Back Inside the Numbers: LSU at Auburn

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Inside the Numbers: LSU at Auburn

By Jim Johnson
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It was widely held that Auburn would be one of the better teams in the country, ahead of this season. The same could not be said for their upcoming opponents. However, after a dominant showing against Miami, in week one, LSU has the nation’s attention.

It was widely held that Auburn would be one of the better teams in the country, ahead of this season. The same could not be said for their upcoming opponents. However, after a dominant showing against Miami, in week one, LSU has the nation’s attention.

Now, alongside some outstanding outings by Mississippi State and a near upset of Clemson by Texas A&M, it’s much more hazy as to who is the biggest threat to Alabama in the absolutely brutal SEC West.

The outcome of this contest should provide some much needed clarity.

Last year, Auburn, who returns all but two players from their entire front seven two deep, ranked 16th in adjusted sack rate, with a 9% rate on standard downs (5th) and 7.9% rate on passing downs (57th). It’s also worth noting that the passing down rate is more schematic than problematic -- simply a conservative philosophy, relatively, when opposing offenses get knocked off schedule.

Jeff Holland, Auburn’s lone player with more than five sacks, or even double digit hurries, according to College Football Film Room, did take his talents to the NFL, after a stellar campaign, but even if Auburn can’t create pressure to the same extent (they probably still can, they’re stacked), Auburn has one of the few cornerbacks in college football that can stand up to what Joe Burrow sees in practice on a regular basis.

As a unit, Auburn had the nation’s number one ranked pass defense, according to S&P+, with a 31.8% allowed success rate (5th) and 1.28 IsoPPP allowed (11th). Both safeties and Carlton Davis have since moved on, but Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis are back, which should be more than enough to have opposing quarterbacks running scared.

Dean, whose 24.1 coverage snaps per reception ranked 4th among returning FBS cornerbacks, to go alongside a top ten ranking in allowed catch rate, at 38.1%, is a dream combination of size and athleticism, which grants him a huge advantage in press man, and he also possesses a great feel for underneath zone. His partner in crime, Davis, ranked 4th among returning cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap, 4th among SEC returnees in passer rating allowed on throws into his coverage, and first in the country in yards after the catch allowed, with just 17 against him all season. As a matter of fact, he never gave up more than five YAC in a single game and posted four shutouts.

Dean has continued his solid play so far this year, recording his first career interception against Washington in week one, while the safety spots are beginning to shake themselves out after appearing to be a possible weakness. Daniel Thomas looks like a major breakout player, following up a steady performance in the opener with two interception day against Alabama State, despite playing only 20 snaps in coverage. Freshman Jamien Sherwood also looked like a future All-SEC caliber player during week two, and should see his role expand if he keeps it up.

Davis, the slot corner, frankly, was picked on a few times by Washington, as was Noah Igbinoghene, a converted receiver, but Burrow is not the quarterback that Browning is, so expect a better outing from each of them.

As it pertains to the run game, Auburn’s defense ranked 5th in rush defense S&P+, with a 35.1% allowed success rate, .91 IsoPPP (64th), was in the top 20 of adjusted line yards allowed, and gave up at 5+ yards 34.4% of the time (27th).

And, of those 12 returning key contributors in that unbelievably deep front seven, half of them had a sub-30% allowed success rate, led by superstar Derrick Brown, who put up a team high 15 run stuffs, linebacker Deshaun Davis, whose 11 stuffs were second only to Brown, and Dontavius Russell, who had ten stuffs of his own.

Against Washington, Auburn’s defensive line was as good as advertised. In 2017, Washington had a 46% rushing success rate (plays that gain 50% of the necessary yardage to move the chains on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd & 4th down). That afternoon, the Huskies managed a mere 38% success rate on the ground, which is well below the national average for FBS teams in 2017. Brown personally allowed a 0% (yep, zero) success rate with one run stuff on his three tackles. Nick Coe, too, allowed a 0% success rate and racked up 10 TFL yards between his pair of tackles. Dontavius Russell also allowed negative yardage on the day and gave up just one successful play.

Somehow, linebacker Darrell Williams still looked like the best player on that defense versus the Huskies. He suffered an injury against Alabama State, the following week, but should be good to go. Still, if he’s less than 100%, that could hurt against Nick Brossette, who has looked, well, like an LSU running back so far.

