Facing an up-tempo offense like fifth-ranked Auburn runs can present special challenges for opposing defenses, even one as experienced and talented as LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has put on the field in recent years.
Under second-year coach Gus Malzahn, who was the offensive coordinator when Auburn claimed the BCS national championship in 2010, the Tigers have averaged just under 2.85 plays per minute in their 18 games since Malzahn returned following a one-year stint as Arkansas State’s head coach.
While it’s not as fast as some teams that prefer the up-tempo style, it’s fast enough for 15th-ranked LSU to have to spend extra time on it this week in practices leading up to Saturday night’s showdown in Auburn, Alabama.
While LSU had some success handling it in a 35-21 win in Tiger Stadium last Sept. 21, saddling Auburn with its only loss until falling to Florida State in the BCS title game, they’re certainly wary of having to be ready to run, run, run.
No one had to remind defensive tackle Christian LaCouture on Monday when LSU returned to practice.
“I’m sitting there eating some food,” LaCouture said, “and I look up (at the TV) and they’ve already run three plays.”
While Auburn likes to speed things up at any given moment with dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall in control of a read-option scheme that’s averaging 480.0 yards a game, the tempo really picks up after they make a first down.
So getting off the field on third down in a timely manner is a must for LSU.
LSU held Auburn to just 6 of 17 on third down in last season’s matchup — including 1 of 8 in the first two quarters in a driving rain — helping Les Miles’ team build a comfortable 21-0 halftime lead in what Malzahn described this week as an “embarrassing” performance by his club.
It certainly doesn’t figure to be that easy this time.
Even though Auburn lost some key offensive contributors, namely All-American tackle Greg Robinson and running back Tre Mason, a Heisman Trophy finalist, the Tigers have the dangerous Marshall back along with top running back Cameron Artis-Payne.
While those two have accounted for 38.6 percent of Auburn’s 1,920 total yards in four games, they’ve added more passing to the repertoire with the arrival of junior college wide receiver D’haquille Williams.
The 6-foot-2, 216-pound Williams, an East St. John High School graduate, was the top junior college prospect in the nation last year and an LSU commitment before flipping to Auburn. He already has 23 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns and is averaging 15.5 yards per reception.
“They throw the ball in a position to keep you spread and off the formation, and they run the football with the zone read or a ‘gifted’ handoff where they have things blocked,” Miles said Monday. “That, frankly, challenges the defense to play the run and the pass at the same time.”
“We may have been up and they weren’t going as fast when we played last year and it was raining,” said middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, “but we’ll be well prepared for it.”
Still, the improved passing game in which Marshall has hit on 41 of 73 pass attempts for 548 yards and six TDs, adds another threat to an already tall task for LSU defenders.
“We can see them moving,” LaCouture said. “We’ve got to be in tip-top shape. I know this week we’re really going to run to the ball.
“As soon as they’re done with a play, they get up and they’re right up to the line again,” he said. “That’s something this week we’re really going to focus on, making sure we’re getting our calls.”
Communication problems plagued LSU’s defense in a lackluster 34-29 loss to Mississippi State on Sept. 20, but the Tigers cleaned much of that up before their blowout of New Mexico State on Saturday night.
Being sound and making sure everyone is on the same page will be a must against a top-five ranked team in a hostile environment, safety Jalen Mills said.
But having success a year ago against Auburn, which played better in the second half and finished with 437 total yards, will only help them so much.
“They have another year (in the system) and they have Nick Marshall, who’s another year in,” Mills said. “They have a lot of great playmakers who have the experience. They’re a better team this year, and that’s just more film work and more studying (of) the different tendencies they have.”
“You just have to line up and play your technique,” LaCouture said. “You have to do that play in and play out and make sure there’s not big-time plays where they can line up and (run) their offense. If they do, they’ll take advantage of it.”
If they do, it could be a long night.
Advocate sportswriter Ross Dellenger contributed to this report.