The next level: Mesh charging may be the answer for the LSU defense

It’s called mesh charging, and it was behind Texas A&M’s suffocating 29-16 victory at Auburn last week.

John Chavis, the former LSU defensive coordinator who's now at Texas A&M, used the strategy to combat Auburn’s zone-read offense. It didn’t just combat the Tigers attack — it blew it up.

“It was kind of a perfect storm,” said Cole Cubelic, a former Auburn center and current SEC Network sideline reporter.

So what is mesh charging, and will LSU (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern) use it Saturday against Auburn (1-2, 0-1)?

Mesh charging is when a defensive end recognizes the zone read before the snap and then rushes into the backfield, arriving at the quarterback and running back at the handoff — also known as the “mesh” zone. Normally against the zone-read, a defensive end will slide along the line of scrimmage reading the play. He’ll crash inside if the ball is handed to the running back. He’ll stay outside if the quarterback keeps it.

A&M’s strategy — from the start — was to blow up the zone read before it started. On Auburn’s first play, Aggies defensive end Myles Garrett sacked Auburn quarterback Sean White on a mesh charge.

“We had a couple of negative plays trying to throw the ball on first down because of the mesh charge,” AU coach Gus Malzahn admitted Tuesday in his weekly news conference with reporters.

Auburn still ran for 236 yards, but the Aggies’ mesh charging disrupted the offense enough. Auburn scored just 10 points in the first three quarters, and A&M finished with four sacks, had 13 tackles for loss and hurried Auburn’s quarterbacks — the Tigers brought in backup John Franklin for the fourth quarter — at least six times.

Arden Key, LSU’s athletic defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid, is quick enough to have success by mesh charging. He has proved that through three games, posting five sacks and 19 QB pressures.

Will LSU try it? We’ll find out Saturday night.

Two matchups to watch

LSU linebackers vs. Auburn fullback Chandler Cox

Auburn, like LSU and unlike much of college football, runs the ball with a fullback. Chandler Cox, a 236-pound sophomore, leads the way for a rushing attack ranked 15th nationally and first in the SEC (261 yards per game). LSU linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley, both of whom have been caught in traffic at times this year, will have a busy night.

LSU's offensive line vs. Auburn's defensive line

The Tigers likely will be without starting right tackle Toby Weathersby. That just puts more pressure on a line that has been up and down through the first three games. It faces an Auburn front loaded with experience and talent, including Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, highly touted standouts expected to play at the next level.

LSU: Keep an eye on No. 49, Arden Key

The rangy, athletic defensive end/outside linebacker is second nationally with five sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus, has a whopping 19 quarterback pressures through three games, leading all 3-4 outside linebackers by getting a pressure on 21 percent of his rushes.

Auburn: Keep an eye on No. 36, Kamryn Pettway

The 6-foot, 240-pound Pettway is a bruising back who ran for 123 yards and a TD last week. He’s a fullback-turned-running back who rotates with fellow running back Kerryon Johnson. They each average more than 90 yards a game.

Four downs

Scott Rabalais breaks down Saturday's trip to The Plains:

1. RUN FIRST, RUN FAR

Quick LSU-Auburn quiz: One of these teams leads the SEC in rushing, and the other is ninth. The leader is … Auburn, averaging 261.7 ypg, while LSU averages 170.7. Neither Kerryon Johnson nor Kamryn Pettway is Leonard Fournette, but they are a potent duo. LSU’s new watchword is balance with Danny Etling’s passing, but this his first SEC road start.

2. THE STEELE CURTAIN

Kevin Steele’s overly complex defense bogged LSU down at times last year, but he appears to have simplified his schemes to Auburn’s benefit. Still, LSU has better defensive numbers in every stat except red-zone defense. Auburn made Texas A&M settle for five field goals last week and will have to dig in in similar fashion to beat LSU.

3. LSU SACK EXCHANGE

Against Mississippi State, LSU employed a lot of four-man fronts and, as a result, sacked Bulldogs quarterbacks six times. OLB Arden Key leads the SEC with five sacks in three games, and DE Lewis Neal isn’t far behind with 2.5. LSU has more to worry about from Auburn’s running game, but a good pass rush always pays dividends.

4. NOT SO SPECIAL

LSU got great punting from Josh Growden last week (five boots for a 49.2-yard average), but otherwise special teams were shaky. The Tigers again missed an extra point and had a kickoff sail out of bounds. This will be a tight matchup that could turn on a special teams gaffe or great play. LSU needs to have only the latter.

Numbers worth knowing

0

LSU's points allowed in the first quarter and scored in the fourth quarter

14-2

Home team's record in this series since 2000

18.1

Average margin of victory in the series in the past seven years

64

SEC wins for Les Miles at LSU, one off the school record

Five memorable games

When the games earn nicknames, you know they're pretty special. Here are five memorable games from the LSU-Auburn rivalry, which LSU leads 28-21-1: 

1. Oct. 8, 1988: LSU 7, Auburn 6

“The Earthquake Game.” With his team trailing 6-0 with just under two minutes remaining, Tommy Hodson hits Eddie Fuller for an 11-yard touchdown pass in the back of Tiger Stadium’s north end zone on fourth-and-10. The score sets off a celebration that famously registers across campus on the Geology Department’s seismograph.

2. Sept. 17, 1994: Auburn 30, LSU 26

“The Interception Game.” Auburn returns three Jamie Howard interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter and recovers a fumble in the end zone for an earlier score. LSU loses despite outgaining Auburn 407-165, holding the home team to 16 yards and one first down in the second half.

3. Sept. 21, 1996: LSU 19, Auburn 15

“The Night the Barn Burned.” During the first half, an old wooden basketball gym adjacent to Jordan-Hare Stadium burns to the ground. An Auburn touchdown makes it 17-15 with 38 seconds left, but Raion Hill intercepts Jon Cooley’s two-point pass and returns it for two LSU points, sealing the win.

4. Oct. 20, 2007: LSU 30, Auburn 24

“Seconds Count.” LSU receiver Demetrius Byrd signals to offensive coordinator Gary Crowton in the press box that a pass called “144 Go” is open. Matt Flynn finds Byrd in the north end zone with Auburn’s Jerraud Powers draped all over him. Byrd tumbles to the turf with one second remaining.

5. Oct. 23, 2010: Auburn 24, LSU 17

“The Cam Newton Show.” Both 7-0 teams are led by Heisman contenders: Auburn quarterback Cam Newton and LSU cornerback/kick returner Patrick Peterson. Newton has his Heisman moment, dragging Peterson across the goal line on a 49-yard TD run. Auburn stays on track for its first national title since 1957.