The LSU defense hasn't quickly forgotten what Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee did to it on Nov. 16. The Tiger players did their job in the first half, holding Ole Miss to seven points to take a 31-7 halftime lead and feeling pretty good about their performance.
However two plays and a 46-yard touchdown run to kick off the third quarter was the beginning of a nightmare half that led to serious questions about the quality of the 2019 LSU defense. When it was all said and done, Plumlee had rushed for 217 yards and four touchdowns en route to Ole Miss hanging 37 on the Tigers.
Players were embarrassed after the game and the College Football Playoff committee would decide to put Ohio State over LSU in the No. 1 spot because of the inconsistency on defense. It was a challenge and criticism the defensive players took to heart and it showed in their play over the final two games of the regular season and SEC championship win over Georgia.
In those three games, the defense held the opponents (Arkansas, Texas A&M, Georgia) to 37 combined points and an average of 253 total yards per game.
"I feel like there was positive things throughout the year, whether it was the second half of Florida—I'm going to bring up halves now," defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said Tuesday. "Or let's say the first three quarters of Arkansas. The first three quarters and couple minutes of Arkansas. Or Auburn, right, the first three quarters of the Auburn game. So our issue, or one of our issues, has been finishing, has been four quarters."
Aranda would go on to say that over the final three games of the season, the defense started to find a bit of an identity with the emergence of freshmen Maurice Hampton at safety and Cordale Flott at cornerback.
"I think these guys have been able to get into it," Aranda said. "I stand at the 20 after our offense scores and we're waiting—that's where we're anticipating we're going to start, the kickoff and that. As the defense walks over, jogs over, runs over, I can tell by the look in their eye that this is going to be three-and-out, that they're not going to score right now."
LSU will be facing stiff competition in Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts on Saturday. Not only has Hurts shown tremendous strides in his passing ability this season, completing 71.8% of his passes for 3,634 yards and 32 touchdowns, but like Plumlee, Hurts can beat you with his legs.
The senior Sooner quarterback is second in the Big 12 in rushing yards this season, trailing only Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard, who was a Doak-Walker Award finalist. In 2019, Hurts has rushed for 1,255 yards and 18 touchdowns, making him one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football this season.
"I feel like the running game is probably more underrated than what it is," sophomore linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson said. "People think they're more of a passing team, but they're running the ball in tremendous ways. I feel like they take over the Big 12 by running the ball. When you have your quarterback leading, I think, the conference in rushing yards with almost 1,300 rushing yards, that's a lethal weapon, something you don't see often in the game of football at this age. It's going to be a task, a challenge that we're put up to, but I feel like we're well prepared for it."
So the question becomes how does LSU plan to contain the Oklahoma running attack? Well, coach Ed Orgeron described it last week as the team first needing to take away Hurts' biggest weapon on the outside in Biletnikoff finalist CeeDee Lamb.
If freshman cornerback Derek Stingley can keep Lamb in check on the outside, it allows LSU to put one more defender closer to the line of scrimmage, which in theory should help keep Hurts from gashing the LSU defense play after play.
"Hurts likes to put his foot in the ground quite a bit, where I think Plumlee is more of a straight line guy," Aranda said. "I think Hurts will try to set you up and cut it back on him. I think the lessons learned [from Ole Miss] would be the team defense aspect. I think that's the challenge with Oklahoma is what we talked about before, the spread offense. There's so many plays, gadget plays, or it's a run and there's a tight end over here blocking, and then he releases late."
Holding Lamb in one-on-one situations is no easy task for the freshman Stingley, who continues to one-up his incredibly high expectations every time he touches the field.
"He's a great player. He surprised a lot of us, the amount of plays he was making," junior safety Grant Delpit said of Stingley. "I think he's proved himself throughout this year. Georgia was trying him a lot two weeks ago. I think he's trying to kind of prove himself in the SEC now. I think it's time for him to do it on a bigger stage. We've got all the confidence in him."
Aranda said making adjustments on the spot is what went wrong in the second half against Ole Miss, and puts that performance squarely on his shoulders. The fourth-year Tiger defensive coordinator said Oklahoma has so many triple-option plays that the most important key to Saturday's game will be for the defensive players to stick to their man on every snap.
"Oklahoma will put you in that situation in a fast way, and so we're going to collectively play team defense," Aranda said. "As adjustments come up, we're going to have to make those adjustments as a team."