Tennessee heads to Baton Rouge Saturday for its first SEC road game of the season, facing No. 25 LSU in an early kick off at Tiger Stadium.
Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, The Advocate’s LSU football beat writer Wilson Alexander discussed the Tigers’ passing issue, Brian Kelly’s first season and more.
Note: Some answers have been shortened and altered for clarity
What were the expectations entering Brian Kelly’s first season and how have the Tigers lived up to them to this point?
The expectations were to play more disciplined, cleaner football. Show improvement throughout the season. I had a conversation with LSU’s athletic director Scott Woodward before the year and he said ‘this isn’t going to be a Picasso coming out of the box.’ He asked for patience from the fanbase essentially because this is a massive rebuild. This is a roster that at the bowl game had less than 40 scholarship players. There was a lot of work that needed to be done culturally inside of the building. Quite a bit of overhaul and I think everyone understood that that was going to take time. It was still a bit of a surprise to see how sloppy LSU was in the opener against Florida State, but it has shown improvement over the last month since then. I think there’s some positivity as they begin to head into really the more difficult part of their schedule and I think people recognize that it’s going to be a lot harder from here on out.
LSU’s passing attack has struggled to find consistency this season. What’s causing the issues?
It’s multifaceted. It certainly had not been explosive but it at least had been somewhat efficient. Throwing a lot of quick, short routes that had been kind of working against even Mississippi State but especially against New Mexico the week before the Auburn game. Against Auburn, LSU goes and throws for 85 yards and only five in the second half and everything looks out of sync and the timing looks completely off.
It was not completely on Jayden Daniels. Certainly we have to look at his performance but the receivers dropped balls. Brian Kelly said yesterday that maybe LSU needs to assess the play calling as well. Make sure they are doing things that are best suited for these players’ talents.
But, of course, a lot of it falls on the quarterback. Jayden hasn’t been throwing it downfield. Hasn’t really tried throwing it into tight windows. We’ve only seen that a couple of times and it really came in the New Mexico game and maybe a few times against Mississippi State. Brian Kelly was very frank about that in his press conference Monday. He said Jayden has to be more aggressive and there’s certainly a difference between aggressiveness and recklessness but he has to push the ball down field because LSU has a really talented group of receivers that aren’t getting the ball right now.
Jayden Daniels exited the Auburn game with a knee injury. He’s expected to play but do you expect any longing effects from the injury?
Probably not. When Brian Kelly was asked about that yesterday, he said Daniels had a bursa sac issue which is some inflammation in his knee. Because he’s a dual threat quarterback and he wasn’t able to be as mobile as he likes to be, Brian Kelly was concerned during the Auburn game about the way he was moving around. He said that Daniels could have stayed in the game but that Brian made a coaches decision— it wasn’t through Jayden taking himself out. He’s supposed to practice all week but this is two straight games now where he’s gotten banged up. He had a lower back strain and then the knee issue. Both times Brian Kelly said that he could have stayed in the game but they decided to take him out. He’s fully expected to play and Brian Kelly doesn’t expect it to be a lingering issue.
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How would you assess LSU’s defense to this point in the season?
It’s been impressive. They got off to a bit of a rough start in the season opener because they were missing tackles and struggling to get off the field on third down. There were some communication issues in the secondary but since then they’ve really been good. Especially against Mississippi State, they were a dominant unit that night and they go back the next week and shutout New Mexico. It was a little bit surprising to see them give up as many big plays as they did in the Auburn game, especially in the first half. They let Robby Ashford throw for 247 yards. LSU had a lot of busted coverages and just wide open receivers that hadn’t been seen at all this year and really hadn’t been seen at LSU in a year to a year and a half. Really back to that 2020 season when it was a major issue. They clamped down. They’ve been really good at making adjustments. You didn’t see those open receivers as much in the second half and they’ve been able to play good defense and look like one of the top five-or-six units in the SEC as they head into a lot more difficult tests.
What’s a matchup you think LSU can exploit against Tennessee?
I’m not sure if I know of one off the top of my head, frankly. Tennessee has such an explosive passing offense and seems to have an advantage against a secondary that has been playing well but hasn’t been tested vertically as much. Of course, Tennessee is a little bit weaker on the defensive side but LSU hasn’t been able to throw the ball very well and if Tennessee is able to make them one dimensional then that’s a big problem for LSU— to keep up with the explosive offense Tennessee has. On paper it looks like Tennessee has a lot of advantages.
A lot has been made about this game being 11 a.m. local time kick off. Is that as important as people are making it out to be?
It is down here. People were quite upset when that announcement was made. Especially now when LSU-Tennessee is the only ranked game in the SEC this week. It made a sense to a lot of folks that Alabama-Texas A&M would be that nighttime CBS game after the verbal spat between Saban and Jimbo in the offseason, but they were really thinking they were going to be at 2:30 on CBS if not then then at night. Obviously it didn’t work out that way and people are upset because LSU is very passionate about playing at night and when they don’t get to and they don’t get to be outside and tailgate all day and then come into Tiger Stadium pretty rowdy they take offense to that.
Tennessee 34, LSU 20