BATON ROUGE, La. -- Look no further than the front seven for an explanation of why LSU is suddenly back to playing its trademark tough defense. And give some credit to the Tigers' offensive line, too.
LSU coach Les Miles said after Saturday's 10-7 win against previously unbeaten Ole Miss that the Tigers' extra practice time with the starting offensive line going against the starting defensive line has toughened both groups -- and they're playing smarter and more effectively as a result.
"The offensive line and the defensive line go against each other and they talk about gap integrity and they talk about not being pushed and making sure that you did the things, technically, that you're capable of," Miles said. "I think that offensively we improved and defensively we improved. I think that that [the reason is] probably the big men on both sides of the ball."
The defensive line, particularly the interior line, was a clear weakness early in the season when the Tigers faced strong competition. Mississippi State and Auburn's offenses gashed LSU up the middle and posted astronomical yardage totals (570 yards for Mississippi State, 566 for Auburn) that LSU fans are not accustomed to seeing against John Chavis' defense.
But as the season progressed, sophomore Christian LaCouture and true freshman Davon Godchaux have settled into starting roles at tackle, Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco have become more reliable playmakers at end and the defense has improved around them.
"We just came together as a group and we said we're going to put all that stuff behind us and we're just going to keep moving forward," said LSU safety Ronald Martin, who made the game-saving interception at the goal line on Ole Miss' final play Saturday. "We knew we're a great defense and we're just going to have to keep our confidence up. That's what I think we did. We put all of our bad things to the side and we just stepped up and improved."
There was nothing great about the way the Tigers performed against the offensive juggernauts from Mississippi State and Auburn, but there were signs of increasing competence when the level of difficulty dropped and LSU faced Florida and Kentucky. They forced a couple of key turnovers and squeaked past the Gators for their first SEC win and then dominated an improving Wildcats team the next Saturday to get back to .500 in SEC play.
Playing that effectively against then-No. 3 Ole Miss seemed unlikely prior to kickoff, but Chavis' defense was once again outstanding. If they had actually held onto all of the Bo Wallace passes that hit LSU defenders in the hands, they would have finished with four or five interceptions instead of one.
Nonetheless, their aggressive mentality, a raucous Tiger Stadium crowd and a weakened Ole Miss offensive line that was without two starters for portions of the game combined to help the defense lead LSU to its biggest win of the season.
"I would say this for our entire team, not just Bo: I thought that our demeanor was a bit different in that environment, and I thought we let things get to us that have not bothered us earlier in the season and seemed to rattle us a little bit," Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. "He missed some open guys. He also made some really good throws. But it just seemed that our demeanor was a little bit different as a team."
Credit Chavis, as well. The Tigers' veteran defensive coordinator identified the Rebels' issues along the line and sent consistent pressure after Wallace as a result. Ole Miss' offense struggled throughout the second half as LSU defenders continuously swatted down Wallace throws and chased him from the pocket.
"I can't tell you the number of balls that we knocked down. That's nerve-wracking to a quarterback and I think it doesn't allow them the ability to just have easy plays," Miles said. "And when you do that, that means that every play is under duress and being worked. I think that defense, the success that they had, is based on those things."