Special thanks to Randy Rosetta of the New Orleans Times-Picayune/NOLA.com who provides a closer look at LSU in this week’s Q-and-A.
PA: Describe the talent lost from last year’s LSU defense and the adjustments that have been made there:
Rosetta: There was undoubtedly some major hemorrhaging after last season on that side of the ball when you talk about seven lost all starters, all who wound up on NFL rosters this fall and four guys who are making major contributions for their teams – Eric Reid, Barkevious Mingo, Tyrann Mathieu and Bennie Logan. Unfortunately for those of us who love college football, I fear last year was the arrival of a new trend where the best juniors are coming to college for three years and then bolting, a la college baseball. That said, it was going to require a major overhaul for LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, and as the early season results showed, there were some predictable growing pains. A bevy of first-time starters had to quickly transition from the mentality of being backups to front-liners and that meant playing more precise, assignment-correct football, tackling better and pursuing the ball. Eventually, Chavis and his assistants started mixing in several true freshmen and the blend you see now is those guys and the veterans who have adjusted best. The last six quarters have been a huge confidence boost (only three field goals allowed in that span) and the key has been improvement in being in the right place, sounder tackling and getting teams off the field on third down. Ole Miss is a much better offense than the last two teams, though, so this is a good test for the revived LSU defense.
PA: What’s been the difference between Zach Mettenberger this season and last?
Rosetta: The initial tendency is to heap all the credit on new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, and he certainly deserves a ton of it. He has come in with a no-nonsense approach and really sharpened Mettenberger’s fundamentals – stuff like footwork, pocket presence, quicker release. But the other guy who deserves a ton of credit, in my opinion, is Mettenberger himself. He’s been more mature in that he has clearly accepted and embraced coaching more than his first two seasons in Baton Rouge – perhaps a realization that as a senior, it was time to put u or shut up. The result of better technique and maturity has led to a much more confident quarterback, and one that Cameron and Les Miles have shown more confidence in than anyone since Matt Flynn in 2007. A tell-tale sign is the number of conversions on third-and-long this season. In years past, there was a predictable tendency to play it safe and let the defense clean things up. Now, third-and-however long isn’t a deterrent. Along with Cameron and Mettenberger, a huge key has been the emergence of junior receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham as arguably the best tandem of pass-catchers in the country. Right now, the LSU offense is a perfect storm coming together, mainly because of how well Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham are clicking.
PA: Who has best defended wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry this season?
Rosetta: Speaking of those two … That’s easy: Last week, the Florida cornerback tandem of Louchiez Purifoy and Vernon Hargreaves really hassled the two receivers last week in an entertaining subplot to LSU’s 17-6 victory. Both still made big plays to contribute to scoring drives, but it was tough sledding all day long. Both were held to season-lows – Landry with four catches for 58 yards and Beckham two for 47 – and Mettenberger was only 9-of-17 for 152 yards, also his season-low. But the receivers still chipped in as blockers as Jeremy Hill found some running room against the stingy Gators, which is an important sign of maturity for the offense. It’s hard to fathom any defense the rest of the way neutralizing LSU’s dynamic duo as well as the Gators were able to.
PA: Is there a large segment of LSU fans who believe RB Jeremy Hill should not be on the team, or does he have a pretty solid support base?
Rosetta: The issue has died down quite a bit through time and his dominance as a runner, but I think you’d still find a large segment of fans – especially older ones – who don’t think he should have been reinstated, or at least as quickly as he was. The younger crowd, especially his peers in school now might be a little more forgiving.
PA: Bo Wallace had a good game on the ground last year at LSU. What might John Chavis do to scheme against him this year?
Rosetta: Like many defenses, the read option, when run effectively, has been a thorn in the Tigers’ side ever since Houston Nutt and Gus Malzahn unearthed the ‘wild hog’ six seasons ago. Chavis has been around enough to come up with schemes that slow it down at times, but teams have still been able to gouge the Tigers from time to time, most recently Mississippi State with Dak Prescott a few weeks back. A couple of keys come into play here: If LSU can focus on a one-quarterback attack, I think that takes away from the read option a bit because Hugh Freeze is wise enough to know that a few hard hits too many on Wallace could change the complexion of the game pretty dramatically. And the fact that Chavis has seen Freeze’s offense and Wallace gives him a baseline to build from, so I would imagine there will be a different plan this week – perhaps a linebacker or safety operating as a full-time spy (although Chavis, like most prideful DCs would never call it that) or more run blitzing than LSU usually deploys, especially with a kid named Micah Eugene who was a demon in that role last week. Not having Jeff Scott also affects this one, I think, because LSU can shift more focus to Wallace and the threat he poses.
PA: What was Les Miles’ hammer and nail rant all about last week?
Rosetta: It was in response to a partial question from our columnist, Jeff Duncan, who was actually trying to get Les to talk about how better the Tigers were physically better against Florida last week after the Gators clearly won that battle the year before in a 14-6 victory in the Swamp. Much like the postgame tirade following the Ole Miss game last season, Miles got himself riled up and provided the media with some pure gold. At the heart of his rant was Miles’ belief that you respect every opponent and that in the SEC every week is a knockdown drag out – nobody is more physical than anybody else, but instead both teams are going to leave it all out on the field. That’s part his Michigan background under Bo Schembechler, part being an old offensive lineman, part having been an NFL assistant coach and a lot of why Miles’ players love to play for him. He never sits idly when his players’ toughness is questioned and last week was a perfect example of that.