LSU further proves depth, intensity by rolling over visiting Washington
No. 3 LSU looked like a team on another level in its 41-3 blowout over Washington
The Tigers are truly among only a few elite teams, thanks largely to their depth
With a roster like LSU's, no starting spot is safe, which breeds an intense squad
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Assembled differently and with a few replacement words to get the syllables synced, the message written on the dry erase board in LSU's ready room Saturday might have made a hell of a haiku. This is Louisiana, so it's possible the first line meant something other than water or Gatorade, but the rest of the free verse seemed fairly self-explanatory.
That's precisely what the Tigers provided Saturday. On a night when SEC West rival Arkansas melted down against Louisiana-Monroe and several other "elite" programs suffered humiliating defeats to lesser opponents, LSU made Washington look like a cupcake in a 41-3 win. The Huskies may as well have been Savannah State for all the fight they could muster. Their only points came after a three-and-out following a gift fumble by LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. on the opening kickoff. Even though they start a future high-round draft pick at quarterback, they never sniffed the end zone again. But here's the thing. Washington is a good -- or at the very least adequate -- Pac-12 team. Against almost anyone else, the Huskies would have competed or at least kept things respectable. LSU is a different animal, though. That animal is a tiger, and simply bringing a live big cat to practice, as Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian did this week, doesn't adequately simulate LSU. To provide the proper look, Sarkisian would have had to ask his offensive linemen to block the tiger.
For the second consecutive season, LSU lives in an echelon with a tiny population. There is Alabama, which will once again stand in the way of the Tigers' national title dreams. The Crimson Tide, though not an exact match because of schematic differences, are as close to a doppelganger as LSU has. Out west, there are USC and Oregon, but they'll probably have to play twice, and there is no guarantee either could hang with the SEC's best. Most of you will not want to hear this, but it's quite possible the Nov. 3 matchup between LSU and Alabama in Baton Rouge could be another round one.
Like Alabama, LSU has armored itself against an upset by playing a style short on gimmicks and long on the systematic swallowing of opponents' souls. The depth at tailback and defensive line allow coaches to replace anyone having an off day with an equal talent grateful for the playing time. "Their tailback group is probably the most impressive group I've ever seen," Sarkisian said after Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Kenny Hilliard gashed the Huskies for a combined 233 yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries. "Those are four NFL backs." LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger agrees. "Those dudes are freaks back there," Mettenberger said of his backs. "They just pound the d-line. They get tired, and they aren't going to rush as hard because they're gassed."
Remember, LSU whipped eventual Pac-12 champ Oregon and eventual Big East champ West Virginia last year along with going undefeated in the SEC. The Tigers brought back most of their defense -- with a few extremely notable exceptions we'll discuss later -- and they seem to have corrected their glaring deficiency on offense. The poor quarterback play that got LSU shut out by Alabama in the BCS title game seems less likely with Mettenberger under center. The 6-foot-5, 230-pounder with the shoulder-mounted howitzer began his career at Georgia, got tossed after a night of stupidity and came to LSU by way of a Kansas junior college. He can make the throws Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee couldn't, but he hasn't been tested by a ferocious defense yet.
Saturday, Mettenberger completed 12 of 18 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown, but those numbers would have looked much better if not for a rash of drops. He still must move better in the pocket, but he can fire a laser beam into a tight window from a healthy distance, and he gives LSU's offense a dimension it lacked while the Tigers went 13-1 last season. Besides, most opponents will be so terrified of LSU's run game that they won't smother the Tigers' receivers. Huskies defensive backs were guilty of that Saturday. "When they're able to run the ball the way they were running, you can get nosy in the secondary," Sarkisian said. "You start looking in the backfield because you want to lend support."
LSU's support system comes from a seemingly endless supply of young talent. Saturday, the Tigers played 19 freshmen or redshirt freshmen and 17 sophomores. The defensive line, which accounted for three sacks and six hurries, constantly rotates in fresh players. "I think we're a little deeper than we were last year," said defensive end Barkevious Mingo. "We're six or seven deep at end." That depth comes from a willingness to toss young players into the pool and with the hope they can swim. "We play a lot of people," defensive coordinator John Chavis said. "We don't recruit guys to redshirt. ... If you've recruited the right kind of people, they're not going to be here for four years anyway."
That's why, when LSU had to dismiss its returning Heisman finalist shortly before the season began, the Tigers plugged in a freshman and kept going. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu would certainly have starred for this team as well, but Jalen Mills, who played last year for DeSoto (Texas) High, finished second on the team in tackles Saturday with seven and snagged his first-career interception. And by the way, LSU also lost its starting left offensive tackle this week when Chris Faulk injured his knee. Such a loss would cripple a lot of offenses, but not at LSU. The Tigers simply brought in Josh Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior and two-year starter who served as a student coach in 2011 while rehabbing an injury.
LSU isn't perfect. The Tigers have forced only three turnovers compared to five at this point last season, but Chavis is willing to accept that because his defense has forced 13 three-and-outs on the 22 opponents' possessions that didn't end in turnovers. At this point, LSU's toughest opponent may be boredom. Auburn's offense couldn't score on Mississippi State. Florida has posed little threat to the Tigers the past two seasons. A visit from South Carolina on Oct. 13 seems the only legitimate challenge between now and the next Footballpocalypse on Nov. 3.
Of course, the Tigers who start can't afford to regard the rest of their schedule so lightly. If they do, they'll get passed by the youngsters of similar ability desperate for one more snap than last week. That constant uneasiness can't help but breed even more hardnosed kickass football intensity.
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