STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State ran onto the field on Saturday afternoon underneath columns of fire and behind a coach who waved his arms for crowd noise. The Bulldogs wanted to upset No. 2 LSU, and during their first offensive possession, they needed one yard for a first down.
On third down, safety Grant Delpit burst through the line of scrimmage. He pulled down Kylin Hill before the running back could gain a yard. Mississippi State kept its offense on the field with the ball at its own 45-yard line. On fourth down, safety JaCoby Stevens tackled quarterback Garrett Shrader at the line of scrimmage, forcing a turnover on downs.
At that moment and through the rest of LSU’s 36-13 win inside Davis Wade Stadium, Delpit and Stevens put together one of their most complete games as LSU’s starting safeties. Delpit led the team in tackles. Stevens pulled down a crucial interception.
“Us as a tandem,” Delpit said, “we're pretty dangerous.”
Two years ago, Delpit and Stevens enrolled at LSU on the same day, two highly rated recruits at the same position who didn’t avoid competition. Delpit emerged as a starter his freshman year, then a finalist for the Nagurski Award. Stevens searched for a position and was a starter by the end of last season.
When they began their junior years, Delpit underperformed after a summer of praise and high expectations. Stevens heard criticism of his coverage ability. But against Mississippi State, Delpit and Stevens anchored a defense that allowed 340 yards — 90 with backups playing on the final drive.
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Stevens, who started the last four games of his sophomore year, showed improved coverage skills. Delpit, whose performance lagged early this season, resembled the player coach Ed Orgeron called “the best returning defensive player in the country” this summer.
“You catch your rhythm, and you figure out how the other one plays,” said Stevens, who made eight tackles. “We're feeding off each other.”
Earlier this season, Delpit criticized himself. Stevens said he “was very hard on himself.” Delpit realized he had played too aggressive, trying to force highlights and match his All-American sophomore year. Orgeron thought he tried to overcompensate for nagging shoulder pain. He had missed too many tackles.
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“He wants to make the big play,” Stevens said earlier this week. “Sometimes when you do that, you overthink and simple plays become complicated.”
Delpit improved after LSU’s open date. He let plays come to him. He intercepted his first pass of the season. Then he made eight tackles against Florida. Often positioned along the line of scrimmage against Mississippi State, Delpit finished with 11 tackles. His instincts took over.
“He's playing free right now,” Orgeron said, “and he's playing the type of ball he can play.”
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With Delpit around the line of scrimmage, LSU relied on Stevens and nickel safety Kary Vincent in man coverage. Stevens heard criticism of his coverage abilities earlier this season. The chatter motivated him. He worked on pass coverage, the one hole in his versatile skill set.
Coming into the game, Stevens thought teams had been trying to expose him. Mississippi State tried, too. Late in the second quarter, with LSU leading 15-7, Stevens gathered a one-handed interception, his second of the year. LSU scored on its next possession.
“A lot of people look at my size and automatically assume I can't cover worth anything,” Stevens said. “This season, I'm showing them I can.”
Together, Delpit and Stevens roamed the field as LSU held Mississippi State to seven points until the final minute of the fourth quarter. They disrupted the quarterback — Stevens recorded one sack and Delpit notched a quarterback hurry — as they combined for 19 tackles.
Delpit and Stevens came to LSU together. They took three seasons to reach this point, both starters on a team aiming for a championship, but as LSU approaches two of its toughest games of the season, they have begun to match their personal expectations.
“In my head, we were always the best safety duo in the country,” Stevens said. “Today, we finally put a good game together.”