brandon Williams and Curtis White kill that idea? Will we see triple options or a read of the playside end or other things that we've seen small glimpses of? I have no idea, and LSU doesn't either, but the fact that we've seen glimpses of them all means that they are something LSU must prepare for. With that in mind, lets take a look at how the units match up.
Oregon's Offensive Line vs. LSU's Defensive Line:
This is, of course, the key matchup to the entire game. Oregon's questions at receiver don't matter if Oregon wins the battle at the line of scrimmage and James and Barner are bursting through giant holes. Oregon will be deep at offensive line this season, playing eight or perhaps even nine guys. Mark Asper, Carson York, and Darrion Weems are all experienced guys, and Ramsen Golpashin at right guard as well as reserve Nick Cody have also received a lot of game time. We should feel pretty good about all five of those guys, even if Golpashin's status as a former walk-on makes some fans uneasy. The biggest worries are redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu starting at center, and Everett Benyard, Ryan Clanton, and Karrington Armstrong, who between them have just a couple of games of experience by Benyard before he got hurt last season. Those guys are going to have to grow up fast.
LSU returns one and a half starters, losing both of their starters at defensive tackle from last season. RE Sam Montgomery started five games last year, LE Barkeviouis Mingo started one, and Kendrick Adams, who started one game last season, figures to be the top reserve this season. Montgomery and Mingo are sophomores who figure to be improved this season. This crew combined for six sacks and eight tackles for loss last season which are solid, but not numbers that scare you.
While the ends come in with quite a bit of experience despite their youth, the same cannot be said at defensive tackle, where LSU loses both starters, including Drake Nevis, who was one of the top tackles in the SEC last season. Sophomore Michael Brockers, who started one game last season, starts at one tackle, while freshman Anthony "Freak" Johnson, the #2 defensive line recruit behind Jadeveon Clowney last season, starts at the other. Rounding out the rotation are junior Josh Downs, a journeyman-type player who was in the rotation last season but wasn't a major contributor, and sophomore Bennie Logan, who saw some spot duty last season.
I actually like this matchup for Oregon's offensive line. They are more experienced on the end, but Oregon will read one of those guys and largely keep him away from the play. The biggest challenge will probably be for Grasu to hold off the talented Johnson, but Johnson is still a true freshman while Grasu has a year in the system. LSU does not seem to have a Nick Fairley or a Cameron Jordan, who can dominate the line and tackle both guys on the zone read. Despite the question marks, Oregon's offensive line actually has the experience edge, and a chip on their shoulder after the NCG last season. I like Oregon's chances to at least hold their own at the LOS and, honestly, believe they have an excellent chance to outright win the battle in the trenches.
Oregon's offense vs. LSU's linebackers
Like the defensive line, LSU's linebacking corps lost their best player in MLB Kelvin Sheppard, a guy who had 116 tackles and four sacks last season, to be replaced by sophomore Kevin Minter, no doubt a talent, but a guy who mostly saw spot duty last season. Senior Ryan Baker returns at WILL, and he is a star with seven sacks and 87 tackles last season, and senior Stefoin Francois also returns at MIKE. Senior Karnell Hatcher also has starting experience, and will be their top backup. This is a very experienced group, despite losing their top player from last season. One thing that stood out to me is that they seem to blitz their linebackers a lot, with their starters combining for 12 sacks last season. Oregon will try their typical tactics to pull linebackers out of the box with bubble screens and with use of David Paulson at tight end. However, LSU will often run a nickel package, giving them better coverage on Paulson or on our trips sets. That said, a nickel package also favors run plays out of the inside zone read by taking more guys out of the box. Overall, its a talented group of linebackers, with Baker expecially a proven playmaker. I think the key to this group is to make some of those intermediate passing plays and force them into coverage, which I feel good about with David Paulson being our tight end.
Oregon's offense vs. LSU's secondary
This is the matchup I don't feel as optimistic about. I know the Tigers lost Patrick Peterson, but the guy who replaces him played a lot of nickelback for them and was a freshman All-American last season (Tyrann Mathieu). Mathieu had two picks and 4.5 sacks last season (though a corner blitz isn't a terribly effective way to counter the Oregon offense), and on the other corner is Morris Claiborne, who had five picks and was second team All-SEC. I'm not confident in the ability of Huff and Hoffman to make plays on the outside against such excellent cover corners. Brandon Taylor is a senior at SS, and while Craig Loston only starter two games as a freshman, he was the #1 recruit at his position in the country. Even the backups have a wealth of experience. This is a deep, talented group that has a clear advantage against our inexperienced receivers.
The key to beating this LSU defense is to win the line of scrimmage. This is not a terribly deep or experienced defensive line, though they are talented. Oregon needs to do what they do--reel off some running plays, string together first downs, and wear these guys down in the second half. If Oregon can do this, I think its a close game going into halftime, after which Oregon exploits a worn down defensive line and puts the game away.
That said, if Oregon fails to control the LOS, and is forced to put the ball into the air, I don't like that at all. Its a deep, experienced secondary against a largely untested receiving corps. And while I think Oregon's defense is good enough (and LSU's offense bad enough) not to let them run away with the game, the way this thing gets out of hand is if the Ducks feel like they have to put the ball into the air because they can't get their run game going, and these guys start picking the ball off. Our offense is designed to exploit the most inexperienced part of their defense. If we do that, we win. If not, a win becomes a dicey proposition.