Mightier than the sword: LSU’s Greg Penn disappointed this year’s defense fell below program’s standard

Junior linebacker expects to be back in 2024 to lead Tigers' charge

Junior linebacker Greg Penn III (30) was LSUs leading tackler in 2023 with 82 total stops. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

Five days before Christmas, LSU junior linebacker Greg Penn III wasn’t in an overly joyous or cheery mood.

Not about his team’s prospects of playing in a New Year’s Day bowl, but about the overall play of the Tigers’ defense in 2023.

“I’m pissed,” Penn remarked during a Dec. 21 post-practice interview. “(At) The whole defense. I just want to start 2024 off right defensively. We just need to go and play better.”

No. 13 LSU (9-3) faces Wisconsin (7-5) in the ReliaQuest Bowl at 11 a.m. in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.

The game will be televised by ESPN2 and carried locally by 98.1-FM.

With the option of leaving for the NFL Draft, the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Penn took the initiative with local media to express his discontent with this year’s defense, and a plan to try and remedy things next year.

That began when Penn said he was sure about returning in ’24 to be a leader for a group head coach Brian Kelly said would return the top 10 players in terms of snaps played this season.

“I doubt it (changing mind),” he said. “I’ll probably be here. I love LSU. The year we had defensively, I want to come back and get that right. I wouldn’t want to go out on that type of note defensively. I feel like as a defense we need to play better, and I think coming back will help with things like that. I feel we left too many plays out there. I wouldn’t want to leave that tape on film.”

LSU was among the bottom-rated defenses in the Southeastern Conference and ranked No. 90 nationally or worse in three major categories.

The Tigers were No. 90 against the rush (163.8), No. 101st (409.2) in total defense and tied for No. 114th in third-down defense (.905).

“Just everyone doing their job,” Penn said. “Mistakes are going to happen. Nobody’s perfect. That’s not realistic. Everyone’s (got to) play with effort, everyone (got to) play fast, help out your teammate, run to the ball. If somebody missed a tackle, someone (has to) be there to help out. Everyone being relentless.”

Illuminating LSU’s defensive woes was a polar opposite offense, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels, that was the nation’s best in points scored and total offense.

The defense, coordinated by Matt House, served as the whipping boy for a team for fans and media alike with a championship-caliber offense to suffer three losses. That knocked LSU, which was ranked No. 5 to start the season, out of contention for the SEC title or College Football playoffs.

LSU surrendered a school-record 706 total yards in a 55-49 loss at Ole Miss on Sept. 30 and 509 total yards in a 42-28 defeat at Alabama on Nov. 4.

“Everyone knows that we didn’t play well defensively this year,” Penn said. “I think everyone in the building knows that. The defense knows that. We know that’s not the standard and it will get better, I promise you. We know what we need to do, and it starts with this (bowl) game, starting to get it right. That’s what we’re trying to do and that’s start off 2024 right.”

Penn established himself as a mainstay on LSU’s 2022 team, ranking second to Micah Baskerville with 78 tackles and six tackles for loss in 14 starts.

The native of Baltimore, Maryland and graduate of DeMatha Catholic elevated himself to the team’s leading tackler in ’23 in 82 stops. He had a career-high 12 tackles in a 34-31 victory over Arkansas on Sept. 23.

He also had 5 ½ tackles for loss, three sacks, three pass deflections and two interceptions, including game-turning pick in the second half of LSU’s regular-season finale, helping the Tigers rally for a 42-30 victory.

“We’ve just got to do better, and everyone knows that and we will,” said Penn, who has 171 career tackles in 36 games. “I promise you.”

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William Weathers

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