Georgia people look to that blemish as their greatest hope come Saturday when Bulldogs and Tigers meet for the SEC championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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We are accustomed to defense defining champions. So, what to make of an LSU team that ranks 31st in FBS in scoring defense (yielding 22.1 points a game, more than twice Georgia’s allowance) and 35th in yards allowed per game (344.8 to Georgia’s 257)?
On consecutive weeks in November, even though it was a span that included LSU’s grandest victory of the season, the Tigers “D” became a real issue. A downright impeachable offense, some might say. In beating Alabama, LSU gave up 41 points, 541 total yards and four passing touchdowns. A week later, Ole Miss put up 402 rushing yards on the Tigers, but lost 58-37.
LSU was out-scoring people, but it wasn’t really beating people, if you know what we mean. This kind of Big 12 approach just didn’t seem quite as sustainable in this part of the country.
But the theme around here entering Saturday’s SEC Championship game is that all is well, and that the LSU defense is prepared to carry its share of the load.
“It is kind of like a redemption week for us, especially on defense to reestablish our identity,” defensive end Breiden Fehoko said.
Asked if the world has underestimated the Tigers defense, linebacker Jacob Phillips answered: “I would say so, but at the same time we have to prove ourselves every week. It’s all about going out and showing everybody we are a great defense.
“I thought we had a stint in the middle of the season we were playing really good defense then kind of fell off a little bit. But we’re picking it back up for these last two games. We’re picking it up in time.”
Saturday’s regular-season wrap-up against Texas A&M was a time to get well for this defense. It gave up just seven points and 169 total yards to Jimbo Fisher’s offense. Pair that with the preceding week – when the defensive starters allowed six points to Arkansas through three quarters before giving way to the reserves – and here is a unit that is not exactly issuing apologies in advance of Saturday’s SEC showdown.
As the Tigers came off the field, Joe Burrow, their hotshot quarterback, noted, “I think the defense wanted to send a message to the country. They've been criticized really the last half of the season and that's what they were talking about all week, wanting to make a statement.”
That statement included six sacks, eight tackles for a loss and three interceptions. That against the same team that beat the Tigers 74-72 in seven overtimes a year ago.
“We didn’t let (A&M quarterback) Kellen Mond set his feet. And we had tight coverage, our guys were all over their receivers,” coach Ed Orgeron said, praising his defense for its best performance of the season.
“The defense and the defensive line, we took it personally,” LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson told reporters after the game when asked of the criticism. “There are too many high-caliber players to be disrespected like that, so we made sure it was a point of emphasis to impose our will that we were the better team. It's only going to get better from here.”
That is one of the great intrigues of Saturday’s game, is recent performance any guarantee to future results for the LSU defense? What is this unit, the one that couldn’t have stopped Ole Miss with a taser or the one that practically pitched a shutout vs. A&M?
As the senior Fehoko broke down the Georgia game, he foresaw the Bulldogs trying to extend possessions in an attempt to keep the Tigers offense off the field. The biggest physical test of the season awaits this defense, he said.
“I think they’re going to come out and try to slow down the game a little bit, try to grind out some yards, let that play clock run down to under 10 and ultimately make last minute checks,” Fehoko said. “I think it’s going to be a big-boy battle this week.”
How big the LSU defense is capable of making itself after dealing with occasional bouts of shrinkage is one of Saturday’s key concerns.
For it is December and as Fehoko said, “When you get to this point of the season it has to be complete football.”