By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
ORLANDO, Fla. — Dave Aranda is already proving himself worth every penny of the newly-signed contract extension that’ll make him the highest-paid defensive coordinator in college football.
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LSU’s defensive guru put on a clinic Saturday in shutting down the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
The Tigers sacked Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson eight times and stifled the typically high-flying Cardinal attack to just 220 yards of total offense as No. 20 LSU (8-4) finished its season with a 29-9 smothering of No. 13 Louisville (9-4) at the BWW Citrus Bowl in Camping World Stadium Saturday.
As Ed Orgeron explained it, fresh off his first official win as LSU’s full-time head coach, that’s simply what happens when Aranda is given three weeks to prepare for an opponent.
While the team broke for Christmas, Aranda prepared a notebook on the Cardinal offense. He spent enough time studying film to master Louisville’s tendencies while adjusting some of his own. Specifically, Orgeron said, he decided to bring a lot more heat.
“It was a tremendous job by Dave,” Orgeron said. “When you give a guy like (Bobby) Petrino three weeks and an offense like Louisville has, if you line up in the same thing you have been practicing, they’re probably having success, so I thought it was brilliant on Dave’s part to mix it up … He was one step ahead.”
“He’s a scientist,” defensive end Lewis Neal added.
With the defense dominating, Derrius Guice provided all the firepower LSU would need. The sophomore sensation, starting again in place of Leonard Fournette, accounted for 149 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns.
“LSU is RBU,” Guice said, “so when one man goes down, you’ve got to step up, and I feel like I’ve done a great job of stepping up this year.”
Guice broke loose for a 70-yard scoring scamper in the third quarter top put LSU ahead 26-6 and affectively seal the result. That effort earned Guice MVP honors for the 71st Citrus Bowl, but there’s no question defense won the day.
“The defense played a hell of a game,” Guice summarized.
At the time of Guice’s second score, Jackson had completed all of two passes on 11 attempts while taking seven sacks. He surpass 100 yards passing until his 21st attempt and finished the game 10-for-27 with 153 yards with a fumble.
LSU held a quarterback who accounted for 51 touchdowns this season out of the end zone and stopped Louisville on its first 13 third-down attempts.
“We knew what he was going to do,” Neal said. “We knew his moves. We knew that if we played good technique ball and followed the game plan, we’d come out on top.”
Louisville actually struck first thanks to a 53-yard strike from Jackson to James Quick, who broke open down the middle of the field to set up first-and-goal. However, the LSU defense stiffened there and forced the Cardinals to settle for a 24-yard Blanton Creque field goal.
They wouldn’t pick up another first down until the third quarter. Louisville finished the first half with just 57 total yards — 53 of which came on one play.
“They had an explosive play, we bounced back from it and we never looked back,” said safety Jamal Adams, who put the blame on himself for the one completed deep ball. “As a DB, as a defense, if a play happens, you’ve just got to move on.”
LSU took the lead on the first play of the second quarter. Following two completions from Danny Etling to Malachi Dupre — the latter being a one-handed circus catch— Etling found a wide-open Colin Jeter in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown.
The Tigers followed that 57-yard drive with a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown march to extend the lead to 14-3. A leaping grab through pass interference by D.J. Chark set up first-and-goal, and three plays later Etling hit Guice for his second 1-yard touchdown pass of the afternoon.
Success in the passing game eventually opened up more room to run for Guice, who averaged an uncharacteristically low 2.8 yards per carry in the first half before exploding for a long touchdown in the second half.
“It’s rare that a defense can hold any of our running backs (to such a small average),” fullback J.D. Moore said. “We took that as a chip on our shoulders to be more successful in the running game in the second half. Balance obviously helps. The more you throw the ball, the less they can stack the box.”
LSU tacked on a safety late in the half when Arden Key came unblocked to sack Jackson in his own end zone. Key would later sack Jackson again, his 12th of the season, to break Gabe Northern’s single-season program record of 11.
“Arden is probably the best pass rusher in college football,” said cornerback Tre’Davious White. “That’s a guy who’s been wreaking havoc for the first two years he played here.”
Key wasn’t alone in the Louisville backfield.
Fellow outside linebacker Tashawn Bower added three sacks of his own. Freshman Rashard Lawrence recorded the first sack of his collegiate career. Linebacker Devin White, another true freshman, began the sack party of Jackson.
“Tremendous job,” Adams said of the front seven. “Coach Pete Jenkins is the best in the country. He gets those guys right.”
The victory sends a decorated senior class out on a high note and LSU into 2017 riding a wave of momentum.
There will be holes that need to be filled like Ethan Pocic at center, Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley at linebacker, Neal at defensive end and Travin Dural at receiver. And decisions are still to come from the likes of Jamal Adams and Malachi Dupre.
But so long as Guice is in the backfield and Aranda is organizing a defense loaded with young talent, the future remains bright under Orgeron.