- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For all the headlines generated by quarterback battles and freshman superstars, one thing seems abundantly clear about Saturday’s showdown between No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Wisconsin. The team whose defensive front seven has the more effective outing will probably be the victor.
Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.
“We have a young front, they have a young front, so both defenses in general, they’re definitely going to be targeted in this game,” LSU tight end Logan Stokes said. “We’re going to do our best to get after that D-line, and they’re going to do it to us, too. So yeah, both defenses are going to be pressured. Defensive line-wise, it’s going to be a measuring stick for both of them.”
Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.
And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.
The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.
“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”
The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.
That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.
“It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”
Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.
The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.
“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”
And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.
“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”