STARKVILLE, Miss. — Defensive end Arden Key wheeled around the right end of the offensive line, beating Mississippi State left tackle Rufus Warren and dropping quarterback Dak Prescott — Key’s first sack on the first play of the second series of his LSU career.
Two plays later, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux bulled his way up the middle, gobbling up Prescott for a 12-yard loss. And end Tashawn Bower ended the first quarter by slamming State running back Aeris Williams for a 5-yard loss.
Under new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, LSU debuted an attacking, pressure-crazed defensive line in its 21-19 win over Mississippi State on Saturday in Starkville. Defensive linemen had more than a half dozen QB pressures and finished with three sacks; the Tigers didn’t have more than two in a Southeastern Conference game last year.
The line helped hold State to 43 rushing yards, the Bulldogs’ fewest since November 2012.
The problem among all of those superlatives: Most of the line’s disruption came in the first three quarters.
“We did it very well in the first half,” middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “We’ve just gotta keep it up late in the game.”
Outside of the passing game’s low output (71 yards), the glaring issue in the Tigers’ rousing road win was the drop-off from the defense in general and its line in particular in the final minutes.
The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns and had 206 of their 378 yards on their final four drives — starting with a 14-play surge that began with 4 minutes left in the third quarter.
What happened to LSU’s defense over those final 19 minutes of game time?
The Tigers appeared tired, worn down from three quarters of slugging it out with few substitutions. The line got little pressure in those final minutes, and State receivers created just enough separation to turn a 21-6 deficit into a two-point game.
Beckwith said the unit wasn’t tired late.
“Nah,” he said. “We live for moments like that. We were good.”
LSU, ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press poll released Sunday, brought just 10 defensive linemen to Starkville. The Tigers regularly played three defensive ends: Key, a true freshman, and starters Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal. Deondre Clark did not play, and Sione Teuhema seemed to only get in on one or two drives.
They played four defensive tackles: starters Christian LaCouture and Godchaux and rotating reserves Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron, who saw only a handful of snaps. Quentin Thomas, the only other traveling tackle, did not play.
At linebacker, Beckwith and Deion Jones rarely came out of the game. Backups Duke Riley and Lamar Louis saw little time. The Tigers never played their base 4-3 defense and only switched from the two-linebacker, five-defensive back nickel set to move to the six-DB dime defense.
Cornerback Ed Paris didn’t play on defense, leaving freshman Kevin Toliver to take every snap. Safeties Rickey Jefferson and Jamal Adams rarely were replaced.
LSU played a total of 50 players. State played 60.
The depth problems at linebacker and on the line were expected. The Tigers lost linemen Travonte Valentine, Maquedius Bain and Trey Lealaimatafao and linebacker Clifton Garrett in the offseason.
It extended beyond that, though. For instance, LSU played just three receivers: Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural and John Diarse.
LSU’s depth issues on defense seemed obvious late as Prescott moved State down the field with an up-tempo, quick-passing game.
“He was getting the ball out pretty quick,” Beckwith said. “He did a good job of getting the ball out of his hands. We just gotta man up and cover that.”
“Against that guy, you know he’s going to make some plays,” cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “He’s a great player. You’ve just gotta try to limit those things. You can’t hold a great player like that down for long, so he’s gonna make some plays. It’s just about how you bounce back from it.”
Three of the final four Bulldogs drives went for 82, 87 and 55 yards — a reason for Tigers fans to worry with Auburn up next.
Auburn (2-0) plummeted in the AP poll from No. 6 to No. 18 after needing overtime Saturday to beat Jacksonville State, a team from the Football Championship Subdivision.
Still, coach Gus Malzahn and his Tigers are known for a no-huddle attack similar to what State used to mount its comeback Saturday. It torched LSU in a 41-7 loss last season at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“We’ve gotta win. We’ve gotta do what our defense does,” White said. “We’ve gotta play physical and make some big-time plays for our offense.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.