GLENDALE, Ariz. — Dave Aranda is often lauded as a defensive mastermind, the kind of master tactician who can solve an offense if given the requisite amount of time in the lab.
The reputation only grew on Tuesday as Aranda and his near-comically shorthanded defense blanketed a high-octane UCF offense for most of the Fiesta Bowl.
The 40-32 final tally wasn’t necessarily indicative of how the defense played in limiting UCF to 250 yards of total offense and 17 first downs. And LSU did it without five defensive starters – six if you consider that Jacob Phillips and Grant Delpit each missed a half due to targeting ejections.
So how’d he do it this time? What exotic coverage did the professor cook up to cover for the fact that LSU began the game with three full-time cornerbacks and five scholarship defensive linemen?
How did he adjust once Terrence Alexander’s ejection forced converted receiver Mannie Netherly and Jontre Kirklin — who switched back from receiver for this game — into playing major reps on the outside?
The time, as it turns out, the adjustment was a fairly simple one: hit UCF quarterback Darriel Mack before he has a chance to pick on those inexperienced defensive backs.
“Dave [Aranda] had a great game plan,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “He worked tirelessly. So did our defensive staff and all of our players. This was a great challenge. We blitzed a lot today. We had a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”
LSU sacked Mack five times for a loss of 48 yards, several of which stalled or ended UCF drives. That number grows to six if you include a costly intentional grounding called against Mack for launching the ball out of bounds as a free rusher poured in on him.
Linebacker Patrick Queen, starting in place of Phillips, recorded a team-high nine tackles with one sack as a blitzer. JaCoby Stevens hounded Mack all day and was credited with half of a sack. Devin White and Michael Divinity spent time in the backfield, as well.
That pressure opened things up for Rashard Lawrence to feast against a smaller, more-finesse offensive line. The junior finished with five tackles — four of which came behind the line of scrimmage — and two sacks to earn Defensive MVP honors.
“Big man over there finally got to the ball, to the quarterback,” White said. “That was new. He had two sacks in the game. He won defensive MVP, well-deserved. It all started with him on the front because he’s the leader of that D-line. When he plays well, the whole D-line — really the whole defense plays well. So it started with him. That was something new. He came with it today.”
That pass rush, both from Lawrence and in general, has been the missing piece for LSU for much of this season. LSU totaled a pedestrian 29 sacks in 12 games during the regular season, and Lawrence only had two.
Lawrence is a former five-star recruit, but he’s spent most of his college career either hampered by injuries or doing the dirty work in the trenches. But with so many key players out, LSU decided to turn him loose against UCF.
“Last month and toward the back end of the season, I’ve really been working on my passing rush and just trying to have a good get-off,” Lawrence said. “Working with Coach O. and (Dennis) Johnson day in and day out on conditioning and being able to go. So today they kind of got me isolated with some one-on-one situations, and I took advantage of it.”
Perhaps that’s the secret to LSU’s success. With Aranda calling the shots, even when stars like Greedy Williams and Delpit are gone, there’s enough talent on hand to get the job done anyway.
“The difference tonight was the pressure on the quarterback,” Orgeron said. “We had more pressure on the quarterback than we had all year. And I thought for our guys, that made the difference in the whole game.”