LSU defense makes early statement
ARLINGTON, Texas -- LSU's equipment truck sat parked in the vast field-level tunnel of Cowboys Stadium on Saturday night. Approaching from behind, one sees only the inscribed words made famous by the Tigers' eccentric coach: "Have a great day!"
Over the past couple of years, Les Miles has redefined how a coach best goes about having a great day. There was no last-second drama in LSU's runaway 40-27 victory over third-ranked Oregon here Saturday night, no need for one of its coach's wacky play-calls or blind-luck miracles. But make no mistake about it, the fourth-ranked Tigers' season-opening statement had Miles' hatprints all over it.
Start with a suffocating defense. Toss in an indisputably limited quarterback who still manages to make a few big throws when needed most. Gain just 273 total yards but force four turnovers, turn them into 21 points.
Offense? Who needs an offense when the other team can't score or hold on to the ball?
"That defense that played like that can win a lot of games," said Miles after the Tigers held Oregon's normally prolific rushing attack to just 95 yards on 28 attempts. "Special teams and offense need to [improve]. But we'll be in every game with a defense that plays like that."
After two-plus weeks of consternation following the infamous Shady's parking lot incident, LSU didn't much miss suspended quarterback Jordan Jefferson. It's not like his replacement, fifth-year senior Jarrett Lee, came out and tore up the Ducks. On the contrary, he finished a modest 10-of-22 for 98 yards and a touchdown and contributed to the Tigers' only turnover when he tried to call an audible just as his center snapped the ball.
But Miles' team managed to go 11-2 last season despite Jefferson finishing as the nation's 92nd-rated quarterback, and after Saturday's victory, it seems that Miles is single-handedly contradicting the century-old axiom that quarterback is the sport's most important position. For LSU, that honor is reserved for disruptive defensive linemen like Michael Brockers and Sam Montgomery, who helped hold Oregon star LaMichael James to 54 yards on 17 carries. Or a playmaking cornerback, a role filled last season by superstar Patrick Peterson and now held by diminutive sophomore Tyrann Mathieu, who had a team-high 10 tackles.
"It started up front," said Mathieu, tipping his hat to the defensive line. "LaMichael James wasn't the LaMichael James we've seen on film. He was hesitant, he was back there wiggling, wasting time, and our guys got in his space."
LSU's defenses began preparing for Oregon's up-tempo offense last spring with its own "tempo" drill, in which two offensive lineups set up simultaneously, the second lining up to snap as soon as the first's play ended. The work paid off, as the Tigers didn't tire like the Ducks' typical opponents, and Oregon stopped to change plays more often than usual.
But ultimately none of that might have mattered if not for the turnovers.
LSU had posted just 28 yards of total offense when, early in the second quarter, Mathieu descended on Oregon punt returner Kenjon Barner, pounced on his muff at the Ducks' 3 and coasted into the end zone to put the Tigers up 9-6. For all the fuss over the recently arrested Jefferson, the most costly of several suspensions hovering over this game was that of Oregon punt return extraordinaire Cliff Harris.
His replacement, Barner, struggled to minus-6 yards on three returns, then suffered a lower leg injury that caused the Ducks to rely on touted true freshman running back De'Anthony Thomas. That proved incredibly costly when, on consecutive third-quarter touches, Thomas fumbled a handoff at his own 24, which LSU converted into a five-play touchdown drive to go up 23-13, then fumbled the ensuing kickoff. The Tigers soon went up 30-13, turning what might have been a defensive slugfest into a full-on bloodbath.
LSU forced 32 turnovers in 2010, eighth-most nationally. It's off to a fast start in '11.
"Our defense did a great job giving us short field," said Lee, who connected with Reuben Randle for a 10-yard touchdown just before halftime that put the Tigers up 16-13, a lead it never relinquished.
While turnovers made things easier for LSU, the Tigers earned their victory primarily with their physicality. Just as Oregon struggled to contain Nick Fairley and Auburn's dominant front four in last January's BCS title game, James and the other Ducks runners enjoyed none of the gaping holes we're accustomed to when Chip Kelly's offense is clicking. Quarterback Darron Thomas didn't face overwhelming pressure (he was never sacked) but definitely seemed rattled, much like he did against Auburn, finishing 31-of-54 for 240 yards, a touchdown and a pick. (Nearly half those yards came in the fourth quarter, as Oregon tried desperately to rally.)
"That's a good defensive front. They did a really nice job," said Kelly, who admitted the Ducks never got into rhythm.
But LSU did not just dominate one side of the line. Upon building their lead following the two De'Anthony Thomas turnovers, the Tigers spent much the rest of the night pounding the ball with running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford -- and did so quite effectively. Ware, the starter, finished with 99 yards on 26 carries. Ford, playing with fresher legs, sprung for 96 yards on just 14 carries.
"Coach [Miles] said run it down their throats, let's eat them alive and let's be physical," said Ware. "That's what we did."
A punishing rushing attack and a dominant defense are presumably key ingredients for any team with national title aspirations. But with a daunting schedule that includes trips to No. 20 Mississippi State and No. 24 West Virginia later this month, is it realistic the Tigers can make a run to New Orleans with their quarterback completing 10 passes and their offense failing to reach 300 yards?
It wouldn't have been an LSU win without some patented Miles breaks, and in this case, a muffed punt and a sloppy Oregon freshman turned a close game wide open. That won't happen every week. The Tigers' deep and athletic defense is as advertised, and the rushing tandem of Ware and Ford is something any team would envy. But even in victory, Lee did little to appease his skeptics. Nor did LSU's underwhelming receivers (minus the suspended Russell Shepard), who accrued several drops and struggled to gain separation.
Fans may look at "No. 4 LSU 40, No. 3 Oregon 27" as an exclamation, but the Tigers' margin for error may be slimmer than the final score indicated. Not that Miles would have it any other way.
"I don't feel like we've hung the moon in any way," Miles said in the midst of one of his classically awkward phrasings. "I feel like we're a good team but we need to improve."
Fair enough. But don't improve too much. A consistently dominant Miles-coached team without the last-minute miracles wouldn't be nearly as fun to watch.