LSU's defense delivers vintage performance in stifling Texas A&M
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis isn't the type to regale the same idiots who predicted his defense would give up a ton of points to Texas A&M with anecdotes explaining how the Tigers clamped down on defending Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and one of the nation's most productive offenses. Chavis visited with recruits on Saturday after LSU demolished the Aggies 34-10 and let his players explain the finer points of the rout. But Tigers coach Les Miles did pass along the message that the coordinator everyone calls Chief gave his players after they'd bottled up Manziel and A&M in the game's first 30 minutes.
"At halftime, Chief talked to the defense and here's what he said," Miles said. "He said, 'Listen, it's not the scheme. It's the great effort and the energy of the guys that are playing for LSU on defense. You've got 30 more minutes, and you've got to play just like that.'"
The defense did play just like that for 30 more minutes. But with apologies to Chavis, it wasn't only the players. It was also the scheme.
Since Manziel has occasionally likened himself to Superman during touchdown celebrations, Chavis must be a mustachioed Lex Luthor. He owns college football's biggest pile of Kryptonite; no defensive coordinator has had more success against Manziel. In the Tigers' 24-19 win in College Station last October, Chavis' defense full of current NFL players intercepted Manziel three times and held him to 276 yards on 29-of-56 passing, and 26 rushing yards.
On Saturday, Chavis' defense full of raw players who have endured some severe growing pains held Manziel to 224 yards on 16-of-41 passing, intercepting him twice and holding him to 54 rushing yards. Chavis sent his defensive ends upfield and told them to stay in their lanes. So even when Manziel ran, he was funneled inside to waiting tacklers. Time and again, Chavis asked his cornerbacks -- including freshmen Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White -- to cover Texas A&M's receivers, including 6-foot-5, 225-pound Mike Evans, one-on-one. Evans came to Tiger Stadium averaging an SEC-best 126.3 receiving yards a game. He left having caught four passes for 51 yards.
By the fourth quarter, Tigers defensive tackle Ego Ferguson was patting Manziel on the head following incompletions the way a parent would pat the head of a toddler who tried really hard but couldn't quite complete a task. "We got punched in the mouth today, and it wasn't fun," Manziel said. "No one wants to get beat like that."
This was how LSU beat people for years, but until Saturday the 2013 Tigers hadn't looked dominant. "That's the kind of LSU defense that we're used to," Miles said. Said LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow: "We showed our heart tonight."
College football pundits predicted a shootout because we haven't seen the Tigers play defense the way they did against the Aggies on Saturday since last season. Seven players from LSU's 2012 unit were selected in the NFL draft. This year's Tigers had allowed 44 points in a loss at Georgia and 38 points in a loss at Alabama. They had collapsed down the stretch in a 27-24 defeat at Ole Miss on Oct. 19. On Saturday, however, they never let A&M breathe. A team that entered the day averaging 49.2 points and 578 yards put up 10 points and 299 yards. "They just kept us guessing," Manziel said. "They kept mixing it up, coming from different places and bringing some blitzes and really getting a free rusher at will. We've got to get back to the basics, back to the fundamentals of pitch and catch and throwing the football around. If we don't establish that, if we don't get that going, then we don't have much chance."
So does Manziel still have a chance at a second consecutive Heisman? The knee-jerk answer after Saturday is no. But Manziel has put up slightly better numbers than he did last season, and memories in the Internet age are short. If he posts huge numbers at Missouri next week, he could play himself back into the mix. If he struggles as he did on Saturday -- which is a possibility if the thumb on his throwing hand is bothering him more than he admits -- then he may not have a chance to match former Ohio State star Archie Griffin, who remains the lone repeat winner.
Saturday's loss might have a bigger effect on the future of Texas A&M's program than it will on Manziel's Heisman chances. USC athletic director Pat Haden will likely target Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin for the Trojans' open coaching position. On Saturday against LSU, Sumlin learned how hard an SEC West team will fight to keep from falling to fourth place in the division. Though the Pac-12 seems to get deeper with each passing year, victories might come easier in Los Angeles. This is especially true now that it appears that Texas will no longer accept mediocrity. If the Longhorns make a correct hire, it could potentially change recruiting dynamics in the Lone Star State. At the moment, Sumlin and his staff have harnessed the powerful brand that comes with being the only SEC team in Texas, and top prospects have jumped on board. If the sleeping giant in Austin awakens, the Aggies will have to fight that much harder for players.
Meanwhile, the Tigers' victory over A&M proves that they still have the same kind of elite athletes they've had since Nick Saban coached in Baton Rouge. This group just needed some seasoning. That's why Miles seemed almost offended that Saturday's win was considered so special. "We're used to big wins," Miles said. "Are you kidding me? This is a team that knows how to play in big games."
Indeed, Saturday was a near-perfect demonstration of the best traits of LSU football under Miles. The defense swarmed the opposing offense. The offense dominated on the ground (5.9 yards a carry) and held the ball for 40 minutes and 19 seconds. The Tigers had the superior group of athletes. Receiver Odell Beckham Jr.'s impression of Manziel for the scout team last week left LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson saying he thought Beckham was faster and more elusive than Manziel. One of the Aggies' greatest advantages in the Manziel era has been the ability to shock opposing defenses with the difference between Manziel's speed on film and his speed in real life. LSU experienced no such shock. The Tigers were ready for Manziel from the moment he took the field.
Chavis deserves credit for that. So do LSU's defenders, who refused to bow to the SEC's newest burgeoning power and suffer the ignominy of a fourth loss. "This," Miles said, "is how the Tigers are meant to play." If the Aggies want to routinely compete in the SEC, it's how Texas A&M will have to learn to play.