"There are basically two styles of defense," Koenning continued. "There are those that scheme you and there are those that read you. This is a really, really good read defense. That's one of the reasons they're No. 1 in the nation."
Yielding only 249.10 yards per game, Alabama currently has the third-best defense in the country. But so far at least LSU has been 2.66 yards per game better. After studying them on film, Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione commented, "LSU is certainly deserving of their national ranking. They are a good, solid defense. They have good athletes. They have good schemes, well-coached, confident, great size and strength and great speed.
"There is a reason they are No. 1 in the nation in (total) defense. You don't have to look at film very long to see that it has all those ingredients."
Traditionally, the Southeastern Conference plays the best defense in the country. And LSU ranks third, first, first and first respectively in rushing defense, scoring defense, passing defense and total defense. "Some coordinators like Joe Lee Dunn (at Mississippi State) are scheme guys," Koenning explained. "He'll try to scheme you up, move those people around and try to get to you with his scheme. But this LSU bunch is very technique-sound. They teach a lot of technique. Most guys have got their heels on the ground, jacked up and ready to go on the field. But these guys really do a nice job with technique."
Before becoming a head coach, Franchione's principal background was on offense. And he has earned a national reputation for coaching efficient and productive offensive football.
On the other hand, LSU Head Coach Nick Saban's background was on defense. "Coach Saban has put his stamp on this unit," Franchione said. "Defense is one of his strengths as a coach. They've got a good scheme. They've got some size up front. They play the run well. They've got a good package on defense. It's very difficult to attack them. They are multiple enough and well-coached in all phases. They're certainly playing well."
Gary Gibbs, the former head coach at Oklahoma, is LSU's defensive coordinator. Interestingly, two former Tide coaches are also on staff. Charlie Harbison coaches the Bengal Tiger secondary and Lance Thompson handles the defensive line. "All their coaches on that side of the ball are doing a great job," Franchione said. "For as much as they do, their athletes have a great understanding of what they're doing. They have confidence."
With 19 quarterback sacks on the season, LSU believes in pressuring the passer. "They really play well on the defensive line," Koenning said. "They have a lot of athletes. They do an extremely good job up front of re-directing and finding the ball and reading the stances of your offensive linemen. It seems like they're rushing at the right time and then they're not rushing at the right time."
From end to end, LSU's starting linemen weigh 295, 318, 289 and 294 pounds respectively. And the second-string averages 308 pounds. Koenning commented, "They might be the biggest defensive line we've faced all year, size-wise. They're big; they're talented; they're physical. When you look at them they bring back a lot of poor memories of Georgia. They're every bit as big as Georgia was."
LSU is loaded with athletes on the defensive line, but sophomore Marcus Spears may be the best. "Spears is one guy you notice on film," Koenning related. "He plays well. He does a really good job for them, especially at the point of attack. When you try and run right at him, he's definitely a load to move."
Koenning believes the Tide offensive line must have a good day. "When we block up front we're going to have to lock up. We can't just block and then hope that they run out of the play. That's not going to happen with this bunch. Their coaches have done a good job. When you lock up on a block, you'd better lock up and keep moving your feet."
As is the case with most sound defenses, the LSU linebackers make the majority of their tackles. "Their linebackers are big, too," Koenning said. "When you look at their linebackers, you're impressed with their size. Those guys carry around a lot of weight. They can run, but they're not the smaller-type linebackers that you can cover up blocking. They have gap responsibilities on defense versus the run, and they hold very tight in those gaps."
As Alabama fans will attest, football teams should be very careful in publicizing self-assigned nicknames. Two years back the "Pancake Posse" became a bad joke, as the Tide offense struggled to move the football. For LSU's self-described "James Gang Defense," the problem is different but no less embarrassing. At the start of the year two outstanding athletes, Bradie James (middle linebacker) and Damien James (free safety), prompted the descriptive moniker. However, two weeks back the oft-suspended Damien finally quit the team for good, prompting the question will LSU's stop unit now be known as the "James Gang Minus One"? Or how about the "Jame Gang"?
But embarrassment aside, by himself Bradie James is LSU's best player on defense. "Bradie James really is the leader of their defense," Koenning said. "He's physical. He's a big kid. He's not like some of these other linebackers we've been facing. When he lines up on you, he's every bit of a man. He's not a smaller type kid that maybe runs around a lot. James is a big, physical kid that takes on blocks and is definitely gap responsible."
Giving up only 132.7 yards per game, LSU's passing defense is the third-best in the nation. Franchione commented, "They play good man coverage in the secondary, and when they choose to play zone they do that as well. Their athletes are good enough that they're not afraid to play any kind of coverage back there."
"They put their secondary in some form of quarters look, usually, playing a lot of man coverage back there," Koenning added. "They've got a lot of confidence in them. Charlie (Harbison) has done a good job since he's got over there with them."
With 12 interceptions to their credit, the LSU secondary is an aggressive, ball-hawking unit. "It doesn't show up on the stats, but they've intercepted four balls and returned them for touchdowns," Koenning said. "When you watch them in the secondary, they're very talented. (cornerback) Demetrius Hookfin, (nickel back) Corey Webster, (cornerback) Randall Gay, (safety) Norman LeJeune… All those kids can really run. They run to the ball extremely well."