Danny Etling might have solidified his place as LSU’s starting quarterback in Saturday's 23-20 win over Mississippi State.
D.J. Chark may have secured a spot as the Tigers’ No. 2 wide receiver. Ethan Pocic proved he can play left tackle, and running back Leonard Fournette flashed what appeared to be a healthy set of legs.
One of the biggest revelations, though, in the Southeastern Conference opener: LSU can still successfully run its old defensive scheme, the 4-3. The Tigers knocked the rust off their previous defense to roll up at least a dozen quarterback pressures and a whopping six sacks, the most in a regular-season LSU game in two years.
LSU used four down linemen on nearly half of its defensive snaps Saturday, mixing its old scheme with the 3-4 system new coordinator Dave Aranda installed this offseason.
“We just went back to our basic 4-3 look, had our hands in the dirt,” said Arden Key, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid.
LSU (2-1, 1-0), now No. 17 in the Associated Press poll, heads to Auburn (1-2, 0-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday after what Key described as the defensive line’s best outing. The unit pressured State’s quarterback on more than a third of his dropbacks Saturday, and it ended the Bulldogs’ comeback bid in the final minutes, forcing a four-and-out with its pressure.
Two of Key’s seven QB pressures came on State’s final two plays. He hounded quarterback Damian Williams into an incompletion on third down and sacked him on fourth down. Aranda called the same stunt on both of those plays, a pass-rushing twist in which Key looped behind Davon Godchaux. Both came out of the old four-man front.
Aranda and his staff used many more four-man fronts Saturday than they did in the season's first two games. The Tigers used four down linemen on about 28 of State’s 64 offensive plays.
In the 4-3, there is no nose tackle; that player shifts farther outside into a defensive tackle’s position. The ends move out, too, and Key, an outside linebacker in the 3-4, aligns closer to the ball with his hand on the ground in a three-point stance.
“That’s what we’re used to, and that’s our body types,” said Lewis Neal, normally the end opposite Key in the four-man front. “We played to our strengths and got after the quarterback.”
Ethan Pocic chuckled when the suggestion was presented to him.
The line got pressure, mostly, on its own. Aranda sent very few blitzes. On only about 10 snaps did LSU send more than four men on a pass rush.
“Considering the opponent and considering the size of the offensive line and the backs and the quarterbacks that were playing against them, yeah, I thought this was a very solid outing,” coach Les Miles said.
They were fresh at the end, when LSU needed its linemen most. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron employed eight defensive linemen in the game, using a steady rotation of Frank Herron (for Godchaux) and Travonte Valentine (for Greg Gilmore). Tashawn Bower saw lots of action in the second half, too.
At one point in the third quarter, Key blasted into the backfield on three straight plays, pressuring State starting quarterback Nick Fitzgerald into a host of misfires.
Key’s two sacks Saturday gave him five for the season, the most for an LSU player through the first three games of a season since at least 1980.
He's 15 off his season goal of 20.
“It was always doable,” he said Saturday when asked about reaching that lofty number. “There was never a doubt in my mind I wasn’t going to get it.”
Key's not there yet, but he’s on pace to easily break Oliver Lawrence's school record of 12, set in 1989. At least three of his five sacks began with his hand on the ground, aligned at the end of that old four-man front.
“That speed, it’s hard to stop,” Neal said of Key. “He knows his strengths. We love getting him on the edge and getting all of us on the edge. Godchaux had great pass rushes as well because he’s used to that position. We get on the edge.”