Like any linebacker, Duke Riley wants to get the big hit. He wants to lay the wood, as some say. He wants to bring the heat, as others call it.
So when Missouri’s backup, run-heavy quarterback Marvin Zanders, entered the game a couple of weeks ago, LSU’s “rover” linebacker quickly diagnosed the play and predicted a big hit. He turned to LSU’s “mack” linebacker, Kendell Beckwith, just before the snap.
“We knew it was going to be the quarterback run,” Riley said. “Kendell looks at me and said, ‘QB run. Be ready. He’s going to go right or left.’ ”
Zanders ran left, and Beckwith walloped him just past the line of scrimmage. A run to the right, and Riley would have been positioned for the big hit.
“It was going to be me or (Kendell),” a smiling Riley said. “I’m glad he got it. Felt good to see.”
The big hits on LSU’s defense, such as this one, are nearly all rooted in the film room. Instead of reading and reacting, LSU defenders said they’re attacking in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s system. They’re diagnosing plays before the snap and smothering the competition — especially in the red zone.
LSU (3-2) enters Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game against Southern Miss (4-2) as one of the nation’s best teams in red zone defense. When opponents dip inside LSU's 20-yard line, they don’t often find the end zone.
Opponents have scored three touchdowns in 15 trips to the red zone against Aranda’s group. That 20-percent clip leads the nation, nudging ahead of No. 2 Ohio State (25 percent) and No. 1 Alabama (30.8 percent).
“It’s like your back is against the wall,” Beckwith said. “You don’t want to give up a touchdown. That’s the thing — not to give up a touchdown. … That’s our thing. It would be good to not give up field goals, but giving up a field goal is like winning for the defense.”
The Tigers have allowed five touchdowns through five games. That’s the fewest in the country.
They’re seventh in scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and 21st in total defense (326 yards per game). In LSU’s two losses, the defense allowed 16 and 18 points.
None of the offensive guys is too surprised. They rarely scored during spring practice and preseason camp against Aranda’s group.
“Just from the players we had last year coming back, I knew we were going to have a really good defense, but the different looks coach Aranda gives … he always puts them in a good position to make plays,” tight end Colin Jeter said. “In camp, they were hard to score on. They’re showing it in games now.”
All of the best stuff from Beckwith and his crew comes in the red zone.
Opponents have run 38 offensive snaps in the red zone and gained 89 yards, a 2.34-yard average. LSU opponents average 5.1 yards per play in those run between the 20s.
It’s a red zone mentality, players said.
“The goal is to give them nothing,” Riley said, “but if they get three (points), it’s way better than six or seven.”
The success goes beyond a collective desire. It goes to the film room with the Tigers’ first-year coordinator, a guy many coaches around the nation refer to as a defensive genius or a football whiz.
“We’re students of the game now,” Beckwith said. “Instead of just reading and reacting, we kind of have a feel for what the offense is going to do. We kind of know what’s coming. That really helps us out a lot. That comes from him in the film room.”
LSU’s film room this week likely included a heavy dose of the following: the zone read, power read option, speed sweep and wheel route. The Golden Eagles and their four-year starting quarterback, Nick Mullens, use those plays, the basis of an offense that averages 532 yards per game. That ranks seventh nationally.
Southern Miss has not faced a defense like this, though, certainly not one with so much success in the all-important red zone. The Tigers keep the opposition out of the end zone with the best of them, forcing a nation-high 10 field goals to teams that have reached the 20 or deeper.
Creating more turnovers will solve that problem. LSU’s turnover margin is zero; the Tigers have lost seven turnovers and forced seven turnovers.
Don’t worry, the players said: Turnovers will come with those big hits.
“I go for those,” Riley said. “I look for those.”
IN THE ZONE
LSU leads the Football Bowl Subdivision by allowing touchdowns on just 20 percent of their opponent’s trips to the red zone. Here are the top five teams:
Red Zone Trips