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LSU defenders resolve to clean up big-play busts after Arkansas loss

LSU has allowed eight TDs covering at least 36 yards this season, including an 80-yarder to Arkansas' Alex Collins. Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY Sports

BATON ROUGE, La. -- No FBS defense has surrendered fewer explosive plays than LSU’s 27.

For Tigers fans who sat through Saturday’s 31-14 loss to Arkansas -- a game the Razorbacks scored three times on plays that covered 52 yards or more -- it probably doesn’t feel that way. The unfortunate truth is, much like in the Arkansas loss, LSU (7-2, 4-2 SEC) typically doesn’t surrender a boatload of explosive plays (those covering 20 yards or more), but the ones the Tigers do allow are often catastrophic.

"Defensively, here is an interesting statistic, and it just makes you sad, because 53 plays, [LSU’s defense] gave up 239 yards," against Arkansas, LSU coach Les Miles said. "And on three plays they gave up 201 yards. So the point is, for 53 plays, that looked like LSU’s defense. For three plays, it cost you the game."

That would support findings by the stat wizards at CFBMatrix.com that seem all too obvious. Their statistics show that the team that wins the explosive-score battle in a game will win 80 percent of the time. LSU’s 2015 results reflect that trend, as the team with more explosive-play touchdowns has won six of eight games (the LSU-Florida game was a draw).

Arkansas’ three long touchdowns ran LSU’s total of big-play scores surrendered to eight. All eight covered at least 36 yards, and the number grows to 10 if we include two long kick returns for scores.

Only including offensive plays, roughly one in three explosive plays against LSU’s defense has gone for a score, which is how an otherwise effective defensive outing can instead become a disaster. That will be a key concern in LSU’s upcoming game against Ole Miss (7-3, 4-2), as the Rebels have already generated 73 explosive plays -- 25 of which have gone for touchdowns.

"In any game, you want to limit the big plays, the explosive plays, whether it’s pass or run," LSU safety Jalen Mills said after Saturday’s loss. "And [against Arkansas], I feel like we didn’t do that. So that’s why I say we weren’t ourselves today, and that was a big part of the game."

There was a bit of everything in LSU’s breakdowns against the Razorbacks.

Cornerback Dwayne Thomas' slip and bad tackling angles allowed Dominique Reed to streak for a 52-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Early in the second period, safety Rickey Jefferson vacated the middle of the field in run support, creating a clear lane for Alex Collins to break loose for an 80-yard touchdown run. And in the final quarter, safety Jamal Adams was in position to contain a reverse run by Jared Cornelius, but he bit on a run fake inside and allowed Cornelius to break free around the edge for a 69-yard touchdown.

"You don’t always get caught doing something wrong and then the time you do is like a bomb," LSU linebacker Deion Jones said.

When that bomb goes off, Jones said the results can be humiliating for a prideful group of defensive players.

"We take pride in our defense. We don’t want anybody running all the way up the field and hitting their head on the goalpost," Jones said, spouting off a line that he said came from defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and assistant coach Bradley Dale Peveto. "We want to be there so they can hit their heads on us. That’s just what defense is all about."

The Tigers will do well to get back to their early season form in that department with a visit to Ole Miss ahead. The Rebels lead the SEC in scoring offense (40.7 ppg), total offense (526.6 ypg) and passing offense (348.8 ypg), so Saturday will be a difficult time to reverse the trend for LSU, which has surrendered six explosive-play touchdowns in its past five games.

LSU’s defensive players are not willing to accept that these breakdowns will continue to occur, however. Despite what happened against Arkansas, Mills said LSU’s defenders would "never" admit that what happened last Saturday is indicative of what the Tigers truly are on defense.

"You never get to that point," Mills said. "It’s frustrating, and the big plays that we’ve given up this year, Saturday, they were all our mistakes. It’s not something that somebody outschemed us or did something better than us. It was all on us, so those things are fixable."