MORAN: Pass rush picks up the save as LSU holds off Mississippi State 23-20

By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor

Arden Key knew he barely missed his man on third down.

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So when Dave Aranda dialed up the same pressure package on fourth down, LSU’s pass rusher extraordinaire made sure he went ahead and finished the job.

“I got real close,” Key smiled. “They said we’re running it again, and I said ‘Ok, I’ve got to get him. I’m going to get him.”

Spoiler alert: He did.

Rewind the clock back one hour and the Tigers had held a commanding 23-3 lead in the third quarter of their Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State, but two Leonard Fournette fumbles and an onside kick recovery left LSU clinging to a mere three-point advantage in the game’s final minutes.

Fournette, an All-American and workhorse back of the highest order, is normally LSU’s finisher in such situations. Churning out first downs to bleed the clock closer and closer to triple zeroes. But not Saturday, as his uncharacteristic lack of ball security had given the sleeping Bulldogs new life.

Floundering late, LSU found itself in desperate need of a closer. Someone to come in and put a stop to all the madness before it became the kind of epic collapse that cost coaches their jobs.

A field goal meant entering the crap shoot of collegiate overtime with an offense that hadn’t scored since halftime. Yielding a touchdown meant another inexplicable defeat to a double-digit underdog.

That’s when Key flew around the left side of Mississippi State’s offensive line like a Mariano Rivera cutter in the ninth inning and put the game to bed.

Quarterback Damian Williams was flushed from the pocket and rolled to his right on fourth-and-8. Key chased him down from behind for a game-ending, blindside strip sack that sent the pockets of fans remaining in a sparsely-populated Tiger Stadium into a sort of relieved frenzy.

“We practice that every practice, closing the game on defense,” defensive end Lewis Neal said. “So we knew, two-minute drill, we had to win it. When we can win two minute, and sack fumble kills a drive, so we know if we get a sack, we know what time it is. That can kill the drive and shut the game over.”

Key’s game-ending takedown tied a nice bow on a banner night for an LSU pass rush that overwhelmed Mississippi State at times to the tune of six sacks against a pair of mobile quarterbacks.

It wasn’t all Key, either, though he led the way with two sacks. Neal was credited with 1.5 sacks. Davon Godchaux got half credit on two different sacks. Tre’Davious White shared one of those with him after coming unblocked on a nickel blitz from the slot.

That sack party and constant heat LSU put on both Williams and starter Nick Fitzgerald were key to stifling Mississippi State on third down. The Bulldogs converted just one third down in 14 opportunities.

“We have some guys that can fly,” LSU coach Les Miles said of the six sacks. “Those guys can hit the quarterback and they’re a devastating weapon on third down.”

Key and Neal pointed two a handful of factors that played into generating such a disruptive rush. For one, Key said, Aranda opened up the playbook and dialed up blitzes all game long.

And in crunch time, particularly on the final drive, Aranda shelved his customary 3-4 front in favor of a 4-3 look. More so than in the season’s first two games combined.

That allowed Key to do what he does best. Put his hand in the dirt and blow past offensive tackles with a bust of speed and athleticism.

“That’s what we’re used to,” Neal said. “That’s our body types. So we played to our strengths and got after the quarterback.”

He added: “We love getting after the quarterback and (Key) loves getting after the quarterback. And that speed is hard to stop, so it’s a good thing. (Aranda) knows his strengths, and we love getting him on the edge and getting all of us on the edge.”

It sounds like LSU will employ both fronts moving forward. A true multiple scheme. Another layer of diversity and camouflage implemented by a new defensive coordinator who has skyrocketed up the coaching ranks thanks to his innate ability to create both.

The other key — pardon the unintentional pun — according to Neal, was the yeoman’s work LSU’s front seven put in on the early downs.

The Tigers stuffed Mississippi State’s running game from the jump. The Bulldogs totaled just 56 yards on the ground as a team and averaged just 1.8 yards per attempt.

Fitzgerald, who set a school quarterback rushing record with 195 yards last week, finished with just 13 net yards rushing because of the yardage lost on sacks.

“Because when we stop the run, it’s time to have some fun,” Neal rhymed, reciting one of Ed Orgeron’s favorite expressions.

Saturday was unquestionably a group effort from LSU’s front, but also another reminder that Key’s talent makes him the top dog when it comes to sniffing out quarterbacks.

The sophomore’s explosive speed and length make him downright unblockable at times. He’s like a heat-seeking missile once he finds a clear rush lane to pursue. Perhaps he’s got some bloodhound