We’re closing in on the National Championship Game and to help us preview it, we connected with Zachary Junda of And the Valley Shook. In our Q&A preview we discuss Joe Burrow’s incredible season, LSU’s defensive improvement, and more. Please consider giving Zachary a follow on Twitter here, and be sure to share you comments in the comments section at the bottom of the article. Enjoy!
STS: Joe Burrow blew away the competition and won the Heisman Trophy by a historic voting margin. He was decent last season, but his huge leap in play was mostly unexpected. He wasn’t even on Athlon’s top 25 Heisman watch list. I was relatively high on him and thought he’d have a nice season, but more in line of a better Jake Fromm than a Trevor Lawrence type. What were your expectations from the QB position coming into this year and what are your thoughts on Burrow’s outstanding progression?
Zach: I think we all thought he’d be better. The 2018 season was his first year as a starter and he didn’t get to Baton Rouge until the summer. What’s that old adage, you see the most improvement between year one and year two? That was to be expected from Burrow. As for LSU running a modern offense and Burrow saying the Tigers would score 40, 50, 60 points a game? Well we’ve heard that for about a decade so excuse everyone in Baton Rouge for being skeptical.
And to Joe and the entire program’s credit, they showed us! I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the year Joe Burrow’s had. I was cackling after he threw his seventh touchdown against Oklahoma; his first half against the Sooners was the most absurd thing I had ever seen in my life. I don’t think it’s conjecture to Joe Burrow is the best player in program history; I’m biased, but you could argue he’s having arguably the greatest season a quarterback’s ever had in college football history. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic but it’s been a privilege to watch him this season.
STS: LSU ranks just 28th in scoring defense, allowing 21.6 points per game. While they’ve played one of the toughest schedules in all of college football, Alabama and Oklahoma are the only really elite offensive units they’ve faced (Auburn, Florida, and Georgia being more lauded for their defense). That said, LSU has looked excellent in their last three games. They held Texas A&M scoreless until the game was out of reach in the second half. They held Georgia to just three points until a garbage time TD and they built a four TD (35-7) lead over Oklahoma before surrendering a second score, holding them to just 28 on the game (while they average over 42 points per game on the year). Has something changed about this defense? How good are they playing right now?
Zach: I’ll put it this way, after the first play of the Oklahoma game where K’Lavon Chaisson sacked Jalen Hurts I knew the game was over. That’s how good they’ve looked the past three games.
There’s been a few key reasons why the defense has rounded into form. For starters, the defensive line has gotten healthier. Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan both went down in the Texas game as did the aforementioned Chaisson. Then you had the Grant Delpit ankle sprain in the second half against Auburn. The sprain was most noticeable in the Ole Miss game where he was basically playing on one leg and the Rebels quarterback John Rhys Plumlee blew past him in the open field time after time.
But the Delpit ankle sprain might have been a blessing in disguise because it forced true freshman safety Maurice Hampton to the field. Hampton’s a two-sport guy, he’ll play baseball for LSU in the spring as an outfielder. Delpit got time to heal that bad ankle and because of Hampton’s ascension he could go back to doing what made him one of the best defensive backs in football: playing down hill and attacking the box.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention nose tackle Tyler Shelvin rounding into form. Shelvin infamously came to Baton Rouge weighing around 380 pounds. But he’s gotten his weight and conditioning in order and he commands a double team like Glenn Dorsey used to. Shelvin eats up blockers and frees up the Tiger linebackers or safety/linebacker tweeners like Jacoby Steven and Marcel Brooks to make plays in the backfield.
STS: Even with LSU’s defensive improvement, do you expect a shootout with the two best QBs in college football squaring off in New Orleans?
Zach: Absolutely. Trevor Lawrence is the best quarterback the Tigers have faced all season; the last time they played a quarterback that has talent comparable to Lawrence was Tua and even on a bad ankle he lit up the LSU secondary.
STS: How excited is LSU’s fanbase to be getting an essential home game for the National Championship? Does it make this feel like a season of destiny (WARNING: that’s how we felt in 2015 when he made a totally unexpected run to 14-0 before running to Alabama)?
Zach: Yeah I mean this game might as well be played in Baton Rouge, that’s how much of a frenzy the state is. But I don’t think the fanbase thinks of it as a season of destiny because for some strange reason, the last four times New Orleans has hosted the national championship game the Tigers have played in that game. I think the fanbase and more importantly the team expected to be here.
STS: Where do you see a matchup that LSU’s offense can exploit against Clemson’s defense. Conversely, where do you see an area of concern when LSU has the ball?
Zach: Honestly? I don’t see any area of concern. Call it confidence, call it arrogance but this LSU offense is too good and too diverse to be stopped. It’s the hydra. Try and take away one thing and they hit you with something else.
Take the Oklahoma game for example. The Sooners went out with the explicit purpose of “we are taking away Jamar Chase.” Know how LSU responded? They hit Justin Jefferson 14 times for 200 something yards and four touchdowns. People point to Auburn playing with a funky 3-7-1 look as something Clemson could mimic. Well if you do that, Burrow’s going to hit Thad Moss or Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the flats. Clyde’s hamstring is fine by the way; and even if he were still feeling the effects of that injury, redshirt freshman Chris Curry showed he’s more than capable against Oklahoma, getting 91 yards on 16 carries.
If all that wasn’t enough, LSU’s got the best offensive line in the country and even if you do get by them, Burrow’s got just an absurd presence in the pocket. And, like Trevor Lawrence, he too possesses *ahem* DECEPTIVE SPEED.
Look that all sounds really cocky, I know. But the sample size is too great for me to think anybody’s stopping this offense. It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it’ll happen on the fast track that is the Superdome. Like Walter White said, nothing’s stopping this train.
STS: Lastly, where do you see a matchup that Clemson’s offense can exploit against LSU’s defense? Where do you see a matchup that LSU’s defense can win?
Zach: I fear Lawrence. LSU knows better than anybody that if you have a stud quarterback, it doesn’t matter what scheme you cook up there’s no defending a perfectly thrown ball. And Lawrence can throw it as perfectly as anybody. Like I said, we’ve already seen one future first round pick torch the Tiger secondary. And unlike Tua, Lawrence doesn’t have a bum ankle.
Now an area I do like for LSU is their top two cornerbacks, Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley Jr, going up against Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. What killed LSU in the Alabama game is that guys like Jerry Jeudy and Devonta Smith are more of the burner, deep threat type. Fulton and Stingley are both long, physical corners. Kind of like what made Seattle the Legion of Boom. Stingley and Fulton both allowed a sub-40 completion percentage this year, I like their chances of taking away a beaten up Higgins and Ross.