LSU faces defense much like its own

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Every day at practice, LSU's offense gets to see an elite defense.

The Tigers have arguably the top defensive line in the nation, two defensive ends projected by some to be top-five NFL draft picks and a secondary it calls "DBU" because of its recent production of NFL draft prospects. Throw in fast-emerging Kevin Minter at linebacker and it adds up to a unit that, as a team, is ranked third in the country in total defense (221 yards per game).

Given that, one would think LSU would be comfortable playing another elite defense comparable to its own.

Instead, there is an assumed mismatch this week when the struggling LSU offense faces No. 3 South Carolina's vaunted defense, ranked 11th in the country at 278 yards per game. It's a Gamecocks defense that, in many ways, mirrors LSU's own defense and comes into Saturday's game at Tiger Stadium at the peak of its powers coming off a 35-7 shellacking of Georgia.

It starts up front where, like LSU's tandem of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, South Carolina has dominant ends in sophomore Jadaveon Clowney and senior Devin Taylor.

"This is definitely going to be one of the bigger challenges we've had this fall," said LSU offensive tackle Alex Hurst. "Both guys that play at both ends, they are definitely NFL caliber and they are going to be high NFL draft picks. This is a challenge we're going to have to be ready for."

Clowney's name is one that is particularly interesting to those who follow LSU recruiting. The Gamecocks leader in sacks with 6.5, he was the top-ranked player in the country coming out of high school in 2011, just ahead of LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson.

If anything, Clowney and Taylor are a bigger version of LSU's pair. At 6-foot-6, 256 pounds, Clowney has a mix of speed, agility and size that made him so highly recruited. At 6-8 and just under 270, Taylor is even bigger.

Throw in active defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles (five tackles for loss) and South Carolina has a defensive line that can be disruptive at a high level, a trait that plays right into what has been a weakness of LSU. The Gamecocks are fourth in the nation and lead the SEC with 25 sacks -- 21 from defensive linemen -- while LSU is 93rd in the nation in sacks allowed (15).

The LSU offensive line has gone through what seems like a weekly shuffle of lineups, looking for a right combination up front since losing left tackle Chris Faulk for the season with a knee injury after the first week. LSU has started the same offensive line combination in back-to-back games just once this season -- the last two games where the Tigers started a combination of Hurst (left tackle, moved from right tackle), La'el Collins (left guard), P.J. Longergan (center), Josh Williford (right guard) and true freshman Vadal Alexander (right tackle).

That streak is threatened this week because Williford is questionable after leaving last week's 14-6 loss at Florida with what appeared to be a head injury. If he can't go, LSU might use its fourth different offensive line combination in six games.

That's a sign of trouble on a unit that, perhaps more than other areas, relies on chemistry between the players.

"The biggest thing is building chemistry," said Hurst, who played next to Williford for all of last season and the first two games of this season before shifting sides, where he had to develop chemistry with Collins. "To go forwards, you have to have trust that the guy is going to be there for you. You have to be able to count on a guy without having to communicate, to have that sixth sense to (for example) know that guy's going to be there for me if the (defensive end) puts a spin move on.

"That's the biggest thing going forward for the offensive line. We have to build that chemistry back up."

Collins had a high comfort level with both Faulk and Josh Dworaczyk, who replaced Faulk for three games before another shuffle took place, but said he is "working on it," with Hurst.

LSU's own defenders, which have been statistically even better than South Carolina's, insist that the chemistry is there at practice from an offense that gives it trouble. It's Saturdays, where LSU has one touchdown in its last 12 quarters against SEC opponents, where the offense bogs down.

"We execute and produce at practice," quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. "I don't really know (why it's not happening in games).

"We're so close to being a good offense. If y'all watched film with the coaches and myself, you'd see that we are one guy away here, a step or a second away from being 20-yards downfield on a run. If we can just continue to work out and iron out the little things, we're going to be fine."