The task for LSU’s defense was already significant from the start of the week when the Tigers had to get ready for one of the most productive passing teams in the country in Western Kentucky.
Then, the Tigers lost starting cornerback Tre’Davious White to a knee injury in practice Monday, and Saturday night had cornerback Kevin Toliver II and safety Jalen Mills miss significant snaps. Plus, they played without defensive tackle Christian LaCouture — with an already-thin defensive line.
But on a soggy night in Tiger Stadium, fifth-ranked LSU managed to weather the storm — with a busted coverage and mistakes sprinkled in — with some big defensive plays in a 48-20 victory against Western Kentucky.
In the win, LSU held Western Kentucky well below its season’s averages in scoring (44.0), passing yards (407.1) and total yards (535.4) — numbers that ranked among the top 10 FBS teams in the nation going into the game.
LSU held up well for the most part against Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty, who ranked third in the nation in passing with 387.0 yards per game — throwing 24 touchdown passes and just four interceptions while completing 74.1 percent of his attempts.
The Hilltoppers finished with 325 passing yards and 428 total yards as LSU held them well below their scoring average after scoring at least 40 points in five of its previous six games.
“We just played tight coverage,” LSU weakside linebacker Deion Jones said. “Coach (Les Miles) talked all week about playing tight, because (Doughty) was a great passer and could get the ball in some tight spaces. That was a key for us tonight.”
Doughty completed 37 of 61 pass attempts for 325 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. But at the end of the third quarter, he had just 232 yards — 37 fewer than LSU’s Brandon Harris put up in helping his team to a 34-13 cushion going to the final period.
LSU’s defense certainly did its part to hold things together when the offense struggled early and held only a 14-7 edge at halftime with Toliver and Mills on the sideline with shoulder and ankle injuries.
Western Kentucky managed just 181 total yards on 42 plays in the first half, while LSU outgained the visitors with 218 yards on 10 fewer snaps.
“I think, early on, the defense played very well,” Miles said. “We made some mistakes with coverage in the backfield (in the second half) that really cost us big plays.”
With all the injuries, the Tigers had to use a deeper rotation to fill out their nickel and dime packages — calling on cornerbacks Ed Paris and Donte Jackson and safeties Corey Thompson and John Battle to help fill the void.
Toliver, who started for White, and Mills returned late in the first half, but Mills did not play after halftime.
“(Tre’Davious) got nicked in a freak accident that involved our players,” Miles said. “We expect him to be back. He probably could have played tonight.”
Miles said Mills, who just returned a week ago after missing the first five games because of a fractured ankle, had a “soft-tissue” issue and should be back for LSU’s next game — the Nov. 7 showdown at Alabama.
The Tigers could have used them both in the second half.
One of the big plays Miles talked about came in the third quarter after Trent Domingue extended LSU’s slim halftime lead to 10 points with a 34-yard field goal.
LSU, which had coverage busts that resulted in big pass plays in the last two games against South Carolina and Florida, then gave up another one when a wide-open Antwane Grant caught a 39-yard touchdown from Doughty that trimmed the Tigers’ lead to 17-13 in the third.
Wide receiver Taywan Taylor also got free on a 9-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter and finished with 10 receptions for 103 yards, while Jared Dangerfield had 75 yards on eight grabs.
“We gave up a few big plays,” LSU middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We just have to eliminate those mistakes. We’re giving up big plays with communication errors.
“They had a nice amount of yards, but they’re a passing team.”
Strong safety Jamal Adams had an interception off Doughty that led to a 61-yard scoring pass from Harris to Tyron Johnson, helping LSU push its lead to 21 points by the end of the third period.
“We’re proud of the effort,” said Jones, who recorded 10 tackles and had the only sack of Doughty. “We played physical and we played tough. So we’ll take that and build on it.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter: @MicklesAdvocate.