Last Modified: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 10:15 AM
If it please the court, the question before the fandom shouldn’t be whether the LSU defense can lose eight starters to the NFL and hope to be half as good as it was last year?
The question should be whether the reloaded Tigers can maybe be a little better on defense?
They kind of need to be — particularly at game’s end.
Or season’s end.
You know how the Tigers let Alabama slip out of Tiger Stadium with that last-gasp drive. And the Peach Bowl collapse to Clemson should have given every one of them incentive for the offseason.
By then, however, the Tigers’ defense was almost living off their reputation.
Before that bowl game Clemson coach Dabo Swinney winced at length about the frightful Tiger defenders and acted like his poor lads were about to be tossed into the Roman Coliseum in front of horrified parents.
It was an easy story line. You think LSU, you think defense.
And you blame any shortcomings on a (choose your blandest adjective) offense.
The numbers told a different story.
Did Swinney not notice that in the previous two games LSU’s defense gave up 463 yards to Ole Miss (OK, admittedly a pretty good offense) and was coming in after giving up 462 yards to Arkansas (an awfully inept offense that didn’t really scare anybody else)?
The 331 yards that LSU held Alabama to (though not when it counted) was the fewest LSU allowed over the final six games of the season. Pedestrian Mississippi State got 351 of its own the very next week.
Mostly, if LSU is going to continue to be a feared defensive name, it needs to look at, as Les Miles would say, “the back end” of games.
It can’t be as simple as the just the prevent defense rearing its head again.
The catch-phrase among LSU coaches on both sides of the ball Sunday at media day was the “four-minute game.”
“Four-minute is kind of a sore spot with me right now,” Miles said. “I want to practice it significantly in the next few weeks.
I gather he means closing out games.
“If we (had been) good at it (last year), we win two more games,” he said.
New offensive guru Cam Cameron talked about his play-calling being affected not just by what defenses are doing, but by the flow of the game.
In the Alabama and Clemson losses, the Tigers were an offensive first down away from being able to finish the game by taking a knee.
But the defense, given the last chance to “secure victory,” as Miles says, also promptly collapsed with the game on the line.
Who do you blame?
If I heard Miles correctly, they don’t look at it that way as a team. It’s not defense vs. offense. They see them as one unit trying to finish things. One for all, all for one, sis-boom-bah and no finger-pointing.
But if you want to play the parlor game, I’d make the two late losses 50-50.
The Alabama loss was on the defense, which had punished the Tide for most of the second half before letting Nick Saban’s guys score way too easily in the final minute.
But the offense did its part against a truly great defense, rallying with two second-half touchdowns for a 17-14 lead. More importantly, even when not scoring, they were moving and controlling the game and keeping the defense off the field.
Yeah, one more LSU first down would have iced it, but the defense should have been well rested for Bama’s last-gasp attempt. But at least they did force Nick Saban to burn all his timeouts.
In the bowl game, giving up a fourth-and-forever conversion en route to a buzzer-beater field goal is inexcusable.
But the field goal was also the 100th play of the night that the gassed defense was on the field. And it came after the defense had dominated the fourth quarter to continually give the offense every opportunity to put the game away.
Of course, LSU’s offense didn’t claim to be anything special last season.
They were the dysfunctional guys trying to stay out of the way and not step in anything and “turn the game over to the defense.”
And if you look back over the second half of last season, even if never particularly flashy, they pretty much lived up to their job description.
It was the defense that not only was on the field for two late losses, but made some victories far more suspenseful than they should have been.
The Bama and Clemson games were just the only two times LSU got bit.
LSU’s offense thought it put the South Carolina game away with a late touchdown for a 23-14 lead. But before fans could get to the exits the Gamecocks, who’d done little to that point, promptly marched 77 yards, pulled to within 23-21, and the Tigers eventually had to sweat out a Hail Mary pass on the final play.
Same thing the next week at Texas A&M. Late touchdown, 24-12 lead with 3:12 to play. But the defense, who’d done a remarkable job in the second half against Johnny Manziel, gave up an easy touchdown (24-19) and, again, ended up having to sweat a through a final Aggies desperation play.
Mississippi State was about to do the same thing when Craig Loston stepped in front a potential game-tightening pass late and returned it 100 yards for a clinching touchdown.
Arkansas, trailing 20-13 after an LSU field goal with just 1:13 to play, also mounted a much-too-easy late drive and scared the bejeebers out of the LSU bench with a couple of incompletions in the Tigers’ end zone that could have just as easily been caught.
So maybe some new blood on defense won’t necessarily be a bad thing.
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Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org