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The LSU Defense: Conjuring the Demons of the 1998 Season

The 2023 LSU Tigers possess a championship-caliber offense and a participation trophy-caliber defense. Custer had a better defense during his Last Stand. It is like the ghost of Lou Tepper is shouting out coverage assignments from his 1998 playbook to a Tiger defense that seems lost with a 1,000-yard stare in their eyes.

This week marks the midway point of the regular season and LSU already has two losses- to #8 Florida State in week one and on Saturday night in Oxford against #20 Ole Miss. In both losses, the Tigers and their high-octane offense took the lead only to lose it and eventually the game because their defense could not hold up their end of the bargain.

Against the Seminoles, LSU led 17-14 at halftime. When the teams took the field after intermission, Florida State took out their tomahawks and sliced and diced the LSU defense. The Seminoles outscored the Tigers 31-7 in the 2nd half on their way to a 45-24 victory.

Two things stood out in that game. First, the Tigers put zero pressure on FSU QB Jordan Travis. LSU recorded zero sacks that night, so Travis was able to pick apart the Tigers' secondary. Second, the Tigers gave up long pass plays of 41 yards, 44 yards, and 41 yards. LSU could not cover and could not tackle Florida State WR Keon Coleman, who turned in a spectacular performance: nine catches, 122 yards, and three touchdowns.

On Saturday night vs. Ole Miss, it was a shootout for the ages. Both teams combined for 59 points…in the first half, as the Rebels took a 31-28 lead into the locker room at halftime. LSU was also outscored 21-7 in the 4th quarter and was forced to try to throw to the endzone on the final play and pray for a miracle. The pass went through the hands of WR Chris Hilton and was incomplete. The fans stormed the field in celebration of the 55-49 win by the home team.

LSU gave up 706 yards of total offense to Ole Miss.

But the Tigers should not have been in that situation to begin with. Their defense faltered down the stretch, again. LSU gave up long pass plays of 56 and 63 yards, as well as a 43-yard run.

In addition, Ole Miss RB Quinshon Judkins decided to show up and have his best game of the season so far by rushing for 177 yards and a touchdown. In his four previous games, Judkins had failed to rush for more than 75 yards in a game.

And once again, no pressure on the quarterback as LSU recorded zero sacks against Ole Miss.

The bulk of the tackles for the Tigers' defense against the Rebels came from the second and third levels. Safeties Andre Sam and Major Burns led the team with 14 and 11 tackles, respectively. Also in the mix were linebackers Greg Penn III (10 tackles), Harold Perkins (9 tackles), and Whit Weeks (9 tackles). DL Maason Smith and DL Mekhi Wingo had 2 and 3 tackles, respectively.

In the preseason, I mentioned repeatedly how important it was that LSU had coaching continuity on their staff and that they retained both of their coordinators in year 2 under head coach Brian Kelly. Combine that with the starters returning from last year, including Smith, Wingo (a 2022 All-American), and Perkins, and the Tigers had all the makings of a dominant defense under defensive coordinator Matt House.

But through five games, that dominance has not come to fruition. In all defensive categories, LSU ranks as follows:

· 117th in Total Defense @ 429 yards/game.

· 110th in Pass Defense @ 260 yards/game.

· 104th in Rushing Defense @ 169 yards/game.

· 108th in Scoring Defense @ 31 points/game.

· 85th in Sacks with 9.

· 77th in Tackles for Loss with 27

· 60th in INTs with 4.

· 120th in Opponents 3rd Down Conversions= 47%

· 105th in Opponents Red Zone Defense= 66%

Against the run, LSU has allowed 300 more yards and three more touchdowns than they did through five games last season. And against the pass, they are +378 passing yards and +8 in TDs.

That simply will not cut it. Obviously, the defense and the coaches need to step up, make some adjustments, and play like the dominant LSU defenses of the past.

To that end, it has been reported that LSU is calling defensive guru and legendary coach Pete Jenkins out of retirement to make him a defensive analyst. As such, Jenkins will be allowed to teach technique on the practice field based on a recent change to NCAA rules. This will be Jenkins’s fourth time coaching with the Tigers.

The remaining schedule does not get any easier, but five of the next seven games take place in Tiger Stadium. LSU will face off against Missouri on Saturday in Columbia, MO. Mizzou is undefeated (5-0) and is ranked #22 in this week’s Top 25 poll.

Missouri has a potent offense of its own led by QB Brady Cook, who has thrown 11 touchdown passes and zero INTs. Cook is the only SEC quarterback this season with zero INTs (with a minimum of 100 pass attempts). In fact, Cook set an SEC record against Vanderbilt on Saturday with 326 consecutive pass attempts without an INT.

Cook’s primary target is WR Luther Burden III, who has hauled in 43 passes for 644 yards and five touchdowns. Burden leads the SEC with 128 receiving yards per game. Burden has gained 100+ yards receiving in each of his last four games and has collected double-digit catches in each of his last two contests. A depleted LSU secondary will certainly be tested.

If this isn’t the worst LSU defense in a quarter-century, they are in the group photo. And the poltergeist of 1998 (4-7 record, the defense ranked near the bottom of the NCAA stats) needs to be exorcised from the LSU sideline, or the Nightmare on North Stadium Drive will continue.


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