With a few tweaks, killer defense could carry LSU to crystal ball
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Should LSU fulfill its vast potential and end its season with coach Les Miles holding a crystal football aloft in New Orleans, perhaps Miles should mail Chip Kelly a championship ring. Why would Oregon's coach deserve digit hardware? Because Kelly's offense -- or rather the threat posed by his offense -- helped turn LSU's defense into the relentless drive-killing machine that turned out the lights Thursday in Starkvegas.
In its first two games, Mississippi State averaged 321 rushing yards. In LSU's 19-6 win on Thursday, the Bulldogs rushed for 52 yards. LSU piled up 15 tackles for loss to suck away 60 yards. That's a great month for a lot of teams. How could LSU do it in one game? Because the Tigers go eight deep on the defensive line, and every one of those monsters spent the entire offseason preparing for Oregon's ping-pong offense. The intensity of the simulations of Oregon's tempo whipped the Tigers into a fighting shape that would make them close to impenetrable even if they couldn't rotate in a fresh 290-pounder every three plays.
Back in March, LSU coaches began squeezing tempo periods into practice to simulate the breakneck pace of Oregon's offense. There was no break for LSU's heavyweights up front. They either dragged themselves back for the next play, or coaches found someone who would. "Horrible. Horrible. I was breathing so hard," 6-foot-6, 306-pound Michael Brockers said of those early practices. "I was hardly getting back to the line of scrimmage. I was just so tired. Exhausted, mentally and physically." The tempo periods continued through the spring and began again when LSU opened preseason camp. They never got easier, but Brockers said he and his teammates adopted an attitude that allowed them to survive. "If I push myself through this one, I can through the next one," Brockers said. "If I push myself through the next one, I can get through the next one."
So, compared to those practices, how does life in the trenches feel on gameday in the most physical division of the nation's most physical conference?
"It's so..." Brockers said, pausing for a moment. "Refreshing."
Yes, LSU's defensive linemen find gameday refreshing. A glorious respite. An oasis.
When Brockers (four tackles, three for loss on Thursday) comes out, 287-pound sophomore Bennie Logan (five tackles, 3.5 for loss) enters the fray. When defensive end Kendrick Adams (three tackles, two for loss, one forced fumble, one pass break-up) gets a blow, Imperial Intergalactic Overlord Barkevious Mingo (one forced fumble) takes his place.
Yes, the Tigers still must grind through a schedule that features a trip to West Virginia next week, a visit from Florida next month, a visit to fellow national title contender Alabama in November and a visit from Arkansas on Black Friday, but if this defense keeps pulverizing the pocket and making freak-show interceptions such as the one leaping cornerback Morris Claiborne made in Thursday's third quarter, points will come at such a premium that LSU will always have a chance.
Even scarier, LSU defenders admitted Thursday that they blew assignments and could have played with better technique. "We made a bunch of mistakes, for one thing," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "But they played with great effort and great attitude. ... If we can eliminate the mistakes, then we've got a chance to be a very fine defense." Little known fact: In 1962, a young John Chavis said that if the Beatles could write some catchier hooks, they could be a very fine band.
Typically, a statement like the one Brockers made late Thursday would inspire sarcasm. After watching LSU play, Brockers sounds less like Captain Obvious and more like a player for a defense striving toward a realistic goal. "If the other team doesn't score," he said, "we win."
Making matters worse for opponents is the fact that LSU's offense isn't the albatross it seemed to be when starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was arrested on a battery charge in late August and replaced by oft-ridiculed Jarrett Lee. With the exception of one what-are-you-doing throw -- which was intercepted -- Lee moved the Tigers efficiently. He played within himself, quietly racking up 213 yards on 21-of-27 passing. And when LSU needed him most, Lee rose to the occasion. On the Tigers' lone touchdown drive, Lee completed all five of his passes for 68 yards, capping the march with a 19-yard fade to Rueben Randle.
Still, don't expect Lee to take many risks as the season moves forward. The Tigers may try some new things when receiver Russell Shepard returns next week from an NCAA suspension, but the offense likely will remain as conservative as Texas Gov. Rick Perry. "I like this piece," LSU coach Les Miles said. "That defense plays extremely well. If we do the right things with the ball on offense, we can win a lot of games." Translation: You may think I'm a little loopy, but I know better than to let the offense screw things up for this amazing defense.
Bear in mind that this was no slouch LSU beat down Thursday. Mississippi State brought back a lot from a team that finished No. 15 in the nation last year. The Bulldogs came within an inch of forcing overtime at Auburn on Saturday. Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen understands the mountain his team must climb. He also understands LSU may stand atop that mountain at the moment. "We played the defending national champs [Saturday] and just played the best team in the nation," Mullen said. "Those are big humps to get over. ... If you win the SEC West, you're the best in the country."
Is LSU the best team in the country? That remains to be seen. But if the Tigers' defense adds more discipline to its innate athleticism and ferocity and to the conditioning that came courtesy of an offseason preparing for Oregon, it's quite possible LSU will earn that title in the next few months. "It's scary to think what we could do if we run stuff right and play with better technique," Brockers said. So, exactly how much better could the Tigers' defense get? "A lot better," Brockers said. "You'll have to wait and see."
Sweet nightmares, SEC offensive coordinators.