The LSU offense has been the talk of the offseason.
More than talk, really. It has dominated conversations from sports radio shows to barstools to kitchen tables throughout Louisiana. It has been analyzed, critiqued, dissected, picked apart, subjected to forensic analysis and, in Waffle House parlance (where they’re talking about the Tigers, too) scattered, smothered, covered and chunked.
The LSU offense is now a collaboration of incumbent offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and wunderkind passing game coordinator Joe Brady. Whatever it turns out to be, it has sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Even all the rooms in LSU’s state-of-the-art remodeled football operations complex, which, for all I know, has an oxygen bar in it.
Save a little oxygen for the LSU defense, though.
It’s going to need it.
Yes, LSU fans and critics have clamored for years about the need for the Tigers’ offensive attack to finally join the 21st century. And rightly so.
But don’t forget that when it comes to a faster, quick-strike offense, Newton’s Third Law of motion applies: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
If the Tigers' run-pass option spread offense is indeed able to gin up more plays and points and yards, starting at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Georgia Southern, chances are it will mean more plays and points and yards allowed by the LSU defense.
Breiden Fehoko has lived that drill in a previous football life. Before transferring to LSU in 2017, the defensive end from Honolulu played two seasons at Texas Tech. Point-a-minute-defense Texas Tech.
When he played for the Red Raiders in 2016, their Patrick Mahomes-led offense led the nation in total offense (564.5 yards per game) and passing offense (463.0 yards per game). But Tech’s defense wasn’t up to the same standard. The Red Raiders were raided for 554.3 yards (125th nationally) and dead last among 128 FBS teams in scoring defense, allowing 43.5 points per game. Talent had something to do with that, but so did the flashy offense.
“Just as much as they’re on the field, your defense is on the field,” Fehoko said.
If an unintended consequence of a more prolific offense is that LSU’s defense starts playing on roller skates because it's on the field so much, that is not something that is likely to sit well with the local gentry for very long.
Care for a 50-43 score every week, LSU fans? I thought not.
That’s because defense has always been the foundation of LSU football tradition. Billy Cannon’s 89-yard punt return in 1959 might be LSU’s signature play, and it might have won him the school’s only Heisman Trophy. But it would have been a mere footnote and Cannon may never have won the Heisman were it not for his and Warren Rabb’s goal-line stop of Ole Miss quarterback Doug Elmore in the waning seconds to preserve a 7-3 victory.
LSU is home of the Chinese Bandits. LSU is jealously protective of its moniker as DBU.
Cannon aside — who played both ways, because of the substitution rules of his day — LSU’s two most decorated players were from its defense. There was three-time All-American cornerback Tommy Casanova (he, too, dabbled in a little offense and returned kicks) and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, who won just about every major defensive award while helping the Tigers to the 2007 national championship.
In a general sense, playing defense has grown tougher in college football year after year. From 1937-2010, only two teams — Kansas State in 1995 (250.8) and LSU in 2003 (252.0) — led the nation despite allowing more than 250 yards per game. Since 2011, every FBS total defense champion has allowed 250 yards or more (Mississippi State’s 263.1 yards per game allowed in 2018 were the highest ever).
More importantly, scoring defense has also soared. LSU led the nation in scoring defense twice, in 1960 (a quaint 5.0 points per game allowed) and 2003 (11.0). Since 2013, the FBS scoring defense champ has allowed 11.9 points or more per game, with Clemson leading with 13.1 points allowed last season.
LSU defensive stars like Fehoko and cornerback Kristian Fulton insist the Tigers have the depth and talent to deal with the pressures of what awaits them this season.
“We have good depth, I believe, at each position,” Fulton said. “If it’s a fast-paced game, if it comes to that, I believe we have enough guys to sub in and sub out. I don’t think it will be a problem for us.”
With the knowledge that teams are naturally going to give up more points and yards than in the past, the mantra for modern defenses is negative plays.
To that end, LSU was in good shape last season. The Tigers led the Southeastern Conference and ranked 11th nationally with 17 interceptions, were second in the SEC and 16th nationally in turnovers gained (25), and first in the conference and seventh overall in turnover margin at plus-0.92.
“Everyone talks about the offense controlling tempo,” Fehoko said, “but the defense can control it just as much. When you face an up tempo team on first-and-10 and you get a negative play off the bat and now it’s second-and-12, now they’re not going at the rhythm they want to. They’re saying, ‘OK, we don’t want another negative play. The last thing we want is for it to be third-and-18.’
“As a defense you always want to go into a game saying you want to get negative plays.”
Get off the field. Get the ball back to the offense. Defend the tradition.
For LSU’s defense in 2019, it will be a lot to live up to.