Back Inside the Numbers: Georgia at LSU

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Inside the Numbers: Georgia at LSU

By Jim Johnson
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This contest marks the 30th anniversary of the earthquake game. It sure couldn’t hurt to try to muster up another one of those valley shakers.

Is LSU a genuine contender? That has been a worthwhile argument to have so far this season. Peaking at #5 in the AP Poll prior to their loss at Florida last week, the Tigers were 5-0 with wins over Miami and Auburn. On the other hand, while they beat the Hurricanes, as well as their other two non-conference foes and Ole Miss, handily, they had less than a 25% postgame win expectancy against two of the three best teams they had faced -- 17% in the win at Auburn, and 22% a week ago at Florida.

There’s no doubt that LSU is good. LSU is always good. It just seemed like fool’s gold to chalk up the idea that they were any better than the eight and nine win teams of the past few years. Good teams occasionally lose consecutive games, especially when facing high caliber opponents in back-to-back weeks. Great teams don’t. Florida is quite good, far better than many anticipated before the season, but Georgia is great. Now, back in Death Valley, LSU has a chance to rebound and prove that they are too.

Obviously, it’s impossible to measure the impact of home field advantage from one stadium to the next, on one team to the next, under one scenario to the next, but as far as more tangible, actual football goes, it’s abundantly clear, based on Joe Burrow’s play through the first six games, that LSU will need a herculean performance from Nick Brossette.

After the first two games of the year, having rushed for 262 yards and two scores at a clip of 6.4 yards per carry, it would have been perfectly reasonable to expect such a showing. However, even then there were signs of an impending regression. About half of Brossette’s production had come after contact in during weeks one and two. That was never going to be a sustainable formula. It’s not entirely his fault that over the proceeding four contests he has compiled only 314 yards, with more than two fewer yards per carry. Most of the blame should fall on the shoulders of what has been a largely underwhelming offensive line.

Right now, the group ranks 81st in the country in standard down line yards per carry, as well as carries of 5+ yards, and 68th in percentage of stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage. Even factoring in Brossette’s brilliant first two weeks of the season, LSU as a whole ranks only 65th in rushing marginal efficiency and 77th in explosiveness. And, while it’s easy to superficially chalk up some of the regression to LSU’s recent opposition, although Florida and Auburn both have elite defenses, neither run defense has proven to be especially overwhelming, and he other two, Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss, are downright abysmal against the run.

Granted, Georgia’s run defense has been a little disappointing thus far, but it’s still leaps and bounds beyond the latter two, and even better than Auburn and Florida’s in some respects.

The Bulldogs do rank in the 100’s in percentage of 5+ yard carries, standard down line yards, and marginal efficiency allowed, but they’re about average with respect to stuff rate, and they rank 4th in rushing marginal explosiveness allowed. In other words, the hard yards are there for the taking, but good luck ripping off any big ones. They’ve been more bendy than most UGA fans would like, but have yet to actually break.

Overall production aside, there are a few Georgia defenders that have really stood out against the run. Outside linebacker D’Andre Walker leads the unit with 5.5 stuffs, followed closely by Tyler Clark’s 4.5, and then three from Jonathan Ledbetter. Clark, with a grade of 90.4, and Ledbetter, at 88.2, are also joined by David Marshall as Georgia’s three defensive lineman with a run defense grade above 86, according to Pro Football Focus. Walker, with a solid 75.3 run defense grade, is also allowing the fewest yards per play on the team, with opponents averaging -.1 yards per Walker tackle, as well as marginal explosiveness allowed, just ahead of Monty Rice, and is third in marginal efficiency allowed behind Ledbetter and then Clark.

The pieces are certainly in place for Georgia to have a much more efficient run defense during the second half of the season, and the reason it hasn’t been so far is honestly more schematic than anything else. If everything clicks into place on Saturday, and LSU is forced to look to the air, that’s bad news for Tigers.

Despite joining the team this offseason to high expectations that he could be the missing link that has been lacking in Baton Rouge for a few years, quarterback Joe Burrow ranks 90th in the FBS in passing efficiency, 69th in yards per attempt, and is completing just 53.9% of his throws. Even adjusted for drops and throwaways, his completion percentage is under 60%. It’s not for lack of weapons either, as Justin Jefferson, Stephen Sullivan, Foster Moreau, and Ja’Marr Chase all have marginal efficiency ratings at or above the national average. Chase also has an above average marginal explosiveness rating, as do Justin Jefferson, Derrick Dillon, and Terrace Marshall. And, albeit on a smaller sample size, the latter two are actually among the ranks of the elite in that respect.

