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By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
We witnessed an improved showing from Coach Ed Orgeron's LSU Tigers throughout the Arkansas game, showing effort, desire, pursuit and far more energy than the team who embarrassed themselves vs Auburn...and this was a group which hadn't played for 3 weeks!
Although LSU's offense remained in ascension, last weekend's Arkansas game was all about Pelini's defense winning or losing the game for LSU...what was it gonna be???
Defensive Coordinator Bo Pelini had to mix it up to save his job and beat the Razorbacks...but has Pelini's unit turned a corner?
Micha Baskerville came in at MIC linebacker, replacing the disappointing Damone Clark and he only required a few plays to show the difference his speed would make; Whether completing tackles or not, Baskerville's effort / angles were smarter than Clark's and forced RB Trelon Smith wide continuously, holding the running back to 28 yards from 11 carries.
From March on, Bo Pelini wanted to start Micha Baskerville at MIC linebacker during pre-season...he routinely raved about Baskerville's brilliance within his system to the point his praise for Baskerville won over many media members or analysts.
Then, Damone Clark was named 2020 LSU's defensive #18, grabbing the team's endorsement...at least enough to ensure a starting spot. Due to Cox and Clark's fantastic off-field friendship, Pelini began viewing Clark as a MIC and that single error (alongside the positioning of Cordale Flott) has cost LSU dearly to the tune of 3 losses, allowing 44+ points, over 50 plays of 20+ yards (T Bob Hebert with the stat), ranking 111th in total defense and surrendering over 500 yards in each defeat.
Pelini corrected this error by starting Baskerville from the first play to last and sticking with the junior LSU veteran & national champion....but Baskerville'a presence still couldn't hide the Tigers' vulnerability at safety;
At the same time, B.J Ojulari's aggressive pass-rush was exposed by Felipe Franks breaking contain, Ojulari biting on the outside and losing Franks inside....much to Pelini's infinite disgust.
Regardless, the tough plays made by under-fire Tigers sealed victory, a TFL here or there from Stingley or Flott, Jay Ward's last minute and a half heroics, intense pressure from Stevens clocking Franks with a juicy hit and forced incompletion or Andre Anthony delivering on multiple 3rd down scenarios.
That kind of grit defined LSU's 27-24 win over Arkansas....do what you have to, scratch, claw, rip your way over the finish line.
After allowing Auburn's Bo Nix 381 total yards, including 81 on the ground where Nix is plowing through Jacoby Stevens from five yards out, uncharacteristically dragging LSU's hardnosed captain into the end zone, Jacoby has recovered and the #7 is taking better angles on the tackle, while Baskerville rampantly spilling the action wide into Ricks / Stingley's crisper tackling worked wonders throughout the first half.
Let's don't forget though...when Stingley / Ricks were on the field, Pelini's defense were damn near impossible to move the ball on.
LSU's defense refused to allow a 3rd down conversion all game, holding Sam Pittman's Razorbacks to a startling, surreal 0-10 record on 3rd down;
Jabril Cox's first half interception (his 2nd INT of the season) stole the momentum away from Arkansas and changed the trajectory of the game.
Once again, Cox stepped in front of a pass over the middle with remarkable athleticism, a carbon copy of his pick six vs Miss State...except this time, when Cox scored a touchdown, he didn't get the call.
Replacing the ejected Eli Ricks later in the game, CB Jay Ward stood up and was counted:
Despite playing vs Miss State only two weeks after an ankle surgery, Ward led either team with 3 passes defended on the day; after appearing little against Auburn, Jay Ward stepped into the second half, proceeded to allow a few big catches, the crap talk began on social media...before suddenly, he recovered and made two undeniable, brickhouse / powerhouse plays on Arkansas' final drive...each on 3rd and 4th down (first, Ward's ruthlessly timed hit on a receiver, savagely dislodging a completion. Then, Ward heroically dove and blocked A.J Reed's 44 yard field goal try on the next play).
Although LSU's pass defense now ranks 124th in the nation (actually regressing from 9.98 yards per attempt before the game to 10.4 following Franks' 14.0 per attempt), these Tigers finally showed a pulse.
Pelini's defense (in year one of his Mark II return) wasn't nearly as dominant nor as consistent as we'd expected throughout the off-season.....that's putting it mildly...this 2020 unit has been godawful, they've been lazy, they're NOT EVEN CLOSE....
We pictured 2019's 49-tackle machine Damone Clark, super freshmen Phillip Webb or Jacobian Guillory and 2019 semi-starter Mo Hampton breaking out alongside this typical cast of characters consuming opponents.
The thought of allowing such a ludicrous amount of yards, points and defeats to lowdown opposition can drive fans of great LSU defense into an apocalyptic meltdown of Giuliani proportions.
Before the Covid-caused transfers / opt outs of Marcel Brooks, Tyler Shelvin, Kary Vincent or T.K McLendon, Pelini's unit were looking at a dynastic return....they had infinite depth, a multitude of possibilities, 4-3, 3-4, it mattered not...there would be room for both Ika and Shelvin...Vincent Jr's sickening speed at free safety would allow Brooks and Stevens to make those instinctive plays...
Without those weapons to call upon, Pelini went back to the drawing board again and again to get the defense right...each time they re-installed a defense, new challenges arose, more limitations were identified and fewer personnel were available...
Bo has had a shoestring defense to work with, sure, although he's been guilty of failing to recognize obvious difference-makers on LSU's roster.
After 6 games, we haven't seen LB Devonta Lee, Josh White, Phillip Webb, Jacobian Guillory or even Jaquelin Roy (who was playing a bit more it felt).
Against Arkansas, Pelini deployed senior LB Ray Thornton who made a couple good plays and CB Dwight McGlothern finally made his long-awaited debut (2/2 targets, but #2 produced strong solo stops after both completions, tied with Jacoby Stevens and Jabril Cox for a team-leading 3 solo rsckles).
Back to the drawing board again for Bo as LSU's under-fire defense looks to recreate their 0% 3rd down shutout for a second straight week against 60% 3rd down converting-Texas A&M.
The #5 team in college football will want to stick it to LSU hard, though if the Tigers were to pull off the upset win here, you just feel it may collapse Jimbo.
BLACK LIVES MATTER
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2020 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC
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