LSU’s rushing attack has ranked no lower than 7th in S&P+ in the past three years, and was 6th, a year ago, with a 49% success rate (8th), gained at least five yards 44.6% of the time (7th), and was stopped for a loss or no gain just 15.2% of the time (13th). Granted, neither Leonard Fournette, Derrius Guice, nor Darrel Williams are in Baton Rouge any longer. Nevertheless, Brossette, albeit on a limited (very [very] limited) sample size, gained at least five yards 52.6% of the time, which was notably higher than the latter two, with a 47.4% success rate and a 3.2% marginal efficiency (the difference between a player’s success rate and the expected success rate of a play, based on down, distance, and yard line, relative to the national average), both of which were at least comparable to his two predecessors.

To date, in 2018, he has rushed for 262 yards on 41 carries. Granted, in the past, LSU’s offensive line has deserved some of the credit for their rushing success. Two players with at least eight starts return from a group that ranked 4th in adjusted line yards (a metric that attempts to separate what a ball carrier does what the line gives him, inasmuch as that’s possible), creating 3.33 line yards per carry on standard downs (15th) and 3.79 on passing downs (9th). While replacing the likes of Will Clapp, Toby Weathersby, and KJ Malone is hardly a fun task, there are plenty of well regarded prospects waiting in the wings to help mitigate any expected regression. However, that group is still trying to jell. En route to Brossette’s prodigious production, he’s had to force 14 missed tackles, and 142 of those 262 yards have come after contact.

No matter, the run game is just fine. The passing game, on the other hand, is still a mystery at this point. Ed Orgeron named Steve Ensminger the new offensive coordinator and play caller, following the bizarre Matt Canada departure. The way Orgeron stuck his fingers in that wizard’s offense last year should be against the law, and Canada still managed to turn Danny Etling into a serviceable, if not good, quarterback, just as he had done with Nate Peterman, at Pitt. Now it’s the more amenable Ensminger’s turn, after having not been a full time play caller since 1998. In fairness, during an eight game stretch in 2016, he improved the Tiger’s production by 1.3 yards per play and 11 points per game, compared to what they had done in the first four games of that season. Still, the whole situation has been disappointing, to put it nicely… or stupid, to put it accurately.

There’s probably no point in mentioning LSU’s 2017 passing numbers, given the turnover and corresponding overhaul, but for the purposes of illustrating Canada’s magical powers, LSU ranked 16th in pass offense S&P+, in large part due to their 1.69 IsoPPP (15th).

Yet, for as good as the run blocking was, the protection was abysmal, ranking 97th in adjusted sack rate allowed, with a 6.8% rate on standard downs (96th), a 12.6% rate on passing downs (121st), as well as 45 total hurries, 20 QB hits, and 30 sacks given up. There’s no real reason to expect that to improve, either, as the (maybe) three returners -- Garrett Brumfield, Ed Ingram, and Saahdiq Charles -- ranked third, fourth, and sixth in pass block efficiency on the team, among the six offensive linemen that started more than once.

Maybe Ohio State-transfer Joe Burrow can be the answer behind center that LSU hasn’t had in years. He did have a solid 82.1% adjusted completion percentage for the Buckeyes, in 2016, but he just hasn’t played many meaningful snaps in his career. Another transfer, Jonathan Giles from Texas Tech, is poised to be the top receiver for LSU, but who knows how much he’ll get the ball, especially as compared to his time under noted pilot Cliff Kingsbury. Blue-chipper Terrace Marshall should factor into the equation as well, but the point holds: LSU has had plenty of pass catching talent in recent memory, but no one to do the passing part. A checkered history of grad-transfer success, across the collegiate landscape, especially at the game’s most important position, hardly portends an exceedingly bright future for Burrow.

Tight end Foster Moreau, though, if Ensminger is as committed to balance as he purports to be, may have a big year, especially if the passing game tries to be more steady than electric. He ranked in the top 20 in marginal efficiency and 11th in marginal explosiveness among returning tight ends with 30+ targets. He does need to clean up some of his drops, and it would help if he made a few more of the tougher catches -- he was 0/4 on targets when covered -- but there’s some promise there.

The future is still pretty cloudy at this point, with LSU having attempted just over 40 passes in between the first two games. Over that stretch, Burrow ranks second to last on the SEC with a 60% adjusted completion percentage and last in passer rating.

Obviously, the final score against Miami did look good, and, superficially, may have indicated a brighter future on offense than is actually realistic. The Tigers had a bunch of short fields that day, and the ‘Canes did not match up well for what LSU wanted to do when they had the ball. Auburn, on the other hand, with that front seven, is in a much better spot, personnel-wise, to limit Brossette’s impact and force Burrow to beat them. It’s yet to be seen if has what it takes to do so.