Yet even with all that talent on the perimeter, LSU ranks 83rd in passing marginal efficiency and 53rd in explosiveness. Burrow simply has to be better if LSU wants to compete at the highest level, but to be fair, not dissimilar from the run game, the pass protection has not been up to snuff. Currently allowing a sack on 6.9% of their dropbacks, which ranks 80th, and a pressure on over a third of their passing snaps, it’s not unreasonable to assume that constantly fearing for one’s life could negatively impact quarterback play. This is partially due to some injuries and the subsequent lack of offensive line cohesion, but the only guy that has started up front this year to not surrender a sack is center Lloyd Cushenberry, according to CFB Film Room. Damien Lewis and, in fewer opportunities, Adrian Magee have been respectable, and Garrett Brumfield has been fine, but Austin Deculus, Saahdiq Charles, and Badara Traore have been getting their matador on.

On the surface, that may not seem like a big concern in this game, given that Georgia ranks 114th in sack rate, but Georgia didn’t rack up a ton of sacks last year and they were just fine. What they did, and continue to do well is create pressure, currently notching a sack, QB hit, or hurry on 28.4% of opposing dropbacks. For as solid as D’Andre Walker has been against the run, this is where he really shines. Currently holding the 12th highest PFF edge defender grade in the FBS, Walker has four of the team’s six sacks, leads the team with four QB hits, and is second to Tyler Clark’s seven hurries with six of his own.

Jonathan Ledbetter and Brenton Cox are next on the list of Georgia’s most productive pass rusher, with four each, followed by Monty Rice and Juwan Taylor, at three apiece. There was really only one game last season, against Auburn the first time around, where Georgia’s seeming inability to actually finish sacks once they got there hurt them. Maybe that one game can be LSU this season, but 2018 Joe Burrow is not even close to 2017 Jarrett Stidham, and it won’t help matters that Georgia’s secondary is now actually the strength of the defense.

Deandre Baker has probably been the best cornerback in the nation at the midway point in the season, just edging out, ironically, LSU’s Greedy Williams for that distinction. PFF’s highest graded CB right now, Baker, as denoted by CFB Film Room, has allowed just nine catches on 20 throws into his coverage, and eight of those nine were considered contested targets. He also has a pair interceptions, six pass breakups, has yet to allow a single touchdown -- extending his unscored upon streak to 21 straight games. In fact, the only time during that span that he allowed more than 50 yards in a single game was to Baker Mayfield and that historically prolific Oklahoma offense in last year’s Rose Bowl.

Opposite him, freshman sensation Tyson Campbell has given up just six receptions on 16 targets, and only one touchdown, while William Poole and Mark Webb are each allowing only a 40% completion rate. Getting upper echelon safety play from J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte, the only relative liability in coverage has been freshman Eric Stokes, who has more than made up for it with his sure tackling and run support. Although, the former could be said about most of UGA’s defensive backs, as Poole is the only one to have missed a tackle this season. Truly, overall, Georgia might be the most sure tackling team in college football.

With an adequate, at worst, pass rush and one of the top defensive backfields in the game, Georgia ranks 16th in passer rating against, 30th in passing marginal efficiency and 3rd in explosiveness allowed.

Altogether, while the defense has not been as good as it was a season ago, Kirby Smart’s group still ranks 19th in defensive S&P+, 55th in marginal efficiency allowed, 1st in marginal explosiveness allowed, 3rd in percentage of 20+ yard plays allowed, 12th in non-garbage time points per drive allowed, and 30th in points allowed per scoring opportunity.

One key to their efficacy has been their performance on third downs. They rank in the top 25 in third-and-long and third-and-medium success rate allowed, and in the top ten in third-and-short situations.

LSU, on the other hand, has been terrible in third down, ranking 106th in overall success rate, 69th on third-and-long and 125th on third-and-medium. They are first in third-and-short success rate, but only 13% of their third downs have been classified as such.

On the whole, LSU’s offense ranks 49th in S&P+, 77th in marginal efficiency, 80th in marginal explosiveness, 68th in percentage of 20+ yard gains, 57th in points per drive, and 53rd in points per scoring opportunity.

