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LSU pass defense must be sharper against Hilltoppers' Brandon Doughty

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU’s oddball streak of facing backup quarterbacks in four straight games looks like it will finally end. And not only will it end, the Tigers will next take on one of the nation’s leading passers in Western Kentucky senior Brandon Doughty on Saturday.

“To be honest, their quarterback is an NFL quarterback,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said. “He’s a great player.”

Doughty’s pro prospects remain to be seen, but he is unquestionably an excellent college player. A season after passing for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns, Doughty once again ranks among the national leaders in numerous statistical categories.

He’s No. 1 in the FBS in completion percentage (74.1), second in passing yards (2,709), second in passing efficiency (186.4) and tied for third in passing touchdowns (24). His 109 passing first downs rank third nationally and his Total Quarterback Rating (86.1) is fourth.

Perhaps the biggest area of concern for No. 5 LSU (6-0) is Doughty and the Hilltoppers’ big-play potential. He is third in the nation with 39 completions of 20-plus yards, which should alarm a Tigers secondary that has surrendered 11 such plays in the last three games, many the result of busted coverages.

“That’s always the No. 1 thing is to not give up big yardage or anything like that. We did that this past game,” LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said of last Saturday’s Florida game, when the Tigers surrendered two completions of 40-plus yards and four passes of 20-plus. “We did give up some big yardage. It’s just a work in progress.”

Saturday’s game will certainly test that progress, as the Hilltoppers (6-1) have lost just once -- 38-35 at Indiana -- and have already defeated an SEC opponent in Vanderbilt. The Tigers are double-digit favorites, but this still represents a prove-it opportunity for a program that prides itself on its play in the secondary.

“We label ourself as DBU [Defensive Back University]. We’ve got to step up in the back end,” Beckwith said. “I think those guys are going to play good defense. We’ve just got to make those windows tight for them and try to get pressure if we can. We should be fine. We just have to put together a good game plan, watch some film and just be ready to go.”

On paper, LSU’s pass defense looks OK. The Tigers are giving up 205 passing yards per game, which ties for 45th nationally, rank 41st in opponent completion percentage (55.8) and ties for 77th with 11 touchdown passes allowed. The numbers aren’t horrible, but they aren’t great, either -- particularly when taking into account who has posted them.

As previously mentioned, LSU faced a backup quarterback in each of the last four games because of injury or suspension: Florida’s Treon Harris (271 yards, 2 TDs vs. LSU), South Carolina’s Perry Orth (200 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), Eastern Michigan’s Brogan Roback (161 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs) and Syracuse’s Zack Mahoney (154 yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT). Before the streak, Auburn started Jeremy Johnson (100 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, plus a rushing TD) against LSU, and he has since been benched.

That leaves Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott as the lone true starter who has faced LSU’s defense to date, and he passed for 335 yards and accounted for two touchdowns against the Tigers.

Although his playing style doesn’t compare much to Prescott’s, sixth-year senior Doughty has similar knowledge of the offense and a wealth of experience. The dropback passer will put the ball in the air early and often, and he has four receivers -- Taywan Taylor (825 receiving yards, 10 TDs), Jared Dangerfield (460-5), Tyler Higbee (463-6) and Nicholas Norris (464-1) -- who have accumulated more yardage than LSU’s top wideout (Malachi Dupre with 311).

“If he’s a pocket guy, most likely he’s a gunslinger. He can throw the ball vertically, which this guy can very well,” LSU safety Jalen Mills said. “So [defending] that comes in with communication -- guys just being able to put themselves in the right position to make a play.”

Vanderbilt did a good job in that department in the opener, limiting Doughty to 209 passing yards and nearly pulling off a win, but Western Kentucky’s quarterback has passed for 350 yards or more in every game since.

If the Tigers can contain Doughty and the Hilltoppers’ potent passing game the way the Commodores did for most of that contest, LSU should win comfortably. However, the Tigers certainly can’t afford to treat Western Kentucky as the typical homecoming patsy – a message that Tigers coach Les Miles said will be obvious as his team prepares for Saturday’s game.

“You watch the film,” Miles said, “[Doughty will] get your attention.”