If the offense largely sputters, as the matchups within the matchup indicate that it will, LSU must, again, rely heavily on its defense to keep them within striking distance.

Even though the Tigers have at least one genuine superstar, be they fully shining or in the making, at every level of the defense, everything starts in the secondary. As a unit, the 2017 pass defense ranked 19th in the nation, with a 35.8% success rate (25th), and 1.41 IsoPPP allowed (53rd). No matter, the defensive backfield, specifically, outperformed the group as a whole with a 9.6% havoc rate and a 43.2% pass defensed to incompletion ratio, both of which were in the top five of all FBS programs.

Cornerback Greedy Williams is a truly special combination of size, speed, and length, granting him overwhelming advantages in press-man. There’s still some room to improve in off coverage, but it’s easy to forget that he was only a redshirt freshman, on account of how much better he was than almost everyone else. In that debut campaign, he allowed a remarkable 19.4 passer rating on throws into his coverage (2nd among returning FBS CB’s), picked off or defensed 25% of said throws (3rd), and allowed a 39.1% catch rate (10th). This guy is like Patrick Peterson, if Patrick Peterson was 6’3. (Part of me wants to see him wearing #7, but I also know that it would probably give me heart palpitations, so I’m good either way.) Outside of Williams, both starting safeties John Battle and Grant Delpit return, each after allowing a negative marginal explosiveness rating, with the former a likely contender for all-conference honors.

LSU did lose a fairly substantial bit of proven pass rushing talent up front, though. The 2017 defense ranked 17th in adjusted sack rate, getting there on 8.2% of standard downs (9th) and 10.8% of passing downs (12th). Standout linebacker Devin White is the only guy coming back with more than two sacks, yet Rashard Lawrence, who typically would be one of the best defensive linemen in the country, but is flying under the radar in a stacked class at the position, and highly touted edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson combined for 17 hurries and six hits on opposing QBs, according to CFB Film Room. Chaisson, though, sustained a season ending knee injury during what was an extremely promising opener against Miami.

Even so, White, uncharacteristic as it may be for an off ball linebacker, is probably the best pass rusher on the team. As denoted by Pro Football Focus, he ranks first among 2019 draft eligible linebackers in pass rush productivity, and his 30 total pressures in 2017 tied for first among all returning FBS linebackers.

The run defense also has a lot to live up to (not as much as the pass D, but still), fresh off a top 25 S&P+ ranking, with a 40.6% allowed success rate (52nd), .84 IsoPPP (35th), and a 5.9% linebacker havoc rate (20th).

Even with all of the departures, four linebackers return a sub-30% allowed success rate, three of which are projected starters alongside White, as do a pair of defensive lineman -- projected starting nose tackle Ed Alexander and rotational 3-tech Glen Logan. Those two giants, plus Lawrence, as well as another Texas Tech transfer, Breiden Fehoko, and a now-eligible Tyler Shelvin form an awfully formidable defensive line two-deep.

And just how LSU’s offense matches up poorly with Auburn’s defense, the same is true of Auburn’s offense against LSU’s defense.

Auburn finished 2017 ranked in the top ten in passing S&P+, with a 42.3% success rate and 1.58 IsoPPP (an explosiveness measure of equivalent point value), both of which were above the national average. It’s not unreasonable to expect that already upper echelon performance to improve and become one of, if not the best in the game.

The Tigers return basically everyone that Stidham threw a pass to, save Kerryon Johnson, including Ryan Davis, who, according to Pro Football Focus, at 87.3% had the highest catch rate in the SEC, from the slot. Granted, as it pertains to the LSU game, Auburn will be working with both Eli Stove and Will Hastings at less than full strength, the former an all-purpose dynamo and the latter an ex-walk on kicker that somehow leads all returning FBS receivers with a 70% catch rate on passes of 20+ yards downfield. The pair each returned last week, less than six months after knee surgery that projected a return closer to the middle of the season. They will be a welcome presence, but anything less than their best against LSU’s defensive backfield will not be enough.

Still, regardless of personnel, Stidham is the one who deserves the lionshare of the credit for the team’s passing proficiency. Even after a rocky start -- he completed 58 percent of his passes at 10.4 yards per completion with a 114.1 passer rating. Over the 10 games in the middle: 71 percent, 13.8 per completion, 169.4 rating -- his 81% adjusted completion percentage when throwing from a clean pocket is second among returning signal callers. He was medically precise under such circumstances, adding 15 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Showing his ability to make every throw, he also posted an above average passer rating to each different type of route, at least 12 points above average on all but out routes, and a 126 rating on corners, 35.5 points above the mean.