Since it’s seemingly impossible to manufacture big plays against the Bulldogs, Burrow and that offense will have to walk the fine line between staying patient and taking what Georgia’s bend-don’t break defense will give them, without falling into unmanageable third downs. They’ll also need to be aggressive when they do get into scoring position. Don’t bring field goals to a touchdown fight. As good as LSU’s defense is, Georgia still has enough offensive firepower to turn this battle into just that.

Jim Chaney’s group is the total package, devoid of any discernible weakness. It’s baffling to think that a pair of quarterbacks as talented as Jake Fromm and Justin Fields are merely a luxury, but for a Georgia offense that ranks 36th in standard down run rate, that’s all they’ve needed to be so far.

Four deep in the backfield, Georgia has rushed for the seventh most yards in the country, all without having a single rusher go over 100 yards in a single game. Sophomore D’Andre Swift was being mentioned as a dark horse Heisman candidate in the preseason, and he has still earned the most carries, Elijah Holyfield has been the breakout star of the group. Swift, while still gaining at least five yards on 54.2% of his carries, has seen his explosiveness take a dip, at least partially due to some nagging injuries, down to 3.5 yards per opportunity upon reaching the second level from 7.5 as a freshman. Holyfield, however, has forced the most missed tackles on the team and improved his second level rushing production to an average of 6.73 extra yards per opportunity, with freshman James Cook as a close second. Yet, despite lacking the second level explosiveness of the aforementioned two, Brian Herrien is actually the best of the foursome as far as percentage of 5+ yard carries and marginal efficiency. All dynamic and capable of filling unique roles, Chaney can’t go wrong with his carry distribution.

Between the four of them, with Fields occasionally adding yet another dimension to the attack, Georgia ranks 7th in rushing marginal efficiency and 23rd in explosiveness. Of course, it does help having the best offensive line in the game to run behind.

The big boys up front have helped lead Georgia to a ranking of 5th in percentage of 5+ yard carries, 13th in stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 4th in standard down line yards. According to PFF, their 86.7 run blocking grade as a unit is first, nationally. Almost as elite in pass pro, they rank 16th in standard down sack rate allowed, have allowed a pressure on less than 20% of their dropbacks, and are 15th in PFF’s pass block efficiency rankings. With a 90.8, sophomore left tackle Andrew Thomas is their highest graded offensive lineman in the country, having still not allowed a sack in 105 pass blocking snaps, and posting the second highest individual grade as a run blocker. Still, though he is the star, it’s the lack of any one weak spot that truly separates this group from the pack. Every starter on the O-Line has posted a PFF grade above 75.0, and none of them have surrendered more than a single sack.

When that front five is outmanned on blitz downs, Fromm, and albeit to a lesser degree, Fields, have not been been able to get the ball out as often as one would like, but, other than that, this passing offense has been firing on all cylinders.

As a team they rank 6th in the country in passing efficiency, and Fromm, individually, ranks fourth. Both quarterbacks are completing over 70% of their attempts, both have posted elite marginal efficiency scores, and while they haven’t been as explosive with Fields behind center, Fromm has also been above average in marginal explosiveness.

Perhaps the deepest receiving corps in college football, Georgia’s pass catchers have dropped just four passes all year, and two of those drops came from running backs. Terry Godwin accounted for the other two, so other than that, none have a single one. Jeremiah Holloman and tight end Isaac Nauta are leading the team in yards per target, and are third and second, respectively, in marginal efficiency, behind Riley Ridley, while Holloman, Godwin, and Mecole Hardman round out the top three in marginal explosiveness. The second tight end, Charlie Woerner has also been extremely reliable, and was one of Georgia’s best players last week against Vanderbilt. Plus, while Swift’s rushing production has taken a step back, he’s still one of the better pass catching backs in the league.

The abundance of weapons at those two passers’ disposal is almost unfathomable. Together they rank 6th in passing marginal efficiency and 31st in explosiveness.

Nevertheless, this LSU defense will be the best that Georgia has faced this season by miles and miles.

Indisputably one of the top contenders for the DBU moniker, everything starts in the secondary for Dave Aranda and company.

As previously stated, if Deandre Baker isn’t the best cornerback in America, it’s Greedy Williams. With no touchdowns allowed, two pass breakups and two interceptions on 28 throws into his coverage, Williams has allowed 10 catches, half of which have been contested. At 6’3, this guy is a long, athletic physical specimen. His athletic traits make him like a spider web in press-man. Not many receivers that get stuck make it out alive.

