BATON ROUGE, La. — Sometimes stats don’t tell the whole story.
Just by looking at the numbers, Southern Miss has a formidable offense. The Golden Eagles rank seventh nationally in yards per game and haven’t been held below 30 points all season.
As dominant as that may sound, those numbers only tell you the “what happened,” not the “how it happened.” So that’s why we’re going to be looking at the film from Southern Mississippi’s Week 1 win over Kentucky, the best team it’s played in 2016, to try to gain a deeper understanding of just how Southern Miss is so successful on offense, and also how to expose its flaws and beat it and its own game.
(If you would like to watch the full game yourself, you can find it on YouTube here.)
The good stuff: Offense
Nick Mullens, the Southern Miss quarterback, is an experienced and talented passer. He’s been the primary passer for Southern Miss 36 times in his career and has been the team’s regular starter since his sophomore year. When everything is going right for him, Mullens is a tough man to stop.
The two touchdown passes in the video above have one thing in common: great protection. When Kentucky only brought four pass rushers or when Southern Miss successfully picked up the blitz, Mullens’ comfort showed. But when Mullens has a man in his face, he has a tendency to rush his throws and tempt fate by forcing the ball into double and triple coverages.
For LSU to stop Mullens, getting a pass rush is paramount. That might sound easy for LSU’s potent pass rush led by Arden Key, but it’s actually a bit of a tough task.
In six games, the Southern Miss offensive line only has allowed seven sacks, and three of them came Week 1. Much like Missouri’s Drew Lock, LSU’s opponent two weeks ago, Mullens has a tendency to get the ball out of his hand quickly, and his play-caller Shannon Dawson supplements this by calling plenty of short, quick passes to get Mullens into a rhythm.
That said, there are some holes and predictable recurring themes in the Southern Miss offense that can easily be exploited. For example:
- The Southern Miss offense loves to run screen plays on third downs. The Golden Eagles prey on over-aggressive defenses and drop the ball over the top, either to a running back in the middle of the field, or a wide receiver down the sideline.
- The offense line struggles with overload blitzes and, since Southern Miss runs a lot of four wide receiver sets, there rarely are enough blockers to protect Mullens when one side is overloaded.
- Many of those aforementioned four wide receiver sets involve bunching three receivers up on the short side of the field as to isolate one wideout in man-to-man coverage on the wide side of the field. Mullens loves to throw at the man-to-man option, and he sometimes telegraphs his passes, something that will play well for LSU cornerback Tre’Davious White.
- Some offenses pass to set up the run. Southern Miss isn’t one of them. Against Kentucky the Golden Eagles used running backs Ito Smith and George Payne to draw defenders into the box to suit the passing game. This season Southern Miss is 3-0 when it rushes for more than 200 yards and is 1-2 when it rushes for less than 200 yards.
The bad stuff: Defense
Based solely off the Kentucky tape, the easiest way to exploit the Southern Miss defense is to throw into its blindspot. Unluckily for LSU, that’s located in the one spot that Danny Etling and Co. haven’t been able to get the ball.
It might sound simplistic to say, but the best way to beat the Southern Miss defense is with speed over the middle. Whether it was running or passing, most of Kentucky’s big plays came either directly up the middle or shifted to the middle once a few tackles were evaded. This has been a recurring element all season; Southern Miss has allowed 14 passes of 25 yards or more this season and 13 runs of 20 yards or more, ranking the team in the bottom 10 in the country.
Speaking plainly, the Golden Eagles suffer from a serious talent deficiency compared to SEC schools, even lower-level SEC teams like Kentucky. If the game is played as a technical battle in the trenches, expect it to be a close one. But if LSU can get its playmakers in space and turn the game into a track meet, the Tigers should easily be able to put away the game.
“Should” being the inoperable word.
The only FBS teams that have completed fewer passes of 25 yards or more than LSU this season are Vanderbilt and New Mexico. And while the Tigers have compensated with 15 rushes of 20 yards or more, the anemic deep-passing game is still the biggest hole in LSU’s offense.
It’s a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Will Southern Miss’s flaws in deep coverage wake up a struggling LSU offense or will LSU’s small-ball passing attack help the Southern Miss defense? There’s no way of knowing until Saturday.
But there are a few other things to watch out for when the Southern Miss defense is on the field. For example:
— Nick Suss (@nicksuss) October 14, 2016
- On third downs, Southern Miss dials up some wacky defenses. Rarely is more than one man down in a three-point stance. Rather, the Golden Eagles employ what is sometimes called a “Times Square” defense (see above), where members of the defensive front seven roam around like tourists admiring the lights of New York City until the ball is snapped. At that point, some players blitz and some drop into coverage.
- Being that this will be the first start for center Andy Dodd, this is definitely a situation worth monitoring. The center is often the player who makes the calls for the offensive line, and there are few calls more challenging to make than diagnosing a defensive front when there are no players on the line of scrimmage.
- Led by senior defensive tackle Dylan Bradley, the Southern Miss defensive line is quite good. Aside from one outlier, Southern Miss is allowing just 1.75 yards per carry on third-and-short plays. Furthermore, Southern Miss has recorded the third-most sacks of any non-Power 5 school this season with 19, though five of those did come against FCS competition.
- The team’s secondary struggles a bit on pick plays, as can be seen on the first play in the video above. Kentucky exploited this by running inside screens with wide receivers screening off Southern Miss cornerbacks, creating space in the middle of the field. This is a nice remedy for LSU to use if the Tigers can’t find any luck over the middle deep.