BATON ROUGE, La. -- When LSU’s defense brilliantly contained Johnny Manziel in a 24-19 win over Texas A&M on Oct. 20, the young Tigers secondary had never looked better.
With an effort to keep the dynamic freshman out of his comfort zone after he got off to a quick start, LSU employed the strategy of keeping him in the pocket as opposed to trying an all-out rush to get to the elusive young star.
It gave Manziel time to throw, but he often simply could not find receivers because the Tigers perfectly executed the coverage downfield.
At the time, the secondary -- which only has one starter back from last season and employs two freshmen among its top five players -- looked all grown up.
Not so much any more.
After giving up a game-winning drive in a two-minute drill by Alabama two weeks ago, LSU’s secondary was battered for 295 yards passing by Mississippi State’s Tyler Russell during Saturday’s 37-17 win over the Bulldogs.
The final score was deceivingly lopsided. When LSU’s Craig Loston intercepted a Russell pass and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown to ice the game with 1:13 left, he stymied a Bulldogs effort to be the fourth team to drive the field to either win a game (Alabama) or pull within a touchdown (South Carolina and Texas A&M) in the final two minutes of a game.
Russell was 26-for-38 on the night, keeping the MSU offense in a game where LSU smothered the run. Often, Russell had time to throw and when he did, he found open receivers.
“Frankly, it’s something we’re going to work on,” LSU coach Les Miles said Monday of the more-leaky-than-normal pass coverage. “It’s a couple of pieces that certainly the defensive coaches are going to give practice time to.
“But they’re still first in the conference in pass defense, so it just goes to show you how capable this conference is.”
Indeed, LSU is giving up just 165.7 yards per game, best in the league.
But in the last three games, the yardage is up to 244.7 per game. To be fair, the Tigers have seen the challenges for their pass defense get tougher and they will continue to be tough.
After the Tigers’ light September nonconference run, they started SEC play with two of the league’s most anemic passing offenses: Auburn and Florida. They also faced South Carolina’s Connor Shaw at a time when Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier seemed bent on emphasizing the run.
Things have changed. Lately, they’ve run into Manziel and Alabama’s AJ McCarron, the two players in the league who have had turns as the SEC’s primary Heisman Trophy candidates. Last week, it was Russell, ranked No. 5 among the league's passers.
So it makes sense that the pass defense has given up bigger numbers. That doesn’t mean LSU has played perfectly.
Start with the missed assignment on T.J. Yeldon's 28-yard screen pass from McCarron for Alabama’s game-winning touchdown, and a series of, yes, youthful mistakes by the Tigers' defensive backs is obvious.
On Yeldon’s score, an LSU defensive back blitzed when the situation called for him to stay with Yeldon coming out of the backfield. The blown assignment left Yeldon wide open.
It was the most obvious, but far from the only mistake, by the D-backs.
“It’s just mistakes we’re making in crucial parts of a game,” LSU safety Eric Reid said. “We just have to tighten our coverage, stay focused.”
Reid said the mistakes were often subtle. It’s not usually the huge mistakes, like receivers left uncovered. It’s often little things like a poor technique used against an otherwise a properly covered receiver.
It’s not, Miles said, from a lack of understanding of the coverages.
“The good news is, the technique and the technical ability is all there,” Miles said. “We just need to make sure we recognize our responsibilities and if we play those responsibilities technically, we’ll be fine.
“Again, it’s not a foreign concept to our guys. It doesn’t appear to be a very drastic connection.”
Corrections that, however, do need to be made. Ole Miss comes to town Saturday with an offense that has improved drastically this year behind the passing of quarterback Bo Wallace. Next week, it’s on to Tyler Wilson and Arkansas’ passing offense.
If LSU wins out and, through some minor miracle, Auburn beats Alabama, the Tigers would find themselves in the SEC championship game against Aaron Murray and Georgia.
Regardless, the days of run-first offenses are done for this season.
After the win over Mississippi State, Miles playfully asked reporters how many penalty yards the Tigers had. The coach, who had taken some heat for his team’s recurring penalty issues earlier in the season, knew well that they didn’t have many.
When he was told they had a season-low 20 penalty yards on just two flags, he said, “See, we improved.”
And they have, as have their previously suspect passing game and the patchwork offensive line. Give Miles credit: When problems arise, they do get addressed.
Now it’s the secondary that might need tweaking.