How LSU turned its defense around just in time for the playoff

NCAAF

ATLANTA — LSU coach Ed Orgeron came off the sideline in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, amid the purple and gold confetti and the raucous celebration of the program’s first SEC championship since 2011, and searched for No. 24. Luckily for him, his freshman cornerback and star in the making wasn’t difficult to spot. He was the one with the bright smile being swarmed by reporters.

Orgeron picked Derek Stingley Jr. out of the crowd and gave him a big hug. He said he wanted to let him know how proud of him he was and that all his work during the offseason had led to this.

If the rest of the country didn’t know Stingley’s name before, they surely did after his two interceptions in a 37-10 win over No. 4 Georgia. LSU’s much maligned defense successfully turned a corner that night in Atlanta, and it was due in no small part to its 18-year-old phenom at cornerback.

“He’s one of the finest corners I’ve ever been around,” Orgeron said of Stingley.

Linebacker Patrick Queen called Stingley “the best cornerback in the country” regardless of age. Defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence took it a step further, putting on his draft analyst cap and declaring, “He could be a top-three or top-five pick right now.”

This kid they call the technician, this up-and-comer they raved about all season has finally arrived. And not a moment too soon. Heading into the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, against an Oklahoma offense that has the second-most yards per game in the country, LSU found its anchor on defense.

“This game kind of proved a point because a lot of people, they didn’t really respect us,” Stingley said. “But we came out and played and showed everybody what we’re made of.”

That wasn’t faux defiance, either. That sense of disrespect was pervasive in the LSU locker room after the Tigers beat Georgia.

All week the defense had heard about the Bulldogs’ massive offensive line, how physical they were and how they’d be able to control the line of scrimmage. Defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko could recite the narrative: “You talk about a team that just kind of bullies people.”

The expectation was that LSU would win and punch its ticket to the playoff — but not in a way that would prove anything to people who doubted the Tigers were a complete football team.

That phrase — “a complete football team” — had been attached to Ohio State as a way of justifying its leapfrogging LSU to No. 1 in previous weeks. One could play defense, the rationale went, and the other couldn’t.

Sure, the Tigers’ revolution on offense under new coordinator Joe Brady and Heisman Trophy front-runner Joe Burrow was thrilling to watch, but it seemed like the program had lost part of its identity along the way. Its traditionally stout defense floundered against the likes of Texas, Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama.

Then, against Ole Miss, it seemed almost broken beyond repair. Against a team that would fail to reach a bowl game and would fire its head coach, the LSU defense gave up 37 points and let freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee rush for 212 yards and four touchdowns.

With that caliber of defense, how far could this team go?

Safety JaCoby Stevens heard the talk from the media and even LSU’s fans afterward, and he said it backed the defense into a corner. It made them uncomfortable. “It made us want to prove a point,” he said.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda challenged his players, appealing to their pride, and they accepted.

“We gave up a lot of yardage, but we knew the kind of talent we had, the type of leadership,” Fehoko said. “We just had to trust our scheme and technique.”

To a man, whether it was Fehoko or Queen or Stevens, they all said the turnaround was simple. They just needed to stop pressing and do their jobs.

We saw it play out against Arkansas, when the defense allowed just two field goals through three quarters. Then, against Texas A&M, it gave up one touchdown all game.

Georgia didn’t find the end zone until the fourth quarter. Its massive O-line couldn’t protect quarterback Jake Fromm, nor could it help a running game that managed only 61 yards.

“You know what?” Lawrence said. “We had a lot of talk coming in all week about how they were going to run the ball on us. We heard it against A&M that this defense is not good. But you know what? We just kept working and let the chips fall where they may.”

Queen admitted that the talk about the Tigers not being a “complete team” was annoying.

“As much as you want to block it out, you do pay attention to it a little bit,” he said. “We knew people were doubting us, and we wanted to come out tonight and prove to everybody that we’re a complete team. I believe in my defense, I believe in the offense, and we can take this thing all the way.”

With Stingley elevating to superstar status and safety Grant Delpit finally healthy, the building blocks are in place. If you don’t throw to Stingley’s side of the field, then you have to throw to Kristian Fulton‘s, and that’s like “picking your poison,” Lawrence said.

“With Grant at full speed and everybody healthy, we’re a dangerous team,” he added.

The combination of Delpit and speedy outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson could be instrumental in slowing Oklahoma’s run game, especially quarterback Jalen Hurts, who was 2-0 against LSU as a starter at Alabama before transferring this past offseason.

“Obviously, we’ve played against him before,” Orgeron said of Hurts. “He’s an outstanding player, and he actually beat us with his feet. He made big plays with his feet, and he threw the ball very well. I haven’t watched him at all this year, but I have watched Coach [Lincoln] Riley’s offense, especially that counter read. I’ve asked him about it. I think they’re one of the best in the country in running what they do on offense. They’re very difficult to stop.”

Difficult but not impossible.

It’s tough to look at LSU the past few weeks and say it’s anything but a complete team now. In fact, it’s a team peaking at the right moment.

“I think we turned a corner,” Lawrence said. “We had some growing pains. It’s tough playing great teams week in and week out and having a great defense. But the good thing about us: We’re getting better as the season goes, and we have two more games to establish our dominance.”

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