Defense doesn't break

LSU got a stiff test from Arkansas, but the Tigers' defense stepped up late

Updated: November 23, 2012, 9:47 PM ET
By Gary Laney | GeauxTigerNation

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- There was a time, not long ago, when LSU relied on its defense to bail out a struggling offense.

Those days were back Friday -- sort of.

LSU's defense was hardly dominant in its 20-13 win against Arkansas that allowed the seventh-ranked Tigers to finish the regular season with their third straight 10-win season (10-2) and a shot at a BCS bowl appearance, depending on what happens in Saturday's games.

[+] EnlargeTharold Simon
Beth Hall/US PresswireCornerback Tharold Simon helped lead a timely LSU defense against Arkansas.
Arkansas gained 462 yards, a yard short of the most LSU has allowed all season, which came last week against Ole Miss.

But where LSU's offense had to score late to produce the game-winner in a 41-35 shootout against the Rebels, it was the defense on the field at the end that held off a last-ditch Razorbacks drive. That drive ended at the Tigers 18-yard line when Tyler Wilson's pass into the end zone floated over the head of Arkansas receiver Mekale McKay.

"A win is a win no matter how you write it up," LSU safety Eric Reid said.

Wilson, the SEC's leading passer, lit up the LSU secondary for 359 yards on 31-for-52 passing. It was the third straight 300-yard passing performance by an LSU opponent. And for the second straight game, the Tigers were outgained by a heavy underdog, giving up their biggest yardage outputs of the season.

Yet, LSU dominated the red zone, holding Arkansas without a touchdown in four red zone trips while forcing a turnover on another. It was a bend-don't-break effort that didn't recall vintage LSU, but it got the job done, even if it left a bit of a sour taste.

"Honestly, I'm not for the yards either," LSU coach Les Miles said.

There were two silver linings in all those yards given up: LSU allowed only one touchdown, which came on McKay's 28-yard scoring catch from Wilson in the third quarter. And a defense that recently has been porous in two-minute situations yielded yards on Arkansas drives late in both halves, but one ended in a missed field goal, and the other in the incomplete pass on the last play.

It was the first time since the Florida game that LSU did not allow a score during an opponent's two-minute offense.

"I say every week, when one part of the team isn't doing too great, another part has to pick it up," Reid said. "Last week, when we didn't play too well [on defense] the offense stepped up. This week we did our job and held them out of the end zone."

It was enough for LSU to win against a surprisingly good effort from Arkansas' defense, which held LSU to just 306 yards.

It was effective Tigers defense, but hardly vintage.

When the last of Wilson's 52 passes fell incomplete, Reid said his first instinct was to look up at the scoreboard's clock.

"And when I saw all zeroes, it was just relief," he said.

The LSU defense has gone from one that leaves no doubt to one that holds on and gets to exhale at the end. Until Alabama's late touchdown drive at the end of the Crimson Tide's 21-17 win in Baton Rouge, La., earlier this month, LSU's defense had dominated most of the season.

Since then, LSU's offense has found itself while the defense has started to struggle.

Friday, the Tigers were hurt not only by leaky pass coverage, but also by multiple missed tackles, especially in the first half.

"If we tackle better, it certainly makes a difference," Miles said.

Even though LSU was allowing yards, there were some more typical LSU elements to the win.

LSU, which forces more turnovers than any SEC team, forced two against Arkansas. One was a fumble at the Tigers' 1-yard line on the Razorbacks' first drive, forced by linebacker Lamin Barrow on a strip of Hogs receiver Dennis Johnson and recovered by defensive end Chancey Aghayere.

"That was the key turnover in the game," Miles said.

LSU also won with its special teams, getting a blocked field goal by Bennie Logan, an 86-yard kickoff return by Michael Ford that set up LSU's second touchdown and a 48.2-yard punting average by Brad Wing, including a 69-yarder that flipped the field at a key time in the fourth quarter.

Those plays allowed LSU to slip out of a game in which it was at a statistical disadvantage -- not unlike many other wins in the Miles' era. This one came with a young secondary that was holding on at the end.

LSU uses two freshman defensive backs in its nickel coverage, and three in its dime coverage. After junior safety Craig Loston went down with an ankle injury, sophomore Ronald Martin was added to the mix.

The youth of the players on defense might be the most encouraging part of the struggle for LSU.

"When you look at the number of players from the start of the season who are no longer with us," Miles said, "for this football team to achieve 10 victories, we're going to be awfully salty the year after."

Gary Laney | email

Reporter, GeauxTigerNation