Fast, strong, deep
MORGANTOWN - That LSU's defense ranks among the top 20 in the nation in every relevant statistical category is not at all surprising, even though the Tigers have played two Top 25 teams, including last year's national runner-up.
What is somewhat alarming is that No. 2 LSU, which visits Mountaineer Field Saturday night to face No. 16 West Virginia, accomplishes what it does on defense without many bells and whistles.
The Tigers just line up and beat teams.
"It's not the trickiest thing in the world to figure out what they're doing,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday. "Will they catch us in some things [because of scheme]? Probably. But it's not the trickiest thing to figure out what they're doing. It's a group that's made up of very, very, very talented individuals, not just from the state of Louisiana but from Texas and all over. They get them from everywhere.''
This is not an unusually good defense for the Tigers. They are almost always this good. Last year LSU ranked in the top 12 in scoring defense and total defense. This year the Tigers are third in rushing defense, sixth in total defense and 12th in pass efficiency defense, and they're allowing just 12 points per game. That includes giving up 27 points to Oregon in the opener on a neutral field.
Oregon is the standard-bearer for what West Virginia tries to do on offense, which is dictate a fast tempo and catch a defense off guard.
"Nobody goes faster than Oregon,'' Holgorsen said. "We don't go faster than Oregon. Oregon goes faster than anybody in the country, and [LSU] handled [Oregon's] tempo just fine.''
How? Well, LSU has potential NFL draft choices and almost every position. At some, like along the defensive line, they are two-deep in players who would be starters at almost any other school in the country.
Even without Patrick Peterson, a first-round draft pick last year who also returned a punt for a touchdown in a 20-14 win over West Virginia last year, the Tigers are loaded. Just an example: LSU had five players named to the preseason All-SEC defense selected by the coaches, which included three teams. Of those five, only two have actually started each of the first three games - end Sam Montgomery and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
The others haven't started because they were all-conference picks who were beaten out.
"One thing that's concerning watching their defense is they don't play just 11 people,'' Holgorsen said. "They have tremendous depth and they can put their twos in there and it looks just as good as their ones.''
LSU, though, does a little more than just line up and challenge offenses. The Tigers threw some tricks at Oregon in a 40-27 win, and they'll likely have some for West Virginia, too. Holgorsen knows that.
"I'm not saying they're vanilla by any stretch of the imagination,'' Holgorsen said. "Everybody breaks tendencies throughout the course of a game. I'm not saying we know exactly what they're going to do in specific situations. Those are going to change.
"I'm saying they're just good at what they do. It doesn't matter if it's a man situation or if it's a zone situation or if it's a man pressure or a zone pressure. They have the ability to do all that stuff and they have the ability to do all that stuff well.''
The Tigers are giving up just 47.7 yards per game on the ground and 207.7 yards total. Even with teams unable to run the ball, LSU is surrendering just 160 yards per game passing. Oregon threw the ball 54 times and gained just 240 yards in a game in which LaMichael James rushed 18 times for just 54 yards.
But it is not an impenetrable force, or so Holgorsen hopes.
"The biggest challenge going against a defense that's good, talented and never out of position is you have to take advantage of the little space you have,'' Holgorsen said. "We're going to have to throw into receivers that are covered. We're going to have to run the ball into people that are filling gaps. We're going to have to sustain blocks a little bit longer. If they're playing zone coverage and we get a guy open in the middle, that hole's going to close relatively quick.
"The speed of the game is going to have to increase more than it did last week, and the tight space that we have to take advantage of offensively - we have to take advantage of it. But wherever the ball is, they get there real fast, and they're pretty aggressive once they get there.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.