LSU has a half-dozen new starters on defense and a new strong-armed starting quarterback on offense.
It lost its most dynamic player when Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team Aug. 10, leaving roles to be filled on defense and special teams. Starting left tackle Chris Faulk was likely lost for the season when he suffered a knee injury in practice last week.
But sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The Tigers’ formula for success after two games looks a lot like the one they used last season before all those changes took place.
The defense has been mostly dominant, allowing an average of 201 yards and 8½ points in beating North Texas (41-14) and Washington (41-3). The running game has amassed 558 yards rushing, allowing Zach Mettenberger to supplement the ground game, not carry the offense. The special teams have made key contributions in both games.
Strong defense, running game and special teams. Sound familiar?
“I think we’re improving,” safety Eric Reid said of the defense, “but I don’t think we’re quite to where we were last year. Last year we improved as the season went on, so that’s what we’re looking to do this year, get better every week.”
The defense got better from the first game to the second. There were no major breakdowns like the two Reid took responsibility for in the opener. The Huskies’ only points came after they recovered Odell Beckham Jr.’s fumble on the opening kickoff at the Tigers’ 20.
After getting no sacks in the opener, the defense had four against Washington and also had seven quarterback hurries.
“Guys from start to finish were just making plays all around on every spot of the field with the defense,” end Barkevious Mingo said.
The Tigers held Washington to 26 yards rushing on 24 carries, the lowest rushing total they have allowed since holding Northwestern State to minus-4 in the second game of last season.
LSU’s running game, on the other hand, was dominant for the second consecutive week, accumulating 242 yards on 52 carries. The Tigers utilized four halfbacks as Spencer Ware returned from injury to join Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Michael Ford.
“Everyone knows that when you go into Tiger Stadium, LSU is going to play dominant,” Blue said. “(Ford and Ware) played dominant. When their number’s called, they see the opportunity at hand and seize it.”
The success of the running game made things easier for Mettenberger, who was on target all night. He completed 12 of 18 passes, and most of his incompletions could have been caught. He passed for 195 yards and a touchdown and didn’t turn the ball over after throwing an interception from the North Texas 7 a week earlier.
“I was definitely more comfortable this week and getting used to playing the game again,” said Mettenberger, who now has two college starts.
Mettenberger was under far less pressure than he was a week earlier.
“I’m really proud of the O-line,” he said. “I didn’t get touched, and that’s always a good thing.”
The line was playing its first game without Faulk, who was replaced by Josh Dworaczyk, a sixth-year senior who has played primarily guard.
“Josh is really our most reliable offensive lineman,” Mettenberger said. “He can play every position if we need him to, His presence is huge for me because he’s a six-year guy and because of the leadership he brings.”
Beckham’s fumble was the main blemish on the special teams. He returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown in the opener.
Brad Wing returned after sitting out the opener as a precaution because of a tight hamstring and averaged 54.3 yards on three punts. He lined a 62-yarder into a 12-mph wind that went out of bounds at the Washington 4, tilting the field position and helping to set up the Tigers first touchdown.
“We came out last week and were a bit slow and a bit sloppy,” Wing said. “We just really focused this week during practice on the little things and the technical side of things. We looked a lot better.”
The third-ranked Tigers have another tune-up against Idaho next Saturday in Tiger Stadium before opening Southeastern Conference play at Auburn on Sept. 22.
“If we do right things and we improve,” coach Les Miles said, “we have the potential to be a dominant football team. That will be determined down the road.”