Jalen Mills cut left, cut right, backpedaled and sprinted forward.
He timed jumps perfectly, tackled with proper form and recognized formations quickly.
Everything felt great for Mills during LSU’s 19-7 win over Texas A&M.
“That was my best game this year — me getting back healthier, getting back to the person I was,” he said.
A healthy Mills yield a sought-after goose egg for the secondary: There were no obvious coverage busts.
That snapped a streak of at least eight straight games with a coverage blunder. It has been a rocky season for the program’s most prestigious unit, and it could get a lot worse — or better — on Dec. 29 when No. 22 LSU (8-3) meets Texas Tech (7-5) in the Texas Bowl in Houston’s NRG Stadium.
The Red Raiders have a 4,000-yard passer in Patrick Mahomes and a 1,000-yard receiver in Jakeem Grant. They have a high-flying, up-tempo, pass-crazed offense that the Tigers are attempting to mimic in practice with two separate offensive units rotating each play at a brisk pace.
Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury’s passing attack is second nationally in attempts per game (47), second in passing yards per game (389.7), ninth in TD passes (35) and fourth in total yards (4,676).
“Everybody knows Texas Tech’s offense: fast, high-tempo offense,” Mills said. “Us defensive guys have to be in shape for the game and be able to communicate 100 miles an hour. That’s how fast those guys are going to go.”
Players compared Tech’s offense to that of Ole Miss or Texas A&M — pass-heavy, fast-paced units — but no Southeastern Conference team airs it out like the Red Raiders. Mississippi State leads all SEC teams in attempts per game. The Bulldogs throw it 38 times a game — nearly 10 fewer than Texas Tech’s average.
“We have some big, strong, fast corners that will be tested in this bowl game,” coach Les Miles said.
It’s another stiff challenge for a secondary that has hit more bumps this season than it has in the past half-decade. The players aren’t hiding their disappointment, either.
“We didn’t perform to the standard that we set ourselves,” said junior Tre’Davious White, a projected first- to second-round draft selection who struggled at times this year.
LSU had eight busted coverages over the final nine games, and six of those led to touchdowns. The Tigers rank 49th nationally in passing defense — their worst mark since 2008 — and they have allowed 17 catches of more than 30 yards. That’s the most since at least 2010.
What happened? A lot.
Mills, the unit’s veteran leader, missed the first five games, played sparingly in the sixth and didn’t return to a starting role until the seventh. White missed time, too, with a knee injury.
Young players were thrown into big roles — like true freshmen Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson — and veteran players struggled. Dwayne Thomas and Rickey Jefferson saw their roles diminish late in the season.
“We had some growing pains,” Mills said Monday after LSU’s eighth of roughly 12 bowl practices. “That’s part of the game.”
The Tigers are scheduled to practice Tuesday and Wednesday before a two-day break for Christmas. They’ll resume drills Saturday and Sunday in Houston before a walk-through Monday.
The secondary’s preparation might be the most critical. It’s a chance for the unit to slow one of the nation’s most explosive passing threats. Tech, a touchdown underdog, has scored at least 30 points in 10 of 12 games and has hit the 50-point mark six times.
For comparison’s sake, LSU hasn’t cracked 20 points in the past four games.
“They move the ball, throw it a lot,” White said. “Should be fun for the defensive secondary.”
“Us as a secondary, this is the type of game you look for,” Mills said. “Passing teams.”
LSU’s year-by-year passing defense
The Tigers’ normally stout passing defense hit a few bumps in the road this year:
Passing yards allowed: 211 (49th)/164 (3rd)/197 (13th)/206 (28th)/171 (8th)/169 (10th)
Passes of 10-plus yards allowed: 96* (42nd)/80 (4th)/102 (31st)/103 (35th)/99 (24th)/81 (6th)
Passes of 30-plus yards allowed: 17*/10/15/9/9/9
* — in 11 games