No. 1 LSU sees hope for maligned defense in SEC title game
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — LSU safety Jacoby Stevens and his defensive teammates sound determined to disprove the notion that they represent the top-ranked Tigers’ greatest liability as college football’s postseason arrives.
Their most recent showing in a 50-7 victory over Texas A&M last weekend provided evidence that LSU’s defense could bolster, rather than undermine, the unbeaten Tigers’ chances against No. 4 Georgia in Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship.
“You hear all along the offense is great but the defense is not,” Stevens said. “As a competitor, you take that as motivation. You want to change that narrative, and I feel like we did that.”
One game is a small sample size, but that sample was a promising display of dominance against an Aggies team that entered Tiger Stadium averaging 419.6 yards and 32.1 points per game.
The Tigers allowed just 169 yards in a performance highlighted by six sacks — one for a safety — and three interceptions.
LSU defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence was among several Tigers who mentioned being motivated partly by the College Football Playoff committee’s decision last week to drop LSU in its ranking from No. 1 to No. 2 — behind Ohio State. Committee members mentioned that they viewed the Buckeyes as a more complete team that has performed well on offense and defense.
“We had a lot to prove,” Lawrence said. “We weren’t really competing against Texas A&M. We were competing with ourselves and just having a four-quarter, physical, tough mindset.”
Even LSU quarterback Joe Burrow said he noticed the sense of purpose pervading the Tigers’ defense.
“The defense wanted to send a message to the country,” Burrow said. “They’ve been criticized for the last half of the season and that is what they were talking about all week.”
Georgia’s offensive numbers are similar to those of A&M’s: 420.6 yards and 32.9 points per game, but the Bulldogs have seen their offense sputter at times in recent weeks.
Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm has gone four straight games completing less than half of his passing attempts. Top receiver Lawrence Cager is out following ankle surgery, and Georgia’s top healthy receiver, George Pickens, is suspended for first half of Saturday’s game because of his ejection for fighting during the Bulldogs’ victory last weekend over Georgia Tech.
Also unclear is Georgia running back D’Ándre Swift’s form after injuring his shoulder last week.
But the Tigers don’t want to become preoccupied with what is ailing the Bulldogs. LSU wants to avoid the lapses that has them ranked 35th nationally in total defense, giving up 345.9 yards per game, and 31st in scoring defense, allowing 22.1 points per game.
“The defense hasn’t been playing right throughout the season,” LSU edge pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson said. “We’re thankful the offense is helping us out a lot. We were so grateful, but we know as a defense the offense can’t save us every game and we need to pick it up.”
Four times this season, LSU gave up at least 450 yards and 37 points. The first three instances occurred during victories at Texas, Vanderbilt and Alabama. The fourth occurred three games ago at Mississippi, when LSU allowed 614 yards.
Stevens was among the LSU defensive veterans who lambasted his own unit after the Ole Miss game. He’s since backed up his pledge to improve with three sacks against Arkansas and his interception against A&M.
Chaisson had a sack-and-a-half against A&M and harassed Aggies QB Kellen Mond much of the night.
“There’s too many high-caliber players on this defense to be disrespected,” Chaisson said.
The secondary is led by preseason All-America safety Grant Delpit and Stevens, along with cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley Jr. The linebacker corps features Patrick Queen, known for his sideline-to-sidelined range, and Jacob Phillips, a stout tackler and strong communicator who relays defensive coaches’ pre-snap instructions.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart cited LSU’s linebackers when explaining why he thought the Tigers were improving defensively.
“They played better and better, really aggressive,” Smart said. “They’ve created pass rush with their linebackers — and they’re cover guys.”
Chaisson, with 10 ½ tackles for loss, has led LSU up front. Lawrence, who missed three games with injuries this season, had a sack last week and appeared to be rounding back into form.
Stevens said the most encouraging aspect of LSU’s performance against A&M was the Tigers’ ability to create pressure up front without resorting often to exotic stunts or blitzes.
“When you can do that, that’s when you hit another level defensive-wise,” Stevens said.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum in Athens, Georgia, contributed to this report.