Almost a year has passed, and BJ Ojulari still thinks about the loss. He was a freshman beginning to crack the rotation at the time, and in his first college game, LSU allowed 623 passing yards — a Southeastern Conference record — in its season opener against Mississippi State.

The game exposed defensive flaws that lingered throughout the 2020 season. As opposing teams peppered them with crossing routes, the Tigers struggled to communicate, leading to missed assignments and coverage busts. They finished with the worst pass defense in the FBS.

So as LSU prepares for Mississippi State again, Ojulari has pondered what went wrong a year ago and what his team must do to prevent a similar outcome this weekend.

“I definitely think about it, think about last year,” said Ojulari, now a sophomore defensive end who leads the country in sacks. “We're going to come out this week and focus on getting the win on Saturday.”

The timing of LSU’s rematch with Mississippi State makes the game as much about whether or not the defense has improved as anything else. The Tigers struggled with similar concepts three weeks ago against UCLA, and though they played better against two overmatched opponents, they haven’t proved the issues that plagued them last season have been fixed enough to compete in the SEC.

The last time these teams played, Mississippi State debuted its Air Raid offense under new coach Mike Leach as LSU returned to a 4-3 defensive scheme under then-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. The Bulldogs exploited a secondary playing without star cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. by using crossing routes and winning one-on-one match-ups.

LSU had a defense so thin at cornerback Jay Ward had to play two weeks after undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus. Pelini implemented man coverage throughout the game and never adjusted. The defensive backs couldn’t keep up with Mississippi State’s wide receivers. Players missed wheel routes. Cornerbacks lost at the line of scrimmage.

“It was embarrassing,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “I was embarrassed as a coach, and I take full responsibility.”

Orgeron changed coordinators during the offseason, hiring Daronte Jones along with two other defensive coaches. He wanted a simplified version of the 4-3 scheme that let LSU’s players attack. He hoped for no more missed assignments and busts. Jones, a first-time coordinator, focused on improving communication.

But in its first game, LSU’s defense struggled against UCLA. Ward, now a safety, left the game after the Bruins punted on three straight possessions, and UCLA scored its first touchdown on a crossing route. It later scored on another crossing route.

LSU beat its next two opponents with a stifling pass rush, but last weekend, Central Michigan scored its first touchdown on a busted coverage.

LSU used zone on the play. As running back Marion Lukes leaked into the flat, Stingley moved up to cover him. Sophomore Major Burns, the safety on that side, rolled to the middle of the field. His head pointed toward the tight end running down the seam, even though safety Cam Lewis was in the area.

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Burns never saw JaCorey Sullivan’s route.

“We just had a communication problem,” Stingley said, “but it’s going to be fixed.”

Statistically, LSU’s defense has played better than it did last season. Through three games, the group has allowed an average of 193 passing yards per game. The last two opponents scored a combined three offensive touchdowns.

But McNeese State and Central Michigan won’t pose the same challenge as another SEC team.

“As a defense, I think we're better,” Ojulari said. “We communicate better. The back half communicates better. Everybody's going to be on the same page, and going into practice today, I know they're going to emphasize communication on the routes, communication on blocks and overall the defense being on the same page.”

Mississippi State’s offense operates the same way in Leach’s second year. The Bulldogs run crossing routes, wheel routes and pick routes. They average 361 passing yards per game, the seventh-most in the country. They have rushed for a total of 136 yards through three games. So Leach will try to attack LSU’s secondary.

“They’re very fundamental,” Leach said. “They like the combination of man and various shell zones. They’re a four-man front. They don’t mess with three-man front a lot. Very basic. Very basic and committed to what they do. Sometimes those type of defenses are the most dangerous.”

Orgeron said LSU’s coaches have looked at Mississippi State film since the loss last season. They don’t want to see wide receivers running uncovered once again, so Orgeron said LSU’s players will need to know the down and distance, communicate and understand their assignments on every play.

Stingley and sophomore Eli Ricks have developed into one of the best cornerback tandems in the country. Ward should return after a two-game absence. The personnel seems more equipped to defend the Air Raid, but Orgeron knows LSU didn’t play well against UCLA. He emphasized LSU has to improve.

“We still have some missed assignments,” Orgeron said. “We still have some busts. Crossing routes have given us a problem. We still have some guys (running) loose in coverage. Those things need to be fixed and fixed in a hurry, because I know they’re going to find it.

“So, do I believe we’re going to play well? Yes. Do I believe we’re going to get better? Yes. But we still have a lot of things to fix.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com

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