LSU Vanderbilt Football

LSU's Jontre Kirklin (13) Racey McMath (17) celebrate after Kirklin scored a touchdown against Vanderbilt.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The LSU defense used to be "on punishment."

That's the phrase safety JaCoby Stevens used. Think of it as a sort of probationary period, which the 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior placed on himself and his teammates after what he called an "embarrassing" performance in a Week 1 loss to Mississippi State.

After surrendering a Southeastern Conference record 623 passing yards to the Bulldogs Air Raid attack, Stevens didn't allow his defensive teammates to watch any football other than Vanderbilt game film. No Monday Night Football. Nothing else.

"It worked out," Stevens said Saturday night. "Look how we played."

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No. 20 LSU (1-1) righted its season in a 41-7 win over Vanderbilt (0-2), and a troubled Tigers secondary held Commodores quarterback Ken Seals to 113 yards passing and forced two interceptions.

Both interceptions happened in the fourth quarter, sealing a victory that was already well out of hand. Junior safety Todd Harris picked off Seals in the end zone on a second-and-goal attempt, and his 21-yard return set up LSU's final touchdown.

It was Harris' first interception since the 2018 season, a notable play for the Plaquemine High graduate who missed most of LSU's national championship season last year after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Northwestern State.

True freshman cornerback Eli Ricks, who was among the young defensive backs who struggled against Mississippi State, snagged a jump ball interception near midfield on Vanderbilt's final possession.

The leaping grab was similar to Ricks' interception against Mississippi State last week, and the former five-star freshman from California is now tied second nationally with two interceptions.

Not everyone acknowledges the first. When Ricks returned to the sideline, Stevens said he told the young defensive back: "This interception counts." The first one, Stevens said, "didn't count because of how bad we played."

Another one of those sanctions when your defense is "on punishment."

"So we can congratulate Elias Ricks on his first career interception," Stevens said.

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The command in the secondary provided some vindication for defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, whose base 4-3 scheme took a beating in its debut.

Vanderbilt's pro spread offense under former Louisiana Tech offensive coordinator Todd Fitch isn't as lethal as Mike Leach's Air Raid, but LSU's defensive backs won most of their one-on-one battles throughout.

The return of All-American cornerback Derek Stingley certainly helped. The Tigers were left with young, inexperienced and recently hurt defensive backs when the star sophomore missed the season opener after spending the night in the hospital because of an allergic reaction.

"Derek's the best corner in the nation," Stevens said. "So guys, they think twice about throwing the ball his way. And that hesitation gives our front four time to get there. And our front four played lights out."

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Pelini's pass rush, one of the few bright spots in Week 1, continued to live up to LSU coach Ed Orgeron's promise that Pelini's new four-man front would cause more havoc this season.

Seven defenders have collected LSU's eight sacks this season, a four-sack-per-game average that's tied for eighth nationally. Defensive ends Andre Anthony, Travez Moore and nose tackle Siaki "Apu" Ika each picked up their first against Vanderbilt, and edge rushers Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari harassed Seals for most of the night.

Gaye provoked plenty of first-half pressure, often beating his blocker on the way to rushing Seals into throws. Ojulari's hit on Seals forced his fourth-quarter interception on the goal line.

A consistent swarm of oncoming defenders can force opposing quarterbacks into making mistakes.

"They're quick with their decision-making," Stevens said, "and sometimes they throw right into the coverage if we disguise it. Or if we just shut the receiver down, they throw it right to us."

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Vanderbilt had more success with its run game in the first half. The Commodores cut through LSU's front seven with a steady array of stretch runs and misdirections, and, by halftime, the team had 105 yards rushing and was averaging 4.6 yards per carry.

The Tigers only allowed 56 yards rushing in the second half, and LSU coach Ed Orgeron credited Pelini and his defensive coaches for making necessary adjustments — a point of criticism last week when LSU stuck with a tight press coverage against Mississippi State for most of the game.

In the first half, LSU defenders were often either out of position or overplayed the run. Orgeron said they didn't blitz as much in the second half and stuck with a four-man defensive line and placed more defenders in the box to stop the run.

"You know, just stay in your gap," Orgeron said. "We had guys getting cut out of the gap. Guys jumping inside. Do your job. And we challenged our guys just to settle down and just do their job."

The LSU defense held its opponent to single-digit scoring for the first time since the Tigers blasted Texas A&M 50-7 in its home finale last year. That win in 2019 kickstarted a defensive revival in a three-game postseason run that included 16 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three interceptions.

Stevens called the Vanderbilt performance a "confidence-booster" as the Tigers prepare for its second SEC home game against Missouri (0-2) at Tiger Stadium 8 p.m. Saturday.

And don't think the safety is about to let his teammates watch other football games again just yet.

"We might be on punishment this week on just how well we played," Stevens said.

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.