STARKVILLE, Miss. -- They craned their necks like prairie dogs drawn helplessly toward something off in the distance. Some of LSU's defensive players stretched from the bench on the sideline to see the Jumbotron in the south end zone, while others simply stood straight up, turned around and watched their offense race down the field against Mississippi State.
Purple-and-gold-clad coaches in headsets milled around them, shaking their heads at the action. But was it at the success of Zach Mettenberger and their offense or at their own ineptitude on defense? The way the game went back and forth for so long, it was hard to tell.
LSU's defense, long the backbone of the program, showed little resolve Saturday night against unranked Mississippi State, surrendering big play after big play in the passing game while simultaneously getting gashed up the middle with runs between the tackles. The final score, a hard-fought 59-26 win over the Bulldogs, was fine in the short term, with LSU improving to 5-1 overall while remaining squarely in the title picture. But it didn't bode well for the 10th-ranked Tigers' outlook moving forward when it must turn its attention to even more potent offenses like Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M in the second half of the season.
Everyone has accepted the fact that the defense had to rebuild after losing eight starters to the NFL last spring, but this? Missing tackles and being overwhelmed physically has never been a part of LSU's identity. There wasn't an inch of sideline that Les Miles didn't pace during the first half, when he nervously contemplated the dangerous tightrope his team continues to walk on defense.
Giving up points in bunches to Georgia a week ago was one thing. This was another. This kind of effort, six games into the season, was a trend. All LSU's head coach had to fall back on was the idea that a strong second half was something to build on.
"We weren't perfect in any way," Miles explained after the game, "but we're a young team that's coming, and we'll certainly build on this."
Miles lauded his offense after the game, cheering on a group that has performed a turnaround few could have imagined. Cam Cameron stepped in as offensive coordinator this offseason and worked wonders, harnessing Mettenberger's pro potential to the tune of 15 touchdowns and a per-game average of 290 yards passing. Saturday night marked the sixth consecutive game LSU scored 30 or more points and racked up 400 or more yards, both school records.
But longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis has had no such renaissance. Saddled with a slew of inexperienced players at every level, he has had trouble stopping anyone this year. LSU came into the weekend averaging roughly 40 yards and a dozen more points per game than it did a season ago.
Mississippi State, which has struggled to score points consistently and still hasn't found a clear-cut starter at quarterback, scored at will for the better part of three quarters, racking up 468 total yards, including 13 plays of 15 or more yards. When Dak Prescott wasn't burning LSU with the read-option, Tyler Russell was picking apart the secondary from the pocket.
It wasn't until a fourth-quarter turnover that the bleeding stopped and LSU looked like a prohibitive favorite again. Jeremy Hill made sure Tre'Davious White's interception counted when he took the ensuing handoff 5 yards for the touchdown, putting LSU ahead by two scores.
LSU would pad its lead and run away with the win in Starkville, but it didn't come without its consequences. Suddenly Florida, which scored 30 points in a win over Arkansas the same night, didn't look like such a winnable game.
"It's coming along," a hopeful Ego Ferguson said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. We're just going to go out there and practice hard every day, prepare hard like we do every week and gradually get better."
LSU's mammoth defensive tackle said he understands that the roles might be different this season. The offense, long the struggling little sister at LSU, is suddenly the one taking the lead, with the defense trailing behind.
"I believe our offense is probably the best in the country," Ferguson said. "We have the best wide receiver duo in Odell [Beckham] and Jarvis [Landry] and we have four running backs who can play great. Right now we're going to keep fighting for them and they'll keep fighting for us."
One of those running backs, Kenny Hilliard, ran for 45 yards and three touchdowns against Mississippi State. He said that with the defensive woes, it has become something of a game of attrition.
"We have to put up numbers," he said. "The defense is going to get the job done to a certain extent, and we're going to have to go out there and put more points on the board than the opposition."
For Miles and the Tigers to stay at the head of the class with Alabama in the SEC West, a high-powered offense won't be enough. Rediscovering its defensive identity is a must, and maybe that process began in the second half against Mississippi State.
"We were a little younger last game," Miles said. "We weren't as young this game. We'll have to see if we can't improve on that and be a little faster and a little older next week."