Dan Mullen cupped his hands around his mouth, screaming to his starting quarterback.
Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald turned to the sideline, acquiring the message from his head coach: a play change.
Seconds later, on a zone-read play, Fitzgerald kept the ball and ran around the left side of State’s offensive line for a 19-yard gain.
The potential impetus for this change was the 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge rushing All-American, left helplessly on the backside of the play.
In a 37-7 win last week, Mississippi State neutralized LSU’s sack-crazed star, Arden Key. Mississippi State ran 80 percent of its plays away from the side in which Key aligned.
With Key on the right, State ran left. With Key on the left, State ran right. This scheming wasn’t confined to rushing only. Fitzgerald threw to Key’s opposite side, too. At times, a late call from the sideline-stalking Mullen flipped the play to the Key-less side.
“Good game plan,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron quipped earlier this week.
The No. 25 Tigers (2-1) enter Saturday’s game against Syracuse (2-1) with plenty of defensive issues after the beatdown in Starkville. Their thin defensive line depth will be tested against one of the nation’s more fast-paced, up-tempo offenses, and the pass-heavy Orange will challenge a secondary that allowed two long touchdowns in coverage busts a week ago.
A third issue is Key — and how to counter opponents' scheming against the LSU's single-season sack record-holder. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda kept Key’s game plan simple last week; after all, it was his season debut after recovering from shoulder surgery and missing all of spring and most of summer workouts.
This week, against a team that passes 43 times per game, you might see Key in a few different places.
“We only had him for a week, so obviously we didn't want to put him in three or four different situations and stuff like that,” Orgeron said. “We wanted him to get his cleats in the grass and play. But now that we've got him back, now that we have him at practice, we can do a couple of things that they won't know where he's lining up according to the formation.”
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Key’s play Saturday may not be a difference-maker in a game against a 21-point underdog, but the Tigers need their most decorated player for the gauntlet that begins Oct. 7 at Florida — the first of seven consecutive Southeastern Conference games, four of them on the road.
In his debut last week, Key played about 43 snaps, getting spurts of rest from freshman K’Lavon Chaisson. While in the game, Key found himself on the back side of the play more than not.
Of those 43 plays, Mississippi State ran or threw to Key’s side just nine times. The results of those nine plays justified the Bulldogs’ scheme: seven rushes for 16 yards and 1-for-2 passing, with a quarterback pressure from you-know-who.
Key’s lone sack — statistically a half-sack with Greg Gilmore — came on a Fitzgerald dropback in which the quarterback was looking left, away from Key’s side. He raced around State right tackle Stewart Reese, toppling Fitzgerald for a big loss.
“I respect him as a player, but you try not to come into the game fearful of what he can do,” Reese told The Clarion-Ledger. “I gave up a sack and a QB pressure, and really, those two instances, I was thinking too much and reacting to what he did instead of doing what I was supposed to.”
Key was “frustrated” after the game, defensive end Christian LaCouture told reporters this week. Key has not been made available for interviews for the last nine months, since LSU’s win over Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on Dec. 31.
“That’s thing about it,” LaCouture said. “He’s going to demand that attention. Other guys, when that happens, those guys have to make the plays.”
Syracuse enters Tiger Stadium on Saturday as one of the nation’s most pass-heavy units. Just six teams have attempted more passes (131) than the Orange. There will be plenty of opportunities for Key in this one, but can the Tigers counter Syracuse’s anti-Key scheming?
“I really feel like whatever happens with their game plan, we’ve got to know that,” LaCouture said. “We’ve got to watch the film. That’s a huge thing for us, make sure we know our opponent inside and out and things they’re going to do.”
Two Matchups To Watch
Mississippi State built its offensive game plan around Arden Key last week, scheming away from LSU’s All-American edge rusher. When the Bulldogs ran or threw his way, it didn’t end up well.
- Key snaps: 43
- Plays to Key’s side: 9
- Rushing to Key’s side: 7 for 16 yards
- Passing to Key’s side: 1 for 2 for 28 yards*