After getting roughed up by Georgia, LSU’s defensive line is forging its own identity, and making opponents pay the price
Ahead of a film session Monday with defensive line coach Brick Haley, Jermauria Rasco could have felt at ease about the footage from a victory over Florida.
On a third-and-goal at LSU’s 10-yard line, Rasco rushed unblocked and dove at Murphy’s feet, again forcing a rushed release. Two plays into the next drive, Rasco and Micah Eugene nearly paired up for a sack, capping a banner day for the pass rusher with four quarterback hurries.
Rasco’s stat line still didn’t make him less skittish about facing Haley.
“I don’t want to go in there with my chest poking out,” Rasco said. “He’s going to make it cave right in.”
To the untrained eye, though, a position group largely dormant at Georgia now has enough depth to spell starters, roll through 21 different combinations to notch a sack, three tackles for loss, two pass breakups and four quarterback hurries.
Or put simply: They resemble a pack of maulers in the trenches and quell any talk of an identity crisis.
“We found it with these past couple of weeks,” defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said. “It’s just getting after the ball (and) doing what we do best: coming in packs.”
That’s ill-timed, too, for Ole Miss (3-3, 1-3 Southeastern Conference), which hosts sixth-ranked LSU (6-1, 3-1) at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Rebels offensive line has allowed 16 sacks to tie for the most in the SEC.
Three weeks ago, the potential threat posed by LSU’s front four seemed minimal after it failed to produce a negative play in a 44-41 loss that was a bottoming-out for the defense.
“It kind of opened our eyes up,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “We weren’t playing to our potential yet.”
The past two years set a lofty standard.
In 2011, defensive coordinator John Chavis’ unit produced a pressure play — a hurry, sack, pass breakup or tackle for loss — on roughly 27 percent of snaps. Half of those belonged to the defensive line, which was responsible for almost 10 of those plays per game.
Last season, the number slipped to roughly nine pressures per game with stalwarts off the edge in Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery along with interior hosses Bennie Logan and Josh Downs.
Promoting Johnson, Ferguson, Danielle Hunter and Rasco and trying to build depth was expected to lead to a slight dip, but the line was averaging just six pressure plays — and less than a sack — per game this season.
So it produced a tension of living up to tradition for a group trying to carve out its own place in that history.
“The past is the past,” Johnson said. “No disrespect to anybody that’s played here, but we have our own legacy to make.”
And the quartet was having to shoulder a larger share of the snaps. At tackle, Quentin Thomas saw sparse action outside of reps in blowouts against Washington, Idaho and Towson, while Christian LaCouture is an early enrolling freshman. Meanwhile, junior defensive end Jordan Allen missed the bulk of last season with a torn ACL.
But at Mississippi State, LSU coach Les Miles cast his lot with youth, putting newcomers on the field for increased reps. The line produced two sacks and two hurries, while Thomas, LaCouture and freshman defensive end Tashawn Bower saw action for longer stretches — a key in the group’s resurgence.
“Just to have a little bit of time to ourselves, get water in our system and suck in deep, deep breaths,” Johnson said of the benefits. “It takes a man to step in early and play in the SEC.”
Against Florida, the trio was on the field for a combined 35 plays. For example, LaCouture, a 6-5, 290-pound native of Lincoln, Neb., saw 16 snaps, which were split between instances where Chavis went with a five-man front in short-yardage situations or giving Ferguson a breather.
No, LaCouture didn’t make a jaw-dropping play, but he is a skilled technician able to get off blocks and plug seams, Ferguson said.
“He’s rarely wrong in what he does, and (he) understands when you go into games he’s always asking what his assignment is and what needs to be done,” Ferguson said. “There’s no drop off or him getting blown off the ball. He’s always in his assignment.”
The same goes for the 14 snaps doled out to Thomas, who was often paired with LaCouture and Allen, while Rasco and Hunter swapped out.
And it shows an implied trust by Chavis, who not only reflects that in snaps but the types of fronts, calls and blitzes he sends down from on high in the coaches box.
“He had it on his mind from the first snap to the last,” Johnson said. “That’s why he kept throwing out more blitzes and letting people rush more and send cornerbacks off the edge. It was more traditional LSU football (from) over the past five years that you’ve seen.”
Look no further than a crucial third down on Florida’s ill-fated final drive when Allen came unblocked off the right edge, forcing Murphy to flee the pocket. Sliding to his left, he ran into a blitzing Mills for a sack and 12-yard loss that made it an impossible fourth-and-27.
While the group is on pace for just 16 sacks, or 11.5 less than last year, it’s efforts could potentially yield 28 hurries and 15 pass break ups — figures in line with those hulking men that came before in Baton Rouge. Failing all else, the line is orchestrating chaos for the peers on their side of the ball.
“They’re doing a great job,” linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “They’re creating a lot of lanes for us and the safeties to get into and rush the quarterback. They’re still getting pressure.”
What’s scarier, too, is the line doesn’t mind adding charity to the mix.
“I might not get the sack,” Ferguson said. “But if he runs away from the pack and someone else gets the sack, it’s just as good.”