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Just one more day until the LSU Tigers finally takes the field against the Kansas State Wildcats in the final non-championship bowl game of the 2021 campaign.
The team comes limping in with a very depleted roster, but it is ample opportunity for a lot of the younger players to see the field. While the offensive will likely be mostly the same group they expected to start the season with, the other positions have a little different feel to them.
The Tigers look to finish with a high note as they prepare for a new era of LSU football. Sitting at 6-6, they can either finish with a winning record or a losing one for the first time since 1999.
We will stick to the former here with five reasons the team finds a way to win in Houston.
BJ Ojulari and the front four
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If there is one group that you can count on, it is the LSU front four. Despite losing some key players in the group this year they do have their leader in sacks, BJ Ojulari. The talented sophomore finished with six sacks on the year and will look to harass Skylar Thompson in this game.
Standout freshman Maason Smith will play his usual spot inside next to Jaquelin Roy and Soni Fonua will man the strongside edge. Expect to see a good amount of rotation with Savion Jones and Desmond Little as well.
The Wildcats have allowed just 22 sacks this year, so Ojulari and the defense need to dial up the pressure. Attacking the right side of the offensive line might be the way to go. Right tackle Christian Duffie and guard Ben Adler allowed a combined 41 quarterback pressures. By far the most on the team.
Corey Kiner is able to take advantage
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With no Tyrion Davis-Price playing in the game as he decided to prepare for the NFL draft, it opens the door for the younger backs like freshman Corey Kiner. The Ohio “Mr. Football” rushed for over 7,000 yards and 116 touchdowns in high school, now he gets to prove why he was highly touted as a four-star recruit.
Of his 271 rushing yards this season, 183 came after contact in 2021. With 67.5% of his yards coming after first contact, you can expect Kiner to use that to his advantage against the Wildcats defense. Especially given how poor the offensive line play was this year.
In the 2021 campaign, the Wildcats defense missed 155 tackle attempts led by Daniel Green’s 19. Look for Kiner to use this to his advantage as the offense tries to get the ground game going against Kansas State.
An experienced Mike Jones Jr steps up
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There is no Damone Clark in this game. It doesn’t appear that there will be a Micah Baskerville either so it is next man up. That man just happens to be former Clemson linebacker, Mike Jones Jr.
Jones was expected to play a big role for the defense in 2021 but it took a little longer than expected for him to really pick up the defense and what was asked of him. With the team depleted at linebacker, the former Tiger has to prove he can step up and fill the void.
Despite not starting, Jones tallied the most tackles of his career with 31. He added 2.5 TFLs with one sack and one pass defended. Prior to LSU, Jones was on a team that played for two national championships and another New Years Six bowl game. He knows what it takes and now the Tigers defense needs him to be the guy in this one.
The freshman trio make an impact
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We have talked quite a bit about the youth of this team and they have some really talented pass catchers even without Kayshon Boutte in this one. The trio of Malik Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr, and Jack Bech will have ample opportunities, they just need to take advantage.
It remains to be seen just who exactly is taking the snaps at quarterback between Garrett Nussmeier, Tavion Faulk, or Jontre Kirklin. Even with a wildcat system with former high school quarterback like Kirklin, the team will have to throw it to keep Kansas State off balance. When they do, the young guys need to be ready.
This year, Bech led the group with 43 receptions for 489 yards and three touchdowns. Next up is Nabers with 26 receptions for 400 yards and three touchdowns. Finally, Thomas Jr hauled in 26 passes for 344 yards and two scores.
Nabers might be the best of the group, not named Boutte, but all three will need to be ready when called upon.
Jontre Kirklin pulls a rabbit out of the hate
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As we near kickoff, it feels like the depth chart released on Sunday was just a formality with Garrett Nussmeier and Tavion Faulk listed on the two-deep at quarterback. It is more likely that Brad Davis’ contingency plan all along is wide receiver Jontre Kirklin.
The former high school quarterback was not highly touted as a signal-caller and more of an athlete. Ranked No. 48 as an athlete as a three-star recruit. After signing with LSU in the 2017 recruiting class, he might be the key to winning this game for the Tigers.
In high school, Kirklin could throw it and run it for Lutcher. In three consecutive seasons, Kirklin threw for over 2300 yards and 29 touchdowns. On the ground, he added an additional 3,000 yards and 51 touchdowns.
Jontre Kirklin is the biggest key if the Tigers do as expected and roll with him as the quarterback if Nuss doesn’t start.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @PatrickConnCFB