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5 keys to game when LSU visits Mississippi State

NEW ORLEANS, LA - SEPTEMBER 02: LSU Tigers quarterback Danny Etling (16) celebrates after a touchdown during a football game between the LSU Tigers and the BYU Cougars in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans Louisiana on September 2, 2017. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire)
John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

BATON ROUGE, La. – Now things start to get really interesting for 12th-ranked LSU and Mississippi State.

The Tigers (2-0) and Bulldogs (2-0) break the seal on play in the SEC West this season when they meet at Davis Wade Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on:

(Arden) Key to victory?

Barring a setback, LSU junior defensive end/outside linebacker Arden Key is projected to make his season debut this week after sitting out the first two games recuperating from shoulder surgery.

How does that change the Tigers’ defense? It can’t do anything but make LSU even tougher.

In two games LSU is allowing just 169.5 yards per game and 3½ yards per snap, but this week presents a new challenge. Key isn’t likely to play a ton, but his presence on the edge should create a ripple effect for both teams by the threat he poses – he registered a school-record 12 sacks among his 14½ tackles for loss last year. How State designs blocking schemes to slow him down — and what his comfort level is in his first action of the season — bear a close eye.

Steal the spotlight or stay out of it?

Most of the chatter about whether LSU’s new-look offense can click with Danny Etling has dissipated. The fifth-year senior has done everything to show he can be effective in offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s system.

Etling is 22-for-31 or 398 yards with no interceptions and several on-target downfield throws on play-action passes. Because the Tigers have run the ball so well at five yards a carry, there hasn’t been a lot of pressure on Etling and he certainly hasn’t been thrust into high-leverage situations.

Ideally, LSU would love to maintain that status quo by seizing command and not having to lean on Etling to win a game in the closing minutes – not because there isn’t confidence that he can do it, but more because of the unknown. He has rarely needed to do so since he got to LSU.

The Tigers have plenty of offensive firepower to beat any opponent on their schedule. At some point the ball may be in Etling’s hands to win a game, but getting the conference season started right might require that LSU not face that situation this week.

Don’t let the Bulldogs run wild

LSU has given up a meager total of 63 rushing yards in two games, but the Bulldogs will test the run defense much more, especially at the quarterback spot.

State has averaged 6.8 yards a carry and 304 yards a game on the ground in a pair of lopsided wins, keyed by dual-threat junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald.

Since stepping into the massive shoes vacated by Dak Prescott, Fitzgerald has blossomed and will be a chore for the Tigers. He has been solid this season with 363 yards passing and 153 on the ground plus five TDs. Already regarded as one of the top QBs in the SEC, a strong performance versus LSU’s fast but young defense could solidify that standing more than ever.

Should Fitzgerald deliver the kind of games dual-threat QBs have against the Tigers in recent memory, including Prescott, it could be a long night for LSU.

Keep growing

The Tigers’ offensive line will likely be a work in progress all season because of youth and players trying to find the right places to fit. This will be the first week when the youth figures to be sternly tested.

Several freshmen figure to taste their first SEC action. In this case that also includes Bulldog defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, who is carving a niche as one of the more dominant interior linemen in the country.

Simmons will probably beat the man across from him a bunch on Saturday, so a key will be for the linemen to adopt an approach similar to defensive backs: Move on to the next play and understand that in the SEC, the other guys will win some battles.

Special things matter

SEC games are when things like hidden yardage and plays made in the kicking game start to be more glaring, both positive and negative. Special teams haven’t been a strength in the first two games for LSU, although D.J. Chark’s punt return for a touchdown last week was a positive sign.

The Tigers need to establish some stability in every phase, starting with field goal kicking, which has been a little too adventurous for a team with lofty goals. Jake Gonsoulin is back in the No. 1 spot this week on placements. If the last several LSU-State games are an indication, he could be in a spot to make meaningful kicks throughout the game.

Just as vital will be how well the Tigers do on punts and kickoff returns, two areas where they are middle of the pack in the SEC.

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