Between 2007’s second conference game and 2008’s second-to-last conference game, the LSU defense has made a tragic transition from dominant to dumbfounding. Following the 28-16 win against the South Carolina last season, the Tigers had allowed an amazing 161.5 total yards per game, forced 12 turnovers, tallied 16 sacks, and were giving up an average of 5.75 points a contest.
Granted that was only through four games, but it was against Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Middle Tennessee State and South Carolina. Two bowl teams and a Gamecock squad that was ranked No. 6 in the country at one point and No. 12 when they rolled into Tiger Stadium.
But following that rainy afternoon in Tiger Stadium where LSU defeated South Carolina, things have taken a drastic turn.
In the past 21 games LSU is allowing 329.4 yards per game, more than double. The Tigers have also forced just 15 turnovers in 2008, which is three more than they had after those four amazing performances in ’07. To complete these declining tendencies, the Tigers’ 08 pass rush, the team’s perceived strength, is averaging almost a full sack less per game than the 2007 line.
According to senior defensive tackle Charles Alexander, the Tigers aren’t getting the same small bounces and lucky breaks as they did last year.
“It’s just how the ball is rolling this year,” Alexander said. “Give credit to Ole Miss, they made great passes against our scheme. Me, I think people are adjusting to our scheme and how they’re playing it. We just have to go out there and come together and fix everything and play the style of defense that we normally play.”
But, as LSU fans are no doubt loath to point out, if the opposition is figuring out the Tigers’ scheme, where are the adjustments and improvements? Since holding Mississippi State (4-7, 2-5) to 285 yards on Sept. 27, LSU has allowed 350 yards or more in five of its past seven games with three of those five opponents also reaching the 400-yard mark.
What’s changed on the LSU landscape?
For starters, the Tigers lost six starters on the defensive side of the ball and four of them are on NFL rosters.
The other major change that LSU has had to deal with was losing defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, who accepted a head coaching position at Nebraska.
Miles elected to promote Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto to co-defensive coordinator’s rather than hire one man to run the defense.
With Mallory also coaching the defensive backs and Peveto overseeing the linebackers, there isn’t one man roaming the sidelines and in charge of the defense.
But, in all fairness, the offense hasn’t helped the defense much this season with 18 interceptions and seven of them going the other way for touchdowns.
“Reviewing the coaches, I think that they are getting it coached. I really do,” said Miles. “I have to say that to pinpoint a mistake is still a very significant issue to me. I can’t go by that. It has to be made better. I think the familiarity of call and some of those things we’ve benefited from, but obviously, in all three phases we have to improve.”
According to Miles and the guys on the defensive side of the ball, the scheme hasn’t changed much since Pelini left and Alexander feels that it has to do more with all of the new faces on that side of the ball.
“I really don’t see the scheme as the problem because the scheme has worked for us since Bo Pelini was here,” Alexander said. “I guess we had more experience at the positions a couple of years ago. It just takes time. You’re not going to wake up and know everything and know how to play every situation. It goes with experience and time.”
Alexander, like his teammates, also insists it is not the Tigers’ effort holding them back.
“I look at the film and all the guys gave 100 percent,” he said. “Every guy played until there was zero minutes left on the clock. We just have to go out there and fix the small things and everything else will take care of itself.”
Sophomore safety Chad Jones also cites inexperience as a factor in the defense’s decline. LSU fans have grown accustomed to superb play in the secondary over the decade, with All-Americans like Corey Webster, LaRon Landry and Craig Steltz lining up in the back seven. Along with most other categories, the Tigers’ pass defense has plummeted in the rankings, dropping from the ninth-ranked unit in the nation (which allowed 182.7 yards a game) to No. 76, giving up 215.5 yards a game.
“We’re not making the plays we’re used to making, doing the things we’re normally doing,” Jones said. “Our players at times are not stepping up, like when we drop interceptions or we don’t dive on fumbles, or we don’t make key plays on third downs. They got like a third and 24 on us last week or a third and 27 or something. That’s not supposed to happen. Ever.”
Jones said the secret to improvement is “focus,” but it seems like this unit has yet to show either focus or improvement in this season’s 11 games. Ranked highly at points this season, the Tigers’ now sit at 11th and 10th in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense, respectively.
They’ll have one more chance in the regular season, against the conference’s second-ranked pass offense no less, to salvage their reputation.
No doubt it’ll be easier said than done.