Can LSU protect ranking, Mettenberger?

September, 30, 2012
9/30/12
10:41
AM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Few would say LSU's defensive line, considered by many to be the nation's best, has been disappointing this season.

[+] EnlargeVadal Alexander
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comLSU true freshman Vadal Alexander made his first start at right tackle.
The LSU defensive front, led by relentless end Sam Montgomery and fast-emerging tackle Anthony Johnson, has led a defense that has an eye-popping 41 tackles for loss, including 11 sacks.

Can't complain about that if you're a Tigers fan.

What it does do, however, is provide context for perhaps the biggest trouble spot on LSU's team: pass protection.

For as much heat as LSU's vaunted defensive line has put on opposing quarterbacks, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has felt just as much pressure when the Tigers have the ball. Facing defensive fronts not nearly as highly regarded as his own, the junior quarterback has been sacked 11 times this season, exactly the same number of sacks as LSU's defense has produced.

Four of the sacks came from Towson, LSU's FCS opponent that gave the Tigers more than they bargained for in a 38-22 LSU win Saturday in what was supposed to be a light tuneup before the Tigers faced a brutal stretch of possibly five straight games against ranked opponents starting Saturday when they face No. 11 Florida in the Swamp. LSU, working with a new look on the offensive line that included the first start at right tackle for true freshman Vadal Alexander, gave up six plays for negative yards.

"We'll watch the film on Monday, but I'm sure most of it was miscommunicating, technique, things that can be fixed," said Alex Hurst, normally the right tackle who got his first start at left tackle.

Certainly, not all the pass protection was the fault of the offensive line. Towson cornerback Tye Smith had two sacks for Towson on blitzes, both on plays where Miles said running backs needed to pick them up. On one, Mettenberger took a big hit from Smith who came unblocked from his blind side, bringing up memories of the big hit Mettenberger took on a similar blitz in the season opener against North Texas, temporarily knocking him out of the game.

On the other, Mettenberger fumbled for the third time in two weeks, twice on sacks. On the play, Mettenberger rolled to his left from the pressure he felt coming off the edge, but was stripped by Smith as he turned to throw the ball.

"I think for the most part, protection was pretty decent inside," LSU coach Les Miles said. "The problem with it was, we had a bust that I remember [on Smith's blitz] and that's probably the one we can fix the easiest."

In other cases, the line did get beat as Mettenberger felt pressure from both sides, evidence that LSU is struggling finding a combination that will work up front since losing left tackle Chris Faulk, arguably LSU's best offensive lineman, to a knee injury after the season's first game.

After Faulk went down, LSU went with sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, a former starter at left guard, at left tackle for three games. But Dworaczyk, though uninjured, did not play against Towson after giving up two sacks to Auburn star Corey Lemonier last week. Instead, Alexander started and Hurst moved to the left side.

"It was different, but something I'll get used to," Hurst said. "I just have to keep working at it."

Because he'll keep starting? That part is unclear.

After the Towson game, Miles sent mixed messages that suggested the LSU might stick with Alexander as a starter going forward, or might go back to Dworaczyk at left tackle and Hurst at his more familiar right tackle spot.

"We are playing some young guys," Miles said. "It's important that we play these young guys because they have to grow up. We are going to play them the rest of the year."

Asked if he would stick with Hurst on the left side and Alexander at right tackle, Miles said, "Yeah, I kind of like that. I have to watch film and see."

Asked about Dworaczyk, Miles then said he could have played, but he felt it was good to rest Dworaczyk, who's coming off a knee injury that sidelined him for the 2011 season.

"We're getting him some rest to get him ready for the push," Miles said.

Mettenberger got more time to throw late and ended up throwing for a career-high 238 yards on 15-for-26 passing, including two touchdowns.

Towson wasn't sold.

"We knew that was their weakness," said Towson defensive end Frank Beltre. "They couldn't pass. So that's what we attacked."

Eventually, Mettenberger did pass good enough to beat Towson.

Will he be given the time to do it against the meat of the SEC schedule?

LSU has one week to try to resolve an issue that it hasn't figured out in the season's first five games.

Gary Laney | email

Reporter, GeauxTigerNation

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