BATON ROUGE, La. -- Few defenses across the country have been better than LSU at improving as games progress, and that has especially been the case since the Tigers’ coaching change in late September.
Just ask Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, whose offense picked up just 104 yards and six first downs while getting shut out in the second half of Saturday’s 38-21 loss to the resurgent Tigers.
That was the second straight week that LSU’s opponent failed to score after halftime, leading Tigers interim coach Ed Orgeron to call first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda a “mad scientist” for his ability to counter opponents’ moves.
“You know, Dave Aranda is pretty sharp,” Orgeron observed. “He makes adjustments when they come off the sideline. He fixes things and not necessarily changes the defense -- but he may change out leverage, may play off, may play press, change the technique. There was a lot of times tonight they were trying to change the play at the line of scrimmage. Once they would change, he would change.”
It would be fair to say Aranda’s calling card throughout the season has been the way the Tigers’ defense has stiffened after making halftime adjustments. On top of its back-to-back second-half shutouts of Ole Miss and Southern Miss, LSU has also allowed just one score after halftime in two of its other five games.
Senior linebacker Duke Riley said the Tigers work to win on first downs and force third-and-long situations, where pass-rushers like Arden Key and Lewis Neal can attack opposing quarterbacks. It worked against the Rebels, who punted seven times in 10 drives and had just one possession cover more than 13 yards after a field goal drive midway through the second quarter.
“I was telling [linebacker Kendell Beckwith], I didn’t tell the D-line this because I didn’t want to get their heads built up, ‘Man those guys are flying to the ball, flying to the quarterback and they’re putting pressure on [Kelly], making him run, making him scramble, making him make bad decisions,’ I guess you could say,” said Riley, who made 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and picked off a Kelly pass in the third quarter.
This season, Aranda’s defense has typically dominated the second half, ranking fourth nationally in points allowed (6.57 points per game after halftime), 10th in yards allowed per game (144.7) and 12th in opponent Total Quarterback Rating (30.1), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
However, LSU’s numbers look doubly impressive in the three games since Orgeron replaced Les Miles -- a period when the Tigers’ offense has given Aranda’s bunch some much-needed assistance.
Since Orgeron took over on Sept. 25, LSU leads all FBS teams in scoring defense (2.33 ppg) and scoring margin (22 ppg) after halftime and ranks second in yardage margin, outgaining opponents by 159.3 ypg after the break. Opposing quarterbacks have posted a combined 22.0 raw QBR in that three-game stretch.
“[Aranda] don’t say a lot, he’s just watching,” Key said. “He knows a lot of things and it’s like he’s got two steps ahead of the offensive coordinator. He knows what they’ll do, what they’ll change and then we’ll change our defense based on what he knows.”
The second-half improvements have been great, but everything hasn’t been perfect for Aranda’s troops even since the coaching change. The Tigers surrendered touchdowns on the opening drive in each of the past two games, something that had not happened at all in the first five.
In fact, Ole Miss gashed the Tigers for 114 yards and 10 points on its first two drives this past Saturday, and LSU’s defenders know they can’t afford a similar slow start in their next outing against top-ranked Alabama.
“We’ve got to be perfect,” Riley said. “We’ve got to start fast. We didn’t start fast today, and we didn’t start fast last game. So that’s one thing we’ve got to go into.”
The meeting of the minds between Aranda and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will be one of the leading storylines when the Crimson Tide visit Tiger Stadium on Nov. 5, as both coaches rank among the most highly regarded men in their respective positions.
Alabama is also no slouch after halftime, outscoring opponents by an average of 14.75 points per game this season -- a margin that ranks second nationally. But for the first time this season, the Orgeron-led LSU team of the past three games looks like one capable of giving Alabama a fight.
“We’re peaking at the right time, right in November, late October,” defensive lineman Davon Godchaux said. “We’re peaking, and that’s scary.”