LSU’s sixth-ranked football team is coming off its best defensive performance of the season in a 17-6 victory against Florida on Saturday.
The Tigers running game, which has had just one performance that netted fewer than 150 yards, had 175 yards and two touchdowns against the top-rated run defense in the country.
The passing game, although it was partly by design, had its least productive game of the season as Zach Mettenberger finished with season-lows in attempts (17), completions (nine) and yards (152) in his first touchdown-less game of the season.
So the challenge this week for LSU is to have each facet of its game, including the pretty steady special teams, performing at a high level when it visits Ole Miss on Saturday night.
Cornerback Jalen Mills said Monday that he talked with Mettenberger in the locker room after the Florida game about that very prospect.
“I said,” Mills recalled before practice, ““if we get on the same page, and we play defense like that with you guys scoring 40 points, it can really get scary.”
The defense appears to be the final piece to the puzzle.
In the past two weeks, the Tigers have reduced mental mistakes such as two that left Georgia receivers uncovered on touchdown passes in a 44-41 loss three weeks ago.
LSU has allowed just three field goals in its past six quarters since the loss at Georgia and a first half at Mississippi State in which it led 28-23 on its way to a 59-26 win.
“Confidence is really high, and guys are playing with the swagger that’s been played with here over the years,” Mills said.
The defense held the Gators to the second-fewest rushing yards (111) by a Tigers opponent this season, the fewest such passing yards (129) and the fewest total yards (240), and kept an opponent out of the end zone for the first time this season.
“The games before that, it was just mistakes,” linebacker Kwon Alexander said. “We had to fix those mistakes to be one of the great teams.”
The improved defense was complemented by an offense that chose to ride its running game and scale back its record-setting passing game against Florida.
The Tigers passed the ball on 30 percent of their plays against the Gators, the lowest percentage of the season.
“The offense did exactly what it needed to do: Controlled the game, moved the football, was smart with the ball, and finished the game,” coach Les Miles said. “In the back end of the game, the opponent trying to get the ball back, felt like the right strategy was employed, and we just kept it kind of how it’s supposed to go.”
After allowing Florida to drive to a first-quarter field goal, LSU forced five consecutive punts before the Gators kicked another field goal in the fourth quarter. The Tigers took the lead for good four seconds into the fourth quarter.
In a game in which Florida possessed the ball for nearly nine minutes more than LSU, the Tigers had their biggest time-of-possession advantage in the fourth quarter, holding the ball for 8:04 and running the ball on 12 of 19 plays, including the final seven as they ran out the final 3:51.
Though he failed to score a touchdown for the first time in a game in which he played this season, Jeremy Hill had his fourth 100-yard game in the five since returning to the starting lineup after being disciplined at the start of the season.
“I don’t think there’s ever been any question that we can be that kind of team,” Miles said. “I think our team recognizes they can play in that kind of game. I don’t think there’s any question that that was what they were looking for, too.”
The run-oriented, defense-oriented game brought to an end the Tigers’ record streaks of six consecutive games with 35 or more points and six consecutive games with 400 or more yards.
“Coach Miles wanted us to play tough, hard-nosed, physical football with Florida this week,” defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said. “(Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron) said, ‘We can do that. We’ve been passing the ball a lot lately. We can give (wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.) a bit of a rest.’
“Our offense has been doing a great job. Defensively all we’ve got to do is do what we did this past week the rest of the season, and I don’t think anybody can beat us.”
Despite the modest passing numbers, LSU still has the most efficient passing offense in the Southeastern Conference, and Mettenberger is still on pace to break the school records for passing yards and passing touchdowns in a season.
The Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham of the first six games, the Hill of four of the past five, and the defense from last week would form a pretty formidable team moving forward — if LSU is able to pull it all together at once.
“I feel like this offense is really making strides and getting better each week,” tackle La’el Collins said. “Every week we’re showing something we’ve gotten better at.
“We’ve come a long way as a team, but it’s still a process. The road to a championship is always under construction and that’s the way we like to approach it.”