ATLANTA — LSU’s defense has allowed its most passing yards of the season in each of the past three games.
The Tigers yielded their first 300-yard game when Mississippi State passed for 304 on Nov. 10. A week later, Ole Miss racked up 316 and, six days after that in the regular-season finale at Arkansas, LSU allowed 359.
That’s an average of 326 passing yards per game — pretty much the norm for Clemson, which is averaging 319 going into Monday night’s Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU.
“I do feel like they’re going to come after us because we did have kind of bad games these past three,” LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said. “I expect that they’re going to put the ball up there because they like to throw it around and they have two great receivers, so why not put the ball in the air?”
One of those receivers is DeAndre Hopkins, who is second in the country with 16 touchdowns among his 69 catches. He has 1,214 receiving yards, an average of 17.6 per catch.
The other is Sammy Watkins, a first-team All-American as a freshman last season who has 57 catches for 708 yards despite missing three games.
“I think we have the best receivers in the country from top to bottom,” Clemson center Dalton Freeman said. “No question these guys could play anywhere in the country. And it’s just really special. I enjoy going back and watching film on Sundays just because I don’t get to see some of the spectacular plays they make.
“But we have the home run threat every time we touch the ball. And it’s just so exciting to watch. It’s exciting to block and play for guys like that.”
Their presence has helped Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year Tajh Boyd pass for 3,550 yards and 34 touchdowns.
“They have an explosive group of core receivers,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “I can venture to say they’re up there with one of the best we’ve faced all year. And they have a great quarterback who does a great job of putting the ball where they can catch it. It’s a challenge to our secondary and defense as a whole to stay tight in coverage.”
Before the string of 300-yard games, LSU had allowed more than 200 passing yards just once. Hesiman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M threw for 276 yards against the Tigers, who allowed an average of 150 through the first nine games.
“You have to handle it in a variety of ways,” LSU coach Les Miles said of Clemson’s passing game. “Certainly coverage, changing coverage and an opportunity to rush the passer.
“There has to be a point in time where you keep (Boyd) in the pocket and you play coverage and there’s an opportunity to rush the passer with four guys. I think anytime a quarterback can pull it down and go get yards, there’s an added responsibility to those guys that are rushing the passer. You must rush the passer. You must contain him when you step back and let him throw it and you have to have coverage.”
The responsibility for covering Hopkins and Watkins will fall primarily to cornerbacks Tharold Simon, Collins and fellow freshman Jalen Mills.
In addition to the passing threat, LSU has to defend Boyd’s ability to run as well as 1,000-yard rusher Andre Ellington.
“I’m given the difficult task of defending both the pass and the run, and they have a very explosive running back, extremely quick,” Reid said. “Before you know it, he’ll be around the edge and running up the sidelines. So for me, and as far as the secondary, we have to play both roles.
“The safeties have to trust their keys if the line is blocking down, you have to defend the run, you have defend the alley. But if there’s pass protection, you have to get back and help the corners out. Clemson is blessed with a bunch of players that are very fast. So we’ve got to stay on top of our game, be just as fast as they are and make quick decisions and make the right decisions.”
LSU players said Boyd’s ability to run and pass reminds them most of Manziel, though Florida’s Jeff Driskill and Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace also are dual threats. By adding Boyd’s receivers and Ellington to the mix, Clemson ends up with the most productive offense in the ACC and one of the best in the country.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve faced a team with all those pieces put together,” Collins said.
Collins, who redshirted last season, and true freshman Mills began the season untested and will end it with arguably their most challenging test.
“We have a saying when the freshmen come in: Young guys, play like tigers,” Reid said. “That’s what was told me when I got here. That’s what we expected them to do when they got here. We told them the minute they walked on campus we needed them to step up and play big for us.
“They’re young players but very talented. I have seen them develop and tried to help coach them. They’ve come a long ways (since) the beginning of the season. ... I’m confident in them. I think they’re going to do their job very well, and hopefully they can get some turnovers for us.”
Turnovers were the key to slowing Manziel and the Aggies: The Tigers took the ball away five times in a 24-19 win.
“Both Mills and Collins have demonstrated that they have the ability,” Miles said. “And, frankly, they’re getting to the back end of their freshman year. They should be playing like sophomores or juniors by now.”