LSU plans to ride its monster defense
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Travelers driving on almost any major highway in Mississippi are greeted by a giant billboard that reads: "We Own This State."
It has become the Mississippi State football team's slogan because of its recent dominance of rival Ole Miss, which Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen often refers to as that "school up north."
A giant banner with the same message hangs on one side of Scott Field, and LSU coach Les Miles had to chuckle if he saw it before Thursday night's SEC opener against the No. 25 Bulldogs.
If Mississippi State owns the state, it's still paying taxes to Miles, whose team beat it for the seventh consecutive time with a 19-6 victory in front of a crowd of 56,924. Overall, MSU has lost 19 of its past 20 games against LSU, including 12 in a row.
After struggling to a 6-3 lead at the half, the No. 3 Tigers' defense dominated the overmatched Bulldogs in the second half, holding them to 76 yards of offense and five first downs in the final 30 minutes.
"We weren't perfect by any stretch, but I felt like the intensity of the defense was strong, and that ended up being the tale of the day," Miles said. "I felt like the offense did the things that they needed to do. I think we did the things we needed to do to win."
LSU's defense is about as close to perfect as it gets. The Bulldogs averaged 321 rushing yards in their first two games: a 59-14 rout of Memphis and 41-34 loss at Auburn, the defending BCS national champions. But MSU managed only 52 rushing yards on 34 attempts against LSU, which had a whopping 15 tackles for loss.
"That's how we play every snap," LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne said. "We don't want anybody to get anything on us."
Most offenses will probably have a difficult time just getting past LSU's first line of defense. The Tigers can go as deep as about eight players up front, rotating tackles and ends in and out of the game to wear down offensive linemen. Every player seems as good or better than the one he replaced. Against Mississippi State, LSU ends Kendrick Adams and tackles Bennie Logan, Michael Brockers and Anthony Johnson combined for 10½ tackles for loss and 3½ sacks.
"We want to be the most physical guys on the field," Brockers said. "We're trying to be the most physical defensive front in the country. In all of our games, we don't feel like anyone can score on us."
Mississippi State certainly struggled to score against LSU in the first two quarters. After the Bulldogs managed only a 26-yard field goal in the first half, Brockers pulled LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee aside before the second half.
"I told him just run the clock out and hold the ball," Brockers said. "I told him we'd win by a 9-6 score. It's like that every game. If our offense can score three points, we'll win by a 3-0 score. We'll take it."
Miles seems to be content winning ugly, too. After senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson was suspended from the team before the Sept. 3 opener against Oregon for his alleged role in a bar fight in Baton Rouge, La., Lee returned to the starting role. He was forced into the lineup as a freshman in 2008 -- after starter Ryan Perrilloux was kicked off the team -- and threw 16 interceptions, seven of which were returned for touchdowns.
With Lee's shaky past, Miles seems more than willing to run the ball and play field-position football until Lee shows that his haphazard ways are behind him. LSU ran 38 times for 148 yards against MSU, with Spencer Ware leading the way with 107 yards on 22 attempts.
"It's certainly a piece of the formula for certain contests. If we're tested more and need to open it more, we'll adjust," Miles said. "That defense plays extremely well. If we do the right things on offense, we can win a lot of games."
Lee, a senior from Brenham, Texas, was pretty sharp against Mississippi State, completing 21 of 27 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He threw a 19-yard touchdown to Rueben Randle on a nicely thrown ball on a fade route into the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
Lee's interception, which came after the Tigers had taken a 16-6 lead, was his first in 132 pass attempts. Lee said he didn't let the mistake bother him.
"Those kind of things are going to happen, so you just have to go back and move on to the next play," he said. "I'm just trying to play smart and confident. As a young player, that kind of play would have bothered me and I would have dwelled on it for a couple of plays. Now, I'm just moving on."
It's easier for Lee to put mistakes in the rearview mirror once LSU's defense takes the field. It's also easier to throw passes out of bounds, instead of forcing them, and punting the ball away.
The Tigers will get junior wide receiver Russell Shepard back before next week's game at No. 18 West Virginia. Shepard's big-play ability and versatility might allow Miles to open the offense a little bit more.
"I think there are some things we'll do, and very specifically with him, honestly," Miles said.
But after three games it's pretty clear the Tigers are going to be built around their menacing defense.
"They're a legitimate SEC, big-time team," Mullen said. "That's what we have in this league. They're a really good football team. That's how it rolls in this league. We're in the SEC West and we're trying to take our program to the next level. The next step is a national championship. You don't win the SEC West, go to a bowl game and get national recognition. The team that wins the SEC West is the best team in the country."
Based on results through three weeks, LSU looks like the best team in the SEC West. But the Tigers will have to play at No. 2 Alabama on Nov. 5.
Brockers believes LSU's defense might be even better by then.
"Our defense is really good," he said. "But we have to learn a lot of things and we can get a lot better. You're just going to have to wait and see. It's scary. It's amazing what we would do if we played with more technique."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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