BATON ROUGE, La. -- Deion Jones' interception return for a touchdown last Saturday against Eastern Michigan wasn’t just important within the framework of a single game, although it did help put away LSU’s 44-22 victory.
Jones’ pick-six -- where freshman defensive end Arden Key forced a bad throw by applying heavy pressure to Eagles quarterback Brogan Roback -- was another example of the improvement in LSU’s formerly listless pass rush.
“They get pressure on the quarterback, the quarterback gets to moving around and things like what happened Saturday -- we got pressure Saturday and Deion got him a pick,” LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “Things like that happen when you get pressure. It’s an issue that’s been stressed time after time again since the summer: just get pressure on the quarterback. They’ve been doing a great job of it.”
Improving LSU’s 2014 total of 19 sacks -- which tied for 101st nationally and was less than half of what the 2011 SEC championship defense recorded -- was one of the biggest objectives of new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and line coach Ed Orgeron. Moreover, the Tigers knew they needed to generate more consistent pressure against opposing passers despite breaking in two new starting defensive ends.
Last season’s starters, Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, were outstanding sideline-to-sideline players, but they failed to complete many sacks. Rasco led the team with just four quarterback takedowns and Hunter had 1.5.
“We’re attacking more and playing relentless,” Neal said, “but there are still some things that we need to tighten up and tune up to be great.”
That’s true. Entering Saturday’s game against South Carolina (2-3, 0-3 SEC), LSU could stand to supply a more consistent rush. There have been stretches where LSU’s pressure has disappeared, giving quarterbacks a chance to survey the field and find open receivers. But the improvement to date is considerable.
Instead of ranking near the bottom of the national rankings in sacks, the Tigers (4-0, 2-0) now rank 34th. Two other ESPN Stats & Info metrics also exemplify the difference Orgeron has made.
LSU’s sack rate -- which measures the percentage of quarterback dropbacks where the defense recorded a sack -- is 7.5 percent, which ranks 31st. That’s LSU’s best percentage since ranking 12th in the FBS with a 8.2 percent sack rate in 2011. Last season, the Tigers were 99th by sacking the quarterback just 4.7 percent of the time he dropped back to pass.
The Tigers rank 19th in pressure percentage, which measures the percentage of dropbacks where the quarterback is sacked, under duress or hit. Their 29.3 percentage is a big jump from last season, when the Tigers ranked 56th with a pressure percentage of 20.6.
“If pressure gets back there in two to three seconds, anybody can play in the secondary,” defensive back Dwayne Thomas said. “But those guys, they worked their butts off. Coach Orgeron, he works them hard, extremely hard. They’re probably one of the hardest-working groups on the team -- besides the secondary, I would say. Their work and effort is showing out on the field.”
Their goal this Saturday will be to force more mistakes by South Carolina’s quarterback Lorenzo Nunez. The true freshman is an exceptional runner, but also has a tendency to throw into coverage -- as evidenced by his three-interception performance in last week’s 24-10 loss to Missouri.
Nunez’s mobility might make him more difficult to track down, but the Gamecocks’ offensive line has been average at best overall, surrendering nine sacks overall and four last week against Mizzou.
“If we get him rattled, show him different safety looks and play a lot of press and get the receivers rattled and make him throw some tight balls in the hole and see if we come out [with interceptions],” Thomas said.