By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
With all of the uncertainty surrounding the Big East, this game is a chance for the conference to make a statement. West Virginia is the Big East’s top-ranked team and the preseason favorite to win the conference title. What better way to make a splash on the national scene than by beating a top five team?
These two teams played last season, with LSU edging West Virginia 20-14 in Baton Rouge. The Mountaineers held the Tigers to only 80 passing yards, but Patrick Peterson’s 60-yard punt return helped propel LSU to the victory. Last season’s matchup is the only one between these two teams.
The Mountaineers are off to a 3-0 start, with wins over Marshall, Norfolk State and Maryland. New coach Dana Holgorsen was hired to spice up the offense, and the Mountaineers rank seventh in the nation in passing yards per game.
LSU is more battled tested than West Virginia. The Tigers knocked off Oregon 40-27 in the season opener, defeated FCS foe Northwestern State 49-3 in Week 2, and defeated Mississippi State 19-6 last Thursday. The Tigers are a national title contender and enter this matchup ranked No. 3 in Athlon’s Top 120.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers certainly aren’t going to win any awards for being flashy on offense. However, its effective and exactly what LSU needs to do in order to win a national title.
Jarrett Lee was elevated to the No. 1 quarterback role when Jordan Jefferson was suspended due to an off-the-field incident. The senior is averaging 19.7 attempts per game, which is a credit to LSU’s strong rushing attack and defense.
Lee has been prone to interceptions throughout his career, but has tossed only one so far this season. The Tigers won’t ask Lee to win games, just don’t lose them.
The passing attack will get a key weapon back this Saturday, as receiver Russell Shepard returns from a suspension. He was the team’s second-leading receiver last year, catching 33 passes for 544 yards and three scores. Shepard’s return should help Lee stretch the field, while taking some pressure of No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle.
Leading the way on the ground for LSU will be sophomores Spencer Ware and Michael Ford. This duo has been one of the best in the SEC through three weeks, rushing for 444 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Mountaineers rank 45th nationally against the run and allowed Maryland running back Davin Meggett to rush for 113 yards and a score last week. The LSU offensive line has been a big part of the success for the offense and will look to push around the Mountaineers’ defensive line.
West Virginia’s Jeff Casteel is one of the nation’s most underrated defensive coordinators and will likely stack the box and force Lee to win this game for LSU. If the Mountaineers want to win this game, they need to find a way to slow down the Michael Ford-Spencer Ware duo, while forcing Lee into several third and long situations.
West Virginia’s pass rush, particularly end Bruce Irvin, has been quiet this year. Although LSU’s offensive line is playing well, the Mountaineers have to be able to generate some pressure on Lee when he drops back to pass.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
New West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen is one of the top offensive minds in college football. Consider the Mountaineers’ offense a work in progress so far.
Big things were expected out of quarterback Geno Smith this year and so far he has delivered, throwing for 1,008 yards and seven scores through three games.
Helping Smith’s cause is one of the Big East’s top receiving corps. Tavon Austin leads the team with 20 receptions, while Stedman Bailey, Ivan McCartney and Devon Brown have all factored prominently into the passing attack.
The Mountaineers’ have a tough task ahead on Saturday night, as LSU’s secondary is one of the best in college football. Cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu are strong candidates to earn All-SEC honors at the end of the year, and sophomore safety Eric Reid ranks fourth on the team with 15 tackles.
Helping LSU’s secondary is a deep and talented defensive line. The Tigers are averaging 10 tackles for a loss per game and a scary thought for the future – the depth chart for this week’s game indicates only one senior starter.
Although Smith has been solid for West Virginia, there has been a lot of concern about the offensive line. The front five has struggled to open running lanes for the backs, averaging only 2.6 yards per carry. Smith has been sacked only four times, but has been hurried or pressured often. Although the junior doesn’t like to run, he may have to make a few plays with his legs if things break down in the pocket.
For West Virginia to have any shot at winning this game, Smith has to have time to throw and he has to make smart decisions. LSU has picked off four passes and isn’t afraid to take risks to create turnovers.
If LSU’s defensive line wins the battle at the line of scrimmage, West Virginia’s offense won’t have a chance to take off. If the Mountaineers can protect Smith and give him passing lanes to throw, West Virginia will have a chance to win.
LSU kicker Drew Alleman has been solid this season, connecting on six of seven attempts. West Virginia hasn’t been bad either on field goals, as Tyler Bitancurt has connected on seven of eight kicks.
Both teams boast capable options on return. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin has been dynamic so far this season, averaging 29.4 yards per return. Austin also returned a kickoff for a score against Marshall. He is also averaging 22 yards per punt return. LSU will lean on cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu for kick and punt returns.
There’s a lot on the line for West Virginia in this matchup. If the Mountaineers can get past LSU, it would be a huge victory for the program and the Big East. However, it’s not going to be an easy task on Saturday night and without a doubt, West Virginia's toughest game this year.
LSU’s defense has been one of the best in the nation so far this season, which will make life difficult for West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and his receivers. The Mountaineers need to do a better job of protecting Smith and establishing a rushing attack.
West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen (offense) and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis are two of the best coaches on their side of the ball. The chess match between these two should be entertaining to watch.
If West Virginia wants to win this game, the defense has to force a few turnovers and put LSU in several third and long situations.
Although this is a huge game for the Mountaineers and an opportunity to make a statement, the breakdown points in LSU’s favor.
LSU 27, West Virginia 20