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Struggling offense gets attention, but LSU's defense has been solid all season

BATON ROUGE, La. -- In the two games LSU has lost to date, the Tigers surrendered a grand total of one touchdown.

Think about that for a second. ONE touchdown.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle over LSU’s disappointing play on offense -- and the coaching turnover those issues created -- is the reality that first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has done solid work, frequently under trying circumstances.

Even when shaky punts gave opponents outstanding field position or when the offense quickly went three-and-out and sent the defense right back out onto the field, Aranda’s group still consistently managed to keep LSU (3-2, 2-1 SEC) in ballgames.

LSU’s numbers look good in the defensive statistics we normally examine first -- seventh nationally in scoring defense (14.8 ppg), 21st in total defense (326.0 ypg) and 22nd in yards allowed per play (4.78) -- but the Tigers’ solid play extends well beyond those categories.

Only one FBS defense has surrendered fewer offensive touchdowns than LSU’s five (Ohio State with four), the Tigers rarely surrender long drives, and Aranda’s troops are also sneakily successful once opponents drive inside LSU’s 20-yard line.

Rarely have they been able to prevent opponents from scoring at all, but those teams typically settle for threes instead of sixes.

LSU opponents have scored on 13 of 15 red-zone drives, with that 86.7-percent success rate causing LSU to rank 75th nationally in red-zone defense. Doesn’t sound too great does it? However, opponents have scored just three touchdowns on 15 red-zone possessions, and that 20-percent touchdown rate makes LSU’s defense the best in the nation in that category. The Tigers have forced 10 red-zone field goals, which ties for the most of any FBS defense.

Take the 18-13 loss to Auburn for example. Gus Malzahn’s team drove inside LSU’s 20 six times, but LSU’s defense held once on fourth-and-goal at the 1 and otherwise forced five field goals.

Typically that’s enough to win a ballgame. Unfortunately for LSU and coach Les Miles, who was fired the next day, Auburn kicker Daniel Carlson went 6-for-6 on field-goal tries and LSU’s last-second touchdown pass to win the game was overturned because LSU failed to get the play off in time.

LSU’s defense has not been especially successful at ending opponent drives early, which seems odd given that no FBS defense has allowed fewer opponent drives that covered 60-plus yards than LSU (six). The Tigers have forced just 15 three-and-outs this season, which ties for 83rd, and their total of 23 opponent possessions that covered three plays or less ranks 96th.

Two factors that contribute here: the Tigers are tied for 80th in turnovers generated (seven) and sit 105th with just 24 tackles for loss. It’s difficult to immediately end a drive or force a quick punt if your defense isn’t creating takeaways and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage that force offenses to stray from their original plans.

But even if success rarely comes quickly for LSU’s defense, it typically comes eventually. The Tigers are 17th in third-down defense (29.1 percent conversion rate) and tied for 18th in both first downs allowed per game (16.8) and plays allowed that covered 10 yards or more (59).

The outcomes against Auburn and in the 16-14 loss to Wisconsin spoiled the overall outings, but LSU’s defense was more than good enough to win both times -- as it has been each week thus far. LSU ranks eighth in ESPN’s defensive efficiency rating with an 84.6 score. The seven teams with higher defensive efficiency ratings -- Alabama, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Clemson and Washington -- are a combined 37-2.

Aranda’s defense gave its best performance of the season in its most recent game, limiting a previously explosive Missouri offense to 265 yards, 4.4 yards per play and seven meaningless points in the fourth quarter. They paired that dominance with easily the most productive game of the year by a reworked offense, resulting in a 42-7 victory in interim coach Ed Orgeron’s debut.

LSU’s offensive shortcomings drew most of the attention early in the season, and its outburst against Mizzou is what gives the Tigers hope that they’ll be a team on the rise in the second half of the season. Aranda’s defense has consistently done its part, so if the offensive surge continues, perhaps LSU still might live up to the top-10 billing it received before the season started.