In fairness, he did struggle mightily under pressure, which is something he needs to improve, but as good as Auburn’s offensive line was as a run blocking unit, the pass protection was downright poor, ranking 94th in allowed adjusted sack rate, with an 8.6% rate on standard downs (121st) and 9.7% rate on passing downs (97th). Even after losing a combined 50 starts up front, most notably between one man wrecking crew Braden Smith and the versatile leader of the group, Austin Golson, it would be hard for the pass protection to get much worse. Stidham thrived in spite of it in his debut campaign at Auburn. Even incremental improvement would go a long way. And, to be fair, incremental improvement has been shown. The group performed admirably against a gifted Washington front seven, but still wasn’t great. However, tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, who graded out as their best OL against Washington, had the highest offensive line grade in the SEC last week, according to PFF.

Regardless, Stidham was brilliant and unfazed by the Huskies. In a true masterclass at the game’s most important position, the standout signal caller put up an almost inexplicable 54% success rate, which would have ranked 1st in the country last year, against what was purportedly one of the game’s most talented defensive backfields. He dominated in the more shallow depths of the field, but was incredibly effective getting the ball out all over the place. He completed 9/10 throws to his left (the incompletion was a throwaway), 2/4 between the hashes, and 6/8 to his right (one of the incompletions was a drop) on attempts of less than 10 yards downfield. On throws between 10-20 air yards, he completed all three to his right, all four between the hashes, and 1/2 to his left, the one being an absolute dime to Sal Cannella for a score on their opening drive.

The run game is a different story, and if anything, struggles there could be the biggest detriment to the passing attack, as Stidham averaged 11.5 yards per play action attempt a season ago, good for third among returning players. On the one hand, Auburn and Boise State are the only programs to have a 1,000 yard rusher in each of the last nine seasons, so betting on that to happen again is like betting on gravity. On the other hand, just two starters return from a group that ranked in the top 25 in adjusted line yard per carry, the top ten in stuff rate (stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage, and the top five in percent of carries on third or fourth down, with two of fewer yards to go, that either moved the chains or scored.

So far, it’s been a problem. Auburn is managing just over a 30% success rate and the run blocking might actually be worse than the pass protection -- the opposite of a year ago. It also doesn’t help that right guard Mike Horton and right tackle Jack Driscoll suffered injuries in week two. Both practiced this week, but it’s unclear how ready they’ll be on Saturday.

Even if the run game is not as good as it was, as a whole -- it ranked 16th in S&P+ with a 45.7% success rate (34th) and .85 IsoPPP (86th) -- expect an increase in explosiveness to help mitigate whatever drop there may be in efficiency. As long as it’s just adequate, Auburn’s offense will still be a force to be reckoned with, long term.

However, in the short term, if they can’t establish the run against LSU’s talented defensive front, Stidham will be forced to do what he did against Washington. Obviously, he’s capable of those sorts of performances, but that’s a big ask of a young quarterback to do that twice in three weeks, especially against Greedy Williams and company.

All in all, the way each offense matches up with the opposing defenses, this one promises to be low scoring affair. It’s imperative that each team take advantage of their opportunities when they get them. Auburn had a hard time finishing with a short field last year, and that problem persisted against Washington. LSU did too, but showed improvement in that respect against Miami. However, LSU’s defense was not nearly as good with their backs against the wall as Auburn’s was and, judging by the opener, continues to be.

Overall, special teams is probably a wash between these two, but field position will loom especially large. LSU started with a lot of short fields last year, and did the same in their win over the Hurricanes. Auburn was not as fortunate. Some of that is exactly that -- fortune -- as Auburn had some of the worst turnover luck in college football last year, but they are going up against an LSU side that doesn’t cough up the ball a ton, and forces a bunch of mistakes. That part isn't luck, either. Ed Orgeron’s defense consistently puts itself in position to make big plays and executes when the opportunities arise.

Don’t look for a shootout on the Plains this Saturday. The way these offenses are constructed, both defenses’ strengths promise to be on full display. Many people were surprised when LSU bested Miami, but the numbers were not. The matchups within the matchup were not. Individual football games aren’t decided by who will have the better season. They are decided by how those two teams align.

Auburn will likely go on to have a more successful campaign than LSU, but, head-to-head, there’s not much to separate these squads.

Malzahn’s group deserves to be favored, and playing at Jordan-Hare doesn’t hurt, but in a season that has already been full of pleasant surprises in Baton Rouge, a win at Auburn really wouldn’t be one.

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