Blocking LSU defensive end Arden Key (above) will be a huge factor for the Auburn Tigers
While slowing Leonard Fournette and a powerful LSU ground game is a focal point for the Auburn football Tigers this Saturday night, how well Gus Malzahn’s offense performs against a fast and physical defense will tell the tale in game four.
Allowing just 16.3 points per game this season, including a paltry 103.3 yards on the ground, LSU’s defense is once again one of the best in the country under new coordinator Dave Aranda. Coming from Wisconsin, Aranda’s attacking 3-4 scheme is a little different than what LSU has done in the past, but it’s still the same athletic group that will take the field for the 5 p.m. CDT kickoff.
Leading the way for LSU’s defense is a linebacker group led by senior Kendell Beckwith in the middle and speedster Arden Key coming off the edge. Tops on the team with 24 tackles, Beckwith has a sack and three and a half tackles for losses in three games. The playmaker in the front seven, Key is one of the top sack leaders in the country with five already to go along with three quarterback hurries.
“He is a factor,” Malzahn said of Key. “You have to know where he is. When he knows it is pass, he is a factor. He was a factor last year against us as a true freshman. We definitely have to be aware of him.
"Like I said, it goes back to when I was asked about negative plays, it is part of staying out of the negative plays. Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and him are two of the best in the country. I think their skill sets and their explosiveness, their length and their talent, that’s what makes them unique.”
They are far from the only weapons up front for the LSU defense with end Lewis Neal also a very capable pass rusher along with fellow end Davon Godchaux. In the middle it’s all about size with Greg Gilmore the smallest of the group at 6-4, 308. Sophomore Travonte Valentine (6-4, 356) and freshman Ed Alexander (6-4, 333) are the definition of space eaters in the middle for the Bengal Tigers.
In the secondary LSU is as talented as anyone in the country with senior Tre'Davious White and sophomore Kevin Toliver both long and physical at the cornerback position. White is one of the best cover men in the country and is off to a strong start this year. At safety junior Jamal Adams is a ball hawk and can make plays all over the field.
Offensively, while LSU has inserted Purdue transfer Danny Etling in at quarterback, the story remains and will continue to be Fournette running the football. An offense that averages 182.3 yards per game on the ground this season, LSU has plenty of other options to run it including Derrius Guice (177 yards, 6.8 yards per carry), but it begins and ends with Fournette.
Despite sitting out the Jacksonville State game because of a sore ankle, Fournette still has 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns this season on 51 carries. Torching Auburn a season ago for 228 yards and three touchdowns, the big junior is a focal point for Kevin Steele’s group, but Malzahn said it’s all about focusing on this season and not on what happened a year ago.
“We’re a different team than we were last year,” Malzahn said. “We’re a different defense, but he’s one of the best players in college football. If he gets to the second level, that’s when he’s extremely tough to handle. He got to the second level on us last year, and we didn’t tackle. Obviously, with a guy like that, you have to team tackle. A big part of that is not letting him get to the second level. That will be a big challenge for us.”
Making his first start a week ago in a win over Mississippi State after coming off the bench against Jacksonville State, Etling has been solid for the LSU offense. Completing 25-44 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns with one interception, he has done a good job of spreading the ball around to a group of talented backs and receivers in LSU’s offense.
While their numbers don’t back it up, LSU’s receivers have a ton of talent with Travin Dural and Malachi Dupree both capable of taking it the distance. Combining for just 17 catches, 173 yards and one touchdown so far, expect both to get plenty of targets on Saturday night when LSU throws the ball along with junior D.J. Chark. Those three along with Fournette have combined for 31 of LSU’s 39 total receptions this season.
Up front offensive line coach Jeff Grimes has had to shuffle guys around because of injuries and a suspension, but it hasn’t stopped the group from rolling along. Allowing just three sacks this season, the line is led by center Ethan Pocic and left guard Will Clapp. One of the most experienced players on the roster, Pocic has played in 32 career games with 27 starts. Only the cornerback White has more starts under his belt on this LSU team.
On special teams senior kicker Colby Delahoussaye has made the only field goal attempt he’s tried this season, but is just 8-10 on extra points. Punter Josh Growden, a redshirt freshman, is averaging 39.8 yards per attempt this season with only four of his 16 punts finishing inside the 20-yard line. In the return game both White and Guice provide home run threats for LSU with White already having one punt return for a touchdown this season.