BATON ROUGE, La. — On the second day of September against BYU, the LSU defense pitched a perfect game.
Perfect might be an understatement. No points allowed. Negative rushing yards. Less than 3 yards per play and less than 100 yards of total offense. LSU made BYU look like a high school team on that Week 1 night. A bad high school team.
And on the last day of September? LSU was the team that got abused.
Troy — a Sun Belt Conference opponent — rushed for 206 yards and 2 touchdowns en route to a 24-21 upset win over LSU in Tiger Stadium. The last opponent to rush for 200 yards against LSU was Notre Dame in the 2014 Music City Bowl, and that includes games against rushing powerhouses like Louisville and Wisconsin.
So how does a team go from looking like the best defense in the country in Week 1 to getting dominated by the nation’s No. 58 rushing attack in Week 5? Well, the Tigers aren’t necessarily getting worse. They’re just not getting any better.
“We played a clean game against BYU,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said after the Troy loss. “We haven’t progressed the way we wanted to at this point in the season.”
Where’s the progress, LSU?
If you ask senior safety John Battle, LSU’s defense is stuck in the mud because that’s where its players have gotten comfortable.
“We get complacent,” Battle said. “Just having young guys get too comfortable and not understanding how the college game is every week.”
That said, the blame can’t be shouldered entirely on the young guys. Complacency isn’t something that happens, it’s something that is allowed to happen. And Battle said the veterans are at fault for allowing all players, young or old, to take the game for granted.
But there’s more to a bad defense than uneven expectations. Senior nose tackle Greg Gilmore said the team is struggling with gap integrity. Sophomore inside linebacker Devin White said the defense doesn’t have an identity, and in the absence of one, players are trying to do too much and aren’t focused on their individual assignments.
Add all that up and you have a defense unsure of itself, unaware of the stakes, going the wrong way. Sure, there are excuses. Orgeron acknowledged the losses of 2016 starters Jamal Adams, Tre’Davious White, Kendell Beckwith, Duke Riley and Davon Godchaux, all of whom are starting in the NFL. Battle admitted the defense is different when defensive linemen such as Rashard Lawrence and Ed Alexander are hurt and can’t help clog gaps against the run.
Still, excuses can always be refuted. To use Battle’s words: “Who cares? It’s next man up.” Excuses won’t get to the root of LSU’s defensive regression.
Film study might. Gilmore said he wants to sit down and rewatch the game before declaring everything that went wrong. Sometimes digesting a performance, he said, is the best way to learn from it.
Even then, there’s not much new to be learned. Defensive football can be reduced to a few simple constants. Beat your man. Fill your gap. Make your play. Read. Respond. React. It really is that easy.
Which is why White has such a hard time explaining what’s gone wrong.
“I can’t tell you. I ain’t a mad scientist of football,” White said. “But I just feel like if everybody wins their 1-on-1s and plays their heart out and know what they’re doing and sometimes even know what play is about to come before the play is even ran from watching film, I feel like we’ll be a whole lot better.”