MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Last year when West Virginia faced LSU, several Mountaineer coaches commented that LSU’s defense was among the best they had ever seen on tape. Well, indications are this year’s Tiger defense may be even better.
So far during its three games this season against Oregon (now ranked 10th), Northwestern State and Mississippi State, LSU is giving up 12 points, 47.7 yards rushing and 207.7 yards per game.
And there is more – a lot more …
The Tigers have allowed the fewest rushing yards (143) through three games since 2007, 17 of LSU’s 21 players on its defensive two-deep have recorded at least one tackle for a loss, the Tigers have forced a three-and-out or a turnover on 19 of 36 possessions, and they have not allowed a run of more than 15 yards so far this season.
In fact, LSU has permitted just three plays of 20 yards or longer and two of those came during last Thursday night’s game against Mississippi State. Then-third-ranked Oregon did not have a single play of more than 15 yards in LSU’s 40-27 victory over the Ducks back on Sept. 3 in the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas.
Now that’s playing some defense.
“They are wherever the ball is,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “They get there really fast, and they’re pretty impressive once they get there. You can study their personnel all you want to, but they’re capable of making plays.”
When examining LSU’s defense, a good place to start is defensive line where the Tigers have had at least one player drafted by an NFL team in each of the last eight years. Last year it was first-team All-American Drake Nevis. Three years ago it was first-rounder Tyson Jackson; a year prior to that it was defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. Before that it was Marcus Spears.
This year, all four guys up front have either won some type of weekly honor or have been named to an all-conference preseason team. What impresses Holgorsen most about LSU’s D-line play is that the Tigers have so many good ones at their disposal, and veteran defensive coordinator John Chavis will be able to rotate several fresh bodies against West Virginia’s somewhat thin offensive line.
“We’ve played six offensive linemen in three games and we don’t have the luxury of depth right now,” Holgorsen pointed out. “Those guys will have to suck it up and they have to play.”
LSU came up with 15 negative yardage plays against Mississippi State in its last game and has produced 30 in its first three games – the most since the Tigers had 44 through their first three games to begin the 1999 season.
“You’ve got to take advantage of the little space that you have,” Holgorsen said. “They’re good, talented and rarely out of position. We’re going to have to throw to receivers that are covered, and run into people that are filling gaps. We’re going to have to sustain blocks for a little bit longer.
“If they’re playing zone and we’ve got a guy open, then the hole is going to close relatively quickly,” Holgorsen said. “The speed of the game is going to have to increase a bit more than it did last week.”
Individually, sophomore defensive back Tyrann Mathieu leads LSU with 24 tackles, defensive tackles Michael Brokers and Bennie Logan have 3 ½ tackles for losses each, while junior corner Morris Claiborne leads LSU with two picks.
Claiborne has picked up where Patrick Peterson, a first-rounder now playing for the Arizona Cardinals, left off. LSU coach Les Miles was asked earlier this week to compare the two.
“I think Mo is as fast and athletic as any,” Miles said. “Patrick was equal to Mo’s athleticism, fluidity and ball skills, but bigger, stronger and more explosive.”
The fact that some have even attempted to compare Claiborne to Peterson is proof enough that he is someone to keep an eye on this Saturday. He was named the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week following his two-pick performance against the Bulldogs last Thursday night.
Holgorsen said he had a front-row view of LSU’s defense during last year’s Cotton Bowl when the Tigers completely dismantled Texas A&M.
“They physically whipped Texas A&M in that game,” Holgorsen noted.
On the other side of the ball, LSU has now turned to senior Jarrett Lee at quarterback following the indefinite suspension of Jordan Jefferson for his participation in an off-campus fight during the summer. Lee has improved each game, going from 98 yards passing in the opener against Oregon to 213 in LSU’s most recent game. He completed 21-of-27 passes against Mississippi State with a touchdown and a pick. Lee is completing 68 percent of his pass attempts for 444 yards and three TDs so far this year.
Holgorsen is familiar with Lee from his days recruiting west Texas for the University of Houston.
“Things didn’t work out as well as he would have liked early in his career, but based on what kind of a kid he is, and based on his upbringing, he hung in there and it’s good to see him get a chance,” said Holgorsen. “I’ve watched three games and he’s putting the ball where they want him to put the ball. And he’s got the luxury of having a lot of good people around him as well.”
That includes a big and powerful offensive line, all six running backs on the two-deep roster weighing at least 215 pounds (sophomore fullback J.C. Copeland checks in at 280), and 6-foot-plus playmakers at all of the wide receiver positions, including the return of junior Russell Shepard, who was forced to miss the first three games while serving an NCAA-imposed suspension. Shepard caught 33 passes last year as a sophomore.
Again, Holgorsen is familiar with Shepard from his high school days in Houston.
“It was an impressive 5A Texas highlight film,” Holgorsen said. “He’s got ability. They’ve got a lot of guys with ability. The good news is there’s only one ball, so that ball can only go to one of them. Our job is to figure out which one it’s going to and stop it.”
Where LSU has made its living with Miles is a power running game that is conducive to play-action passing off of it. Miles has a 23-2 record at LSU when a running back reaches 100 yards in a game, and Spencer Ware did it against Mississippi State with 107 yards last Thursday.
“(Miles) is an offensive line coach,” Holgorsen said. “He is where their physical style of play comes from. When he was at Oklahoma State back when I was at Texas Tech, they were one of the more physical teams that we faced. He brings that physical nature to their offense.”
Miles, too, is very familiar with Holgorsen, likening Holgorsen’s system to what he has faced at Arkansas with Bobby Petrino and some of the Georgia offenses of the past.
“His background is one that shows he really knows how to throw the football,” Miles said. “His teams are comfortable in the no-huddle and in tempo offense. He has done a wonderful job wherever he has been with that offense. Whether he was at Houston, Oklahoma State and now West Virginia, I’ve followed him and understand the style of offense he runs.”
LSU is making just its second non-conference road trip since 2005 (Arizona State) and its first-ever appearance in Morgantown. The Tigers have won a nation’s-best 35 straight non-conference games with their last non-SEC loss coming at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg in 2002.
“I’ve been looking forward to this because I’ve been told Morgantown is a wonderful place to play,” said Miles. “Their game day experience is a lot like an SEC game. They have a crowd that is in to their team and makes a lot of noise. Our guys enjoy that type of environment.”
Last year, LSU defeated West Virginia 20-14 before 92,575 at Tiger Stadium. Patrick Peterson’s 60-yard punt return for a touchdown gave LSU an early 17-0 lead, but WVU eventually scored a pair of touchdowns to close the gap. LSU held the Mountaineer offense to just 177 total yards while the Tigers, too, had trouble moving the ball, netting just 230 yards with only 80 of those coming from the passing game.
“I thought they played a very inspired game,” said Miles of West Virginia’s defense. “I thought their competition was good and that they were a physical team.”
ESPN’s GameDay crew will be in Morgantown this weekend to promote the game and also preview this weekend’s college football action. ABC (Brent Musburger, Kirk Herbstreit and Erin Andrews) will televise the game to a national audience.
“The amount of eyes looking at our facilities and our stadium, the city of Morgantown and the state of West Virginia is a positive thing,” Holgorsen said. “I’m fired up about it. I’m glad it’s here and all that stuff is positive.
“At the end of the day, it’s about putting our best product on the field,” Holgorsen added. “We can’t sit here and have a team meeting and be all giddy about it. We have to figure out what our job is, go out and have a good week of practice, and focus on the job at hand.”
Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.
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