Weekly Spotlight: LSU’s rebuilt defense to experience first real test at Georgia
It’s not often a team can lose eight defensive players to the NFL and still be considered a dark horse contender to win the SEC. But not every team is LSU, where coach Les Miles has become known for his ability to reload with young talent. The sixth-ranked Tigers are coming off an impressive 35-21 win over Auburn in Week 4, and their revamped defense is about to be tested against a Georgia attack that is averaging more than 40 points a game.
LSU has been forced to grow up fast after losing players like Barkevious Mingo, Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery to the NFL, and although the Tigers aren’t young on paper, many players have had to learn on the job. Junior defensive end Jordan Allen is a perfect example. After missing virtually all of the 2012 season while recovering from a knee injury, he made his first career start against TCU on Aug. 31 and already has two sacks. Defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, who has 2.5 tackles for loss, was one of the unit's more experienced players, having seen action in 13 games last year, but even he came into the 2013 campaign without a start to his name.
“There’s a group of young guys trying to prove themselves worthy of their predecessors,” Bulldogs tight end Arthur Lynch said of LSU. “And there’s also some guys who have been in the program for a couple years who finally have a chance to prove themselves worthy of being [there]. There’s so much talent that they have there, but they’ve also been able to avoid that starstruck mentality.”
The danger in playing so many inexperienced players, of course, is uncertainty. How will the players react if they fall behind early? How will they perform against a strong offensive front? How will they deal to with injuries to a unit that already lacks veterans?
“I think our players are as talented as we've ever had,” Miles said in his weekly press conference. “I think there's a maturity that needs to take place so that they can play with their cleats headed north and south, ready to take a tackle, show the style of confidence, if you will, that other defenses that have played in this uniform have shown. I think that that's coming. I see it in last week, better in certain spots. Certainly that's got to continue.”
This LSU defense isn’t the same as the 2012 crew. It’s a new batch of Tigers, and it has the potential and athleticism to be dominant. Saturday's contest, against No. 9 Georgia and its dangerous offense, should show a lot.
It seemed borderline insane when SEC coaches voted Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray to the league's preseason first team over reigning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. But Murray has played some of the best football of his career in Georgia's first three games.
The senior (346 passing yards per game, seven touchdowns, two interceptions) is completing a staggering 72 percent of his throws and averaging nearly 13 yards per attempt. While he may not have the prototypical NFL skill set that scouts apparently see in LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Murray has done more than enough to show he’s the engine driving the Bulldogs' offense.
“His ability and persistence to work at a high level so diligently over the span of four years has helped him minimize his mistakes to almost zero,” Lynch said. “Obviously every quarterback will have mistakes, and no one is perfect, but he’s really been able to up his game in that sense. He doesn’t turn the ball over and almost always makes the right read when given the proper time. … The confidence level we have in him -- and he has in us -- is more than you can ask for.”
Watts Dantzler is a Real American
You know what they say: Tweeting about tornadoes and waving American flags always pays off.
Georgia's junior guard was recently named to the SI Twitter 100. He was definitely deserving of the honor.
The intersection of work and family
The story of Mettenberger’s mother, Tammy, working in the Bulldogs’ football office and being given the week off has seemingly been everywhere. For those who aren't up to date, however, let's recap a bit.
Mettenberger originally signed with Georgia out of Oconee County (Ga.) High before electing to transfer to LSU. Tammy is an administrative assistant with the Bulldogs, and coach Mark Richt told her to take the week off so she wouldn’t have a conflict of interest as her son prepares to take on her employer.
“Tammy works with the other coaches and all that type of thing,” Richt said during the SEC teleconference on Wednesday. “The big thing was you can imagine how awkward it’d be all week for her, and we thought it’d be a good idea to do that. I told her to just enjoy it and do some things you don’t normally do this time of year, come back on Monday and we’ll get back to work.”
A week off in-season is precious gold, the likes of which many people working in and around football will never see.
What exactly is a stiff dew?
Okay, so maybe there is no way Miles will ever admit to it having rained during the Tigers' victory over Auburn last Saturday.
“Les is playing to the LSU fans who like to claim it never rains in Tiger Stadium,” The Times-Picayune writer Jim Kleinpeter said. “Take if from me, it rains there a lot. It's Les' sense of humor, which is dry, that makes him do that. He's ever conscious of what the fans want. His word choices can be interesting.”
It rained on Saturday, and it rained hard. But Miles’ commitment to the bit, even into this week, is amusing.
• LSU RB Terrence Magee: While Jeremy Hill (350 rushing yards, six touchdowns) has taken over as the starter and performed well since serving a suspension for punching a man from behind this spring, most elite teams have a capable second-string back. First-year Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who comes from an NFL background, understands that concept as well as anybody.
Enter Magee, a converted receiver, who already has 219 rushing yards and three scores. He hasn’t been used much in the receiving game yet, but he could be dangerous on underneath routes and swing passes.
• Georgia FB Quayvon Hicks: Given everything LSU's defense will throw at the Bulldogs, pass protection and extra blocking will be critical to sustaining drives. Hicks, a 6-foot-2, 257-pound sophomore, already has 128 total yards and a score, and he might be called upon to make a big play if Murray’s other options are taken away.
• Jim Kleinpeter, The Times-Picayune: “LSU has yet to play a really stout, polished offense. The Tigers will get that this weekend and they aren't necessarily ready to handle it. We'll see. This team has some tackling issues. It will have to improve its linebacker play significantly to win the SEC. The defense is built to be lighter and faster. It will struggle with Todd Gurley this weekend and with Alabama down the road.”
• Jeremy Attaway, Dawg Sports: “Aaron Murray is experienced, mature and hardworking. There were some games early in his career (the 2010 Florida game comes to mind) in which he looked like a deer in the headlights. But as a fifth-year senior that's no longer the case. He still doesn't throw the ball away as often as he should, and he still occasionally presses, forcing a throw he shouldn't or taking a sack because he's trying to do too much. But week in and week out, Murray is about as prepared and focused as any other quarterback you'll see.”
The extra point
As has been the case with a number of high-profile SEC tilts this year, this game has the makings of a shootout. With an improved LSU offense and a balanced Georgia attack, both teams could score into the 30s by game's end.Since they are playing between the hedges and the Bulldogs have already played two top-tier opponents, I think Richt’s team holds a bit of an edge. While it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Tigers pull out some magic, I think the Dawgs ultimately take it.