Ed Orgeron didn’t believe he gave unearned praise this preseason when he said LSU’s defense was better than at any point of its 2019 championship run. Orgeron had seen tight coverage, heavy pass rush and turnovers, a combination that made him excited about LSU’s new defensive scheme.
So when asked Wednesday morning if he felt surprised by LSU’s defensive performance through three games, Orgeron said yes without hesitation.
“It's not the defense I saw all camp,” Orgeron said.
Instead of meeting Orgeron’s preseason expectations, LSU’s defense has allowed 32 points per game. It surrendered a Southeastern Conference-record 623 yards passing in the season opener. It permitted a redshirt freshman quarterback making his second career start to throw for 406 yards and four touchdowns. It left receivers open because of confusion and miscommunication, bearing the brunt of responsibility for LSU’s 1-2 start.
“It all goes back to communication,” senior defensive lineman Glen Logan said. “We're just not communicating well.”
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With LSU reeling and about to play its toughest opponent yet, Orgeron said he wanted to simplify the defense. He asked coordinator Bo Pelini to only call plays the Tigers clearly understood during practice. He hoped simple schemes would erase missed assignments and coverage busts against No. 10 Florida.
And then Wednesday afternoon, the SEC postponed the Florida game until Dec. 12 because of a coronavirus outbreak within the Gators’ program. The decision gave LSU extra time to improve its defense before the next game, now Oct. 24 at home against currently unranked South Carolina.
Though still an SEC program, South Carolina doesn’t present the same kind of challenge as Florida. The Gators own the No. 7 scoring offense in the country at 42.3 points per game. Led by quarterback Kyle Trask and tight end Kyle Pitts, Florida has averaged 342 yards passing per game. Its offense has relied on throwing the ball, and LSU has struggled in pass coverage.
South Carolina, on the other hand, has averaged 232.7 yards passing per game before it plays Auburn this weekend. The Gamecocks have scored 30.7 points per game — an average buoyed by a 41-7 win over Vanderbilt, one of the worst teams in the conference. They have thrown just three touchdowns.
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Now instead of traveling to Florida with a battered defense and injured quarterback, LSU has more time to fix its problems. The Tigers began preparing for South Carolina late this week, and they’ll rest for a day-and-a-half before returning to the facility Sunday night.
“In the past around this time after losing two games, the morale would be down,” Logan said Tuesday. “But now, we're more optimistic. We believe in each other.”
After its loss to Missouri, LSU identified errors in communication and technique while watching film. Orgeron thought LSU called too complicated concepts, which led to missed assignments and busts. On one second-half play, Orgeron said LSU dialed a blitz, but a miscommunication in the secondary left a receiver open downfield.
“That's on us,” Orgeron said. “That's on the coaching staff. We gotta make sure our guys know everything that we're going to do. If not, we're not going to run it.”
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Missouri — and Mississippi State before it — carved up LSU’s secondary, but the Tigers also struggled to stop the run last weekend, allowing 5.5 yards per carry. Missouri called a lot of counters, Orgeron said, and LSU’s defensive ends didn’t open enough space for the linebackers. Missouri running backs often went untouched until the second level.
In order to better stop the run and fix some of its other defensive mistakes, LSU planned to make some personnel changes this week. Orgeron didn’t specify them, other than hinting senior safety JaCoby Stevens’ role may change. Logan said LSU might’ve played three defensive tackles at once against Florida.
“I'm just looking for us to play LSU defense,” Orgeron said. “Be in the right spot. Put our face in the grass and make it hard for them to score instead of having people wide open down the field uncontested.”
LSU’s defense has not played well, but it has some positives to build on moving forward. The Tigers entered their unexpected open date plus-6 in turnover margin, which ranked third in the country. They’ve also averaged three per game sacks and created more pressure, just like Orgeron saw in camp.
But LSU has a lot to fix if the defense will meet Orgeron’s preseason expectations.
“I really think that we're beating ourselves,” Orgeron said. “I think when you look at the film, it's not the other team that beat us. We beat ourselves.”