I spent a considerable amount of time looking at LSU's passing game yesterday. Today comes the flip side for this weekend's matchup: how Florida's secondary stands to fare against it.
Passing defense is the stronger of the two kinds for Florida. UF ranks fifth nationally in passing efficiency defense and third nationally in yards per attempt allowed (both with I-AA games removed for everyone), and the back seven has six interceptions already. By comparison, the unit is 49th nationally in yards per rush allowed. This is quite curious indeed when you consider that all four opponents the defense has faced thus far are pass-oriented. Then again, perhaps they just focused more on the pass because of it and allowed a few more rushing yards as a result.
Anyway, LSU's passing attack consists mostly short stuff with a few long passes mixed in. Any Gator fan who hears that probably would break into a cold sweat when thinking about the game this weekend. That pretty well describes Bowling Green's passing attack, and while they're schematically different than the Tigers, it worked well against Florida. LSU has a lot better players, too.
Bowling Green? Really? Sure, let's talk Bowling Green for a sec. The Falcons passed for 226 yards on the Gators, second only to Tennessee on the year. A review of the video box score reveals that all 226 yards came on passes that went no more than 10 yards down the field through the air. BGSU's two quarterbacks, primarily Matt Schilz, were 25/52 (48.1%) on the game in all, but they were 25/38 (65.8%) on the shorter throws. Schilz even had completion streaks of eight and nine, respectively, on his short game.
Of course, Florida was playing everything as vanilla as possible in that game with SEC opponents making up the rest of September's slate. That, plus Kentucky just being hopeless, means that half of Florida's defensive game film so far is of questionable value. UK completed just six of 21 short throws with eight of the 15 incompletions being drops or bad throws. Meanwhile, Johnny Manziel was 21/25 (84%) on his short throws. Quite a few of those were completions thanks to him keeping plays alive with his feet though, which is an option that the far less mobile Zach Mettenberger doesn't really have.
With all of that said, UF's four opponents connected on just 62% of their short throws, which is pretty low when you consider these are supposed to be the easy ones. Bad throws accounted for 17.6% of the short passes, many of which were induced by pressuring the quarterback, and 12% were pass breakups or interceptions. This defense is probably pretty good at defending short throws, provided that the quarterback isn't scrambling around a lot.
When it comes to those periodic deep throws, there is evidence that the secondary can be had once or twice a game. Tennessee is mostly responsible for revealing this much, with Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson finding themselves open on occasion (though with the latter dropping his big gainer). LSU probably won't be the beneficiary of busted coverage on the long heaves, but Odell Beckham will get some openings a couple times during this game. Mettenberger needs to make sure he takes full advantage when that window opens.
Perhaps the biggest potential issue for Florida matching up against LSU in the passing game is open field tackling. Particularly against Bowling Green but a few times thereafter, Florida's cornerbacks have had problems with sure tackling. One huge thing that made Florida's secondary from 2008-09 so good was that guys like Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins, and Ahmad Black were fundamentally sound tacklers in space. The only player on the current squad who I would put in their league is safety Matt Elam.
Elam isn't that big as far as safeties go, at 5-10 and 202 lbs, and he has the most bulk of anyone in the defensive backfield. LSU doesn't have a monster set of receivers like it did when Dwayne Bowe and Michael Clayton were both going out for passes in purple and gold, but James Wright could be big enough to cause some problems. He's roughly the size of Patterson, and UF had a hard time actually getting him on the turf. Plus if the LSU coaches find a way to somehow get one of their running backs in space against a Gator defensive back other than Elam, well, "trucked" might not even be a strong enough term.
Ultimately, like seemingly everything else in this league, this battle will probably be decided in the trenches. LSU's offensive line has struggled of late, allowing eight sacks in the past three games after giving up just one in the first two contests. It doesn't help that fullback J.C. Copeland is out for the game after injuring his leg late against Towson.
Florida isn't a team that comes up with a ton of sacks, but its front seven has spent a lot of time in opposing backfields. Lerentee McCray playing Will Muschamp's buck position has been particularly good, and the tandem of Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley has been living up to the recruiting stars. Mettenberger's worst game easily came against Auburn, and Corey Lemonier was a huge part of making the game bad for him. Florida's defensive front can do similar things this weekend, it has a better offense backing it than Auburn's D did to try to take advantage of it.
My best guess for this game is that LSU will have limited success through the air. Mettenberger will complete at least one pass of 30 yards or more, but mostly he'll just stick to the underneath and sideline stuff he's been going for all year. Tennessee exploited opportunities to connect on intermediate (10-20 yards) routes in the middle of the field, but LSU has been reluctant to go after that space against anyone. If the Tigers don't explore their options there, then Florida should be mostly fine. If they do, then it could get ugly.