That said, none of LSU’s other cornerbacks have proven to be a consistently viable CB2. Fortunately, at safety, John Battle has continued to be a bastion of reliability, and Grant Delpit has broken out as arguably the second best player in the SEC this season at the position. As versatile as they come, Delpit is tied for the team lead in sacks, is first in picks, second only to Kristian Fulton in pass breakups, has not allowed a single touchdown in coverage, and has given up just seven receptions on 19 targets.

And although Delpit and Michael Divinity Jr. share the lead in sacks, Devin White has still been LSU’s most productive pass rusher. Actually, White has been one of the best pass rushing off ball linebackers in the country for going on two years now. With one sack, four QB hits, and eight hurries, White’s 13 total pressures are the most among LSU defenders. Divinity is second with ten, followed by Andre Anthony’s nine, and then eight from Delpit and Breiden Fehoko.

Akin to Georgia, the unit ranks just 72nd in sack rate, but is getting a pressure on an incredible 46.1% of opposing dropbacks.

Between the havoc they are wrecking up front and the talented back end, LSU ranks 17th in passer rating against, 44th in passing marginal efficiency, and 15th in explosiveness allowed.

Delpit, too, has been a force against the run, with 6.5 run stuffs, second most on the team. Unsurprisingly, White is first with eleven, and leads the linebacking corps in marginal efficiency allowed. Divinity is third in run stuffs, second in the group in marginal efficiency allowed, and first in yards per play allowed, giving up just one yard on average on his tackles.

Along the defensive line, Rashard Lawrence leads the way with 4.5 run stuffs and the best marginal explosiveness allowed rating, and Fehoko is first in marginal efficiency and yards per play allowed.

Here, they rank 46th in rushing marginal efficiency and 23rd in explosiveness allowed, 54th in percentage of opposing 5+ yard carries, 60th in stops at or behind the line of scrimmage, and 53rd in standard down line yards per carry given up.

LSU has been modestly susceptible to a good run game, but overall their defense still ranks 15th in S&P+, 47th in marginal efficiency, 12th in marginal explosiveness, 40th in percentage of 20+ yard plays, 23rd in points per drive, and 59th in points per scoring opportunity allowed.

That’s obviously solid on paper, but comparatively, Georgia ranks 5th in offensive S&P+, 5th in marginal efficiency, 18th in marginal explosiveness, 18th in percentage of 20+ yard plays, 4th in points per drive, and 30th in points per scoring opportunity.

Once more, third downs have been important to Georgia’s success, or, rather, the lack thereof. 80.2% of their chain moving plays have come on first or second down, and even when they do get into third down situations, they’re in the top 25 in average third down distance and the top 30 in third down success rate.

LSU’s defense has also been more bend-don’t-break, but Jake Fromm and that Georgia offense are much more well equipped to just stay on schedule and bend LSU until they break than the vice versa.

Even on special teams, where LSU is better than just about anyone in college football, sitting at number two in combined special teams S&P+, Georgia is also in the top 20. Most of those matchups within the matchup are too close to call, especially given that LSU’s lone weakness, punt returns, matches up with Georgia’s biggest weakness, punting from their freshman Jake Camarda, in what is, for the Tigers, an unfortunate happenstance.

The field position battle will be imperative for Ed Orgeron’s group who can attribute a portion of their 5-1 start to ranking 38th in average offensive starting field position, and 5th in defensive starting field position. Georgia has not been as fortunate with where they have started drives, but, especially for the Tiger offense, it is important that they get some short fields. The Bulldogs are still yet to allow an opposing offense to score on a drive that started inside their own 20 yard line.

And, even though the turnover battle projects pretty evenly at a glance -- Georgia is +6, LSU +5 -- Georgia is only slightly above their expected turnover margin, while LSU actually has an expected turnover margin closer to -1 right now, which indicates some pretty good luck so far. This would be about the worst week imaginable for that well of fortune to run dry.

The matchups within the matchup do not reflect favorably upon Orgeron and his Tigers. However, this is college football. It’s weirder when it’s not weird. These are guys in their teens and early 20’s. Inconsistency is more consistent than anything else. And home field has to count for something.

This contest marks the 30th anniversary of the earthquake game. It sure couldn’t hurt to try to muster up another one of those valley shakers.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP