Suring Up LSU’s Struggling Defense is a Must in Making Things Right For Elite Offense’s Legacy

When a team scores 49 points and accounts for over 600 yards of total offense, that usually results in a win, but unfortunately, for the LSU Tigers this past Saturday, that did not happen as the LSU defense gave up 55 points and a staggering 706 yards of offense in a high scoring shootout.

“We wish we could have matched it defensively. We did not. And, certainly very disappointed that we weren’t able to come out with a win on the road. But, again, we’ll have to look at how we get better. Our guys will bounce back. I’m confident in that. And we’ll have to go back on the road against a really good Missouri football team. It’s an 11 a .m. kickoff. A team that’s nationally ranked, so we’ll get challenged again on the road against a nationally ranked team.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on disappointing loss to Ole Miss

Through five games, the LSU offense has been elite and is on pace to being the second-best offense ever in program history trailing only the 2019 LSU offense that won a national championship.

Just looking at the offensive side of the football, LSU has the offense that is capable of winning a national championship. The numbers have been staggering.

“It’s No. 1 in total offense. It’s No. 1 in pass offense. It’s No. 1 in third down conversion. It’s No. 2 in scoring. It’s No. 3 in rush offense. Jayden Daniels leads the SEC and ranked No. 3 in the nation in total offense, leads the SEC in total touchdowns and passing, pass efficiency and passing touchdowns, and it’s the fourth-straight game accounting for at least four touchdowns. Brian Thomas leads the nation in receiving.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on offense

The unit has been fantastic thanks to some great individual play. Like when the 2019 LSU offense had stars like Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson, Ja’Marr Chase, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire just to name a few, the 2023 version of the LSU Tigers offense has four superstar players that are playing at an extremely high level.

LSU QB Jayden Daniels has accounted for the third most yards of offense in the country. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

Jayden Daniels is playing as good as any quarterback in the country and is right up there with the quarterbacks that are currently in the mix for the Heisman Trophy. In his second year in Mike Denbrock’s system, Daniels’ game has taken the next step, especially as a passer. Through five games, only Washington QB Michael Penix and Colorado QB Shedeur Sanders have accounted for more total yards in the country with 1,781. Daniels is also 2nd in the country when it comes to touchdown passes (16), 2nd in points responsible for trailing only USC QB Caleb Williams, and 4th in country in passing yards per game (342). Overall, Daniels’ numbers are just as good as any quarterback out there in the country as he has completed 73% of his passes for 1,710 yards and 16 touchdowns to only two interceptions. To put that into comparison, Daniels has more total yards than Caleb Williams and more touchdowns than Michael Penix Jr., which are the two leading quarterbacks right now for the Heisman Trophy.

LSU WR Brian Thomas Jr. leads the country in touchdown catches with 8. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

While Daniels is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, his two top receivers Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr. have emerged as two of the best offensive skill players in the nation. Both Nabers and Thomas are both top 10 in the nation when it comes to receiving yards. Nabers is second in the country in receptions and receiving yards with 40 grabs for 625 yards plus five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Thomas leads the nation in receiving touchdowns with eight and also has 33 catches for 537 yards to add. There has not been a LSU wide receiver duo this prolific during a stretch like this since Jefferson and Chase.

LSU WR Malik Nabers (8) is 2nd in the country in receptions and yards. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

Although the Tigers are having as much success as anybody in the nation throwing the football, the running game has also been great as Logan Diggs has been a perfect counterpart to the Tigers’ playmakers in the passing game. When LSU needs to rely on the run, they have shown to give the ball to number three as he has 57 carries for 354 yards and two touchdowns.

LSU RB Logan Diggs has been averaging over six yards per carry this season. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

After going through all the numbers on how elite the LSU offense has been playing, it seems that right now, we would be talking about Jayden Daniels for the Heisman and the Tigers being in the conversation for the College Football Playoff, right?! Well, that answer is no, and it is because at the same time, the LSU defense is one of the worst defenses in the entire country.

“You know, it is interesting because the 2019 team – prolific – won the national championship. These numbers are starting to look like those kind of numbers.”

“That’s the kind of offense that we’re talking about and that’s why it’s so darn important to play better defense.”

“That’s why it’s so important, because when you have an offense like this, you want to be able to showcase and it doesn’t get the showcase because all the questions here are about the defense, and I understand that totally. I understand that. So, that’s why it’s so important that that we do the things necessary to get the points down so we play better defense.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on why it is so important to play better defense to showcase how well the offense has been playing

Through five games, LSU’s defense is among the worse in the country in total defense and either second to last or dead last in all of the major defensive categories in the SEC. LSU has given up 31 points per game, which is second to last in the SEC. The dismal defense has also given up 260 passing yards per game and 169 rushing yards per game. While the LSU offense has scored on 13 of its last 16 drives, the LSU defense has also given up scores on 13 of its last 16. In its last two games alone, the Tigers’ defense has given up 1,129 total yards and 86 points despite its offense scoring 83 points and accounting for 1,141 yards during that same two game stretch.

LSU’s rushing defense has given up 169 yards on the ground per game. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

There are some major issues on that side of the football, and if they are not fixed soon, this fantastic LSU offense will be forgotten about as it is being overshadowed by how historically bad the defense has been playing. LSU Head Coach Brian Kelly met with the media on Monday to talk about what needs to be changed on that side of the football.

“Well, we have a process. Look, when we win, you know, we rely on our process for consistency, right? And when we lose, we do the same thing, but sometimes you have to tweak your process, right? There are things that you tweak. And so in our total preparation, it’s always about the physical, the technical, the tactical, and the mental. So will there be some tweaks? Technically, sure. Tactically, absolutely. Will there be some tweaks physically? Certainly.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on what needs to be changed

The issues are big, but it all starts with the simple fundamentals on defense, and right now, the defense is having problems in doing the basic things.

“So, what is tackling, right? What is tackling? Tackling can be taught and something that we teach every single day. When we talk about it, how much time do we spend on it? We have to examine and look at our practice schedule. Are we spending enough time? Well, traditionally it would say that’s what we normally spend, but this group maybe we have to spend more time. Those are the kind of discussions that we’re having in that we recognize the importance of tackling, how important it is and how it impacted this game. I think it was over 285 yards after misses that that led to their offense and tackling was at the center of it. We have to be able to look at it. Are we spending enough time given the circumstances? And those would be the adjustments we would make.”

“We had 34 missed tackles for 284 yards. We have to tackle the football, and we have to create a new line of scrimmage. If we do those two things, we’re going to be better on defense, we’re going to keep the points down, and we’re going to continue to win football games at LSU. That’s the standard. We didn’t live up to that standard, and we need to. So, we need to get back to work. We’re going to get back to work here today with a team meeting, and we’ll get back on the field on Tuesday with that being our resolve.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on doing the fundamentals better

Last year, defensive coordinator Matt House and the defense played a pivotal role in the team’s SEC West title run, and prior to coming to LSU, he has enjoyed plenty of success as a defensive coach at the college and NFL level. In terms of having faith in his defensive coordinator, Kelly has the utmost confidence.

“No, the decision-making process is nothing that is a concern of mine. You know, this is really about the teaching and the execution. And so that requires two parties, the coaches coaching and the players executing. And that’s not about leadership. That’s not about the message not resonating. I feel great about all those things and the leadership that we’re getting from my defensive coordinator.

“Input, we’re always welcoming input. Matter of fact, we had a meeting today with the entire defense. I was with them and we got great input. I’ll always ask for input. There’s never a silence when it comes to weighing in because you can’t fully buy in unless you’re allowed to weigh in. So, we take information. We want to listen to everybody that has experience. But there is one voice, there is one leader of our defense. I have the utmost confidence in his ability to run our defense and he will run it effectively. We need to continue to coach and teach and develop our players and we will do that.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on Matt House

The difference from last year and this year was that the players in the backend of the defense last season were either veterans or coming from Power Five Division I programs while the players that are playing in the backend this year are either young freshmen or transfers that are coming from FCS programs. It is still a process, but losing a lot of key players in the secondary from last year’s team has been a tough adjustment.

And, I mean as I mentioned, you know Greg and Joe Foucha and Jay Ward and Jarrick Bernard-Converse and Mekhi Garner … Those were veteran dudes for us last year and they tackled. They got the ball on the ground. We have got to keep working with our young guys and we have got to get the ball on the ground, but there’s a significant loss in tackles there. We knew it was going to be a process and we’re going to stick with our process and we’re going to keep working at it and we got to get better each and every day. We know we’re accountable for it. We’re not going to shy away from it, but we got to work on the guys that we have and we’re gonna work to get better every day.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on developing the defensive backs
LSU’s pass defense has given up 31 points per game and 429 total yards per game. (Photo taken by Billy Metcalf Photography)

It is not just the secondary, but the whole defense has been underperforming including the defensive line that was praised during the offseason as far as being one of the best units in the country, but that group has not lived to those high standards at this part of the season. To help John Jancek, who had to make the adjustment from outside linebackers coach to defensive line coach when defensive line coach Jimmy Lindsey had to step away because of health reasons, Kelly called on legendary defensive line guru Pete Jenkins to help Jancek coaching a position that has not been his first area of expertise.

“As you know (LSU defensive line coach) Jimmy Lindsey has not been with us as our defensive line coach, and one of the things that we want to be able to do is in hiring Pete, and his role has not been defined yet other than he will be consulting and assisting our defensive line room, (but) John Jancek has the defensive line and his expertise is not necessarily in that area. He’s a good football coach, but we want to provide our student-athletes with the most resources, and Pete gives us the expertise and the ability to help us with technique and some technical things that we want to be able to do on a day-to-day basis. So, he’s going to come in now. He’ll be here and assist us and help Coach Jancek in that room.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on bringing along Pete Jenkins as an analyst

At the end of the day, football is a team effort and this issue is a total group issue. The coaches can do a better job of putting the players in position and the players have to go out there and execute.

“We didn’t have much choice based upon where we were. The year before we had to put a team together. So we were going to be in this situation regardless. Listen, I don’t want to sit up here and talk about what we don’t have. What we have is good football team that needs to play better, and we need to coach better and, regardless of all the other things that are out there, we’re in the position that we’re at, so we know the situation that we have. We’ve got to get the guys that are on our roster playing at a higher level.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on getting his players to play at a high level

As stated before in a previous article, this team is going to have to outscore its opponents in shootouts, but with as good as the offense has been playing, if the defense can just slightly improve and force two or three stops or even force a turnover or two for each game moving forward, then that could give the offense the breathing room it needs to be in order to turn a disappointing month of September into a promising end of the season just like what happened last year when LSU started the season slow at 4-2, but made a great late season push to win the SEC West.

“We lost, I think, 40-something to 14 to Tennessee. I think they were ready to burn the city down and we came back the next week and beat Florida on the road. So, we don’t need to all jump off the buildings yet. We’re going to be okay. We’re going to keep working hard. These guys got a lot of pride in LSU football. Our coaches are going to work hard. And we’re going to keep getting better.”

LSU HC Brian Kelly on turning the season around

Close to midway through the season, all these defensive issues won’t magically go away especially over the course of one week, but the level of progress, improvement, and most importantly, the toughness of this defense will determine what the rest of this season holds not only for this team, but also the legacy of this 2023 electrifying LSU offense.