Tigers try to stay ahead in turnover category

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING. LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery (99) holds the ball aloft after recovering an Alabama fumble at the LSU 10-yard line during last week's game in Tiger Stadium. LSU went 90 yards to score and take a 17-14 lead after the fumble recovery, but Alabama came back from a deficit to win, 21-17.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING. LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery (99) holds the ball aloft after recovering an Alabama fumble at the LSU 10-yard line during last week's game in Tiger Stadium. LSU went 90 yards to score and take a 17-14 lead after the fumble recovery, but Alabama came back from a deficit to win, 21-17.

Defensive struggles are nothing new to LSU.

It’s something the Tigers have grown accustomed to recently, playing in a conference in which half the members rank among the top 25 nationally in scoring defense. So when opportunity knocks, LSU knows it needs to answer — especially when it comes to turnovers.

It’s one of the few things most college football coaches will agree on: The team that wins the turnover category will usually win the game.

That’s held true for the Tigers for the most part this season. LSU has lost the turnover battle in just two games so far, squeaking by Towson after losing three fumbles back in Week 5 but falling at Florida after coughing it up twice and throwing an interception.

The one glaring exception came last week, when the Tigers needed history on their side the most. LSU forced two fumbles against No. 1 Alabama — a team that had only lost six fumbles in its first eight games — but still came out on the wrong end, thanks to a last-minute touchdown drive that put the Tigers’ efforts to waste.

“We knew going in that they are a very good team and turnovers were going to be huge for us,” said junior safety Eric Reid. “We won the turnover battle, and it played a huge part of the game for us. We were winning until, well, as everyone knows, that last drive. We did what we needed to do we put ourselves in a great position, we just couldn’t stick it out till the very end.”

Saturday’s defensive performance wasn’t out of the ordinary, either.

LSU is tied with the Tide for the most turnovers in the Southeastern Conference this season with 23 takeaways. The Tigers have snagged 13 interceptions and 10 fumbles and rank No. 3 in the conference with a plus-11 turnover margin thanks to a recent flurry of takeaways the past three weeks.

In the first six games of the season, LSU forced 14 turnovers, eight interceptions and six fumbles. The past three contests, the Tigers have nearly doubled their output, chalking up five fumbled and four interceptions for a total of nine takeaways.

“We develop as a team as the season went on we’ve grown and guys have gotten no older,” Reid said. “Freshmen aren’t freshman anymore. We’ve developed and it comes with practice.”

Reid said the defense doesn’t specifically run stripping or interception drills in practice, but the coaches incorporate turnovers into the everyday training.

“When we are practicing, coach wants us to get the ball out,” Reid said. “If we’re in position to catch the interception, he doesn’t want you to drop it. It’s not specific drills, but it’s a part of every drill.”

The efforts have certainly paid dividends. Turnovers almost single-handedly won the Texas A&M game for LSU.

The Tigers forced two fumbles and picked off quarterback Johnny Manziel three times en route to the tight 24-19 victory.

It also helps when the offense does its job. After throwing interceptions in two of the first three games this season, junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger has thrown two picks in the past seven contests.

LSU also hasn’t lost a fumble since the Florida loss.

“I don’t know if it’s the right word, but for lack of a better word, we were a little careless at the beginning of the year,” Mettenberger said. “Now we’re really focused on making the right reads, on my part, holding onto the ball when it’s in traffic, and just the little things like that hope you win games.”

The Tigers will need to tap into that again Saturday as they face a Mississippi State squad that, aside from Alabama, is statistically the best turnover team in the SEC.

The Bulldogs ranks second in the conference with a plus-13 turnover margin, with 21 takeaways and just eight turnovers. MSU quarterback Tyler Russell is one of just seven quarterbacks nationally with at least 15 passing touchdowns and no more than three interceptions this season, and defensive back Johnthan Banks leads the conference with four interceptions and 124 return yards.

LSU has more wins against MSU than any other team in the SEC, but the Bulldogs have recently given the Tigers a run for their money, including last year’s 19-6 game which was LSU’s closest contest of the season, save Alabama.

“They’ve always had a pretty big defense tapped in here,” LSU coach Les Miles said of MSU. “I think they’re better on offense. I don’t know that they’ve adopted any specific style against us that’s different than any other teams. They’ve had really quality defenses every year we’ve played.”