BATON ROUGE, La. -- The LSU offense’s futility and lack of change against Wisconsin has understandably been the leading subject of conversation since the Tigers opened the season with a thud. But how about a change for the better that took place in the opener?
The Tigers generated three turnovers -- two of which directly or indirectly led to touchdowns -- which was the main reason LSU was even competitive in the 16-14 loss. For one week at least, that represents a big improvement for a defense that struggled to generate turnovers a year ago.
“That’s something that we look forward to doing more,” said safety Rickey Jefferson, who snuffed out an early Wisconsin drive by intercepting a pass in the LSU end zone. “Honestly we should have had more picks and more turnovers, so we watched the film from the last game and we’re looking to capitalize off those mistakes and just come out and compete. I think we can do way better than what we did and I feel like we had a pretty good game with that being said. But we always can go higher.”
It was a solid first effort under new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, however. Aranda’s aggressive scheme is designed to confuse opponents and create mistakes. LSU needed more of that after generating just 17 takeaways in the entire 2015 season, a total that tied for 92nd in the FBS.
Just twice last season, in victories over Texas A&M and Eastern Michigan, did LSU generate three turnovers in a single game. But the Tigers’ three takeaways against Wisconsin made an enormous difference in the game’s momentum.
The Badgers were completely in control when cornerback Tre’Davious White picked off a Bart Houston and zig-zagged 21 yards for a touchdown to cut LSU’s deficit to 13-7. On the next series, cornerback Donte Jackson ripped the ball out of receiver George Rushing’s hands just after a completed pass and White recovered near midfield. Two plays later, LSU scored another touchdown and suddenly led 14-13 in a game in which its offense had accomplished little to nothing.
That improvement provided little solace, however, when LSU still suffered its first season-opening loss in coach Les Miles’ 12 seasons.
“On the defensive end, we’re going to be aggressive. We’re going to come out and we’re going to try to create turnovers,” said defensive lineman Davon Godchaux, who made a team-high nine tackles. “Donte made a good play, Shaq [White] made a good play and Rickey made a good play, but as a defensive line we still feel like we could have helped those guys out on the back end by getting pressure, by getting sack-fumbles and things like that, so we’ve got to be aware of that this weekend playing a scrambling quarterback against Jacksonville State.”
Jacksonville State senior quarterback Eli Jenkins earned FCS All-America honors last season after passing for 2,788 yards and rushing for 1,161 as the Gamecocks advanced all the way to the FCS championship game. Jenkins played well in J-State’s near-upset of Auburn last season (277 passing yards, 37 rushing), but Saturday’s game at Tiger Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU) represents a significant step up in opponent talent over what Jenkins typically faces.
The key for the Tigers will be to stay within their rushing lanes when attacking Jenkins, which nose guard Greg Gilmore said was an issue against Houston and the Badgers.
“We just want to contain him,” Gilmore said. We don’t want him stepping up and we want to tackle him without creating a big play. We want to still stay aggressive as a defensive line.”
The Tigers also must continue their improvement at completing tackles. They missed several tackles early in the Wisconsin game, but only a handful as the game progressed following a pep talk from their new defensive coordinator.
“Coach Aranda actually got onto us on the sideline, ‘We’ve got to rally, we’ve got to gang-tackle,’ ” Jefferson said. “We can’t just sit around and expect the guy to make the play because [Wisconsin running back Corey Clement] was kind of elusive, so just gang-tackling, [get] 11 guys to the ball, change the momentum.”
All in all, though, it was a solid debut for Aranda’s group. They surrendered only one touchdown to Wisconsin and just two scoring drives that started outside LSU territory despite spending nearly 37 minutes on the field because of the offense’s ineptitude.
Godchaux doesn’t want to make any excuses -- “Everybody wants to talk about our offense not scoring, but as a defense, we can’t let them score no matter how many plays we play,” he said -- but his head coach seemed pleased by the first outing from his new-look defense.
“I thought we played extremely well for our first game,” Miles said. “We missed too many tackles. We don’t miss tackles where we just shut them completely down. But generally speaking, simple mistakes like alignment and tackles [aside] … everybody can recognize that's going to be a great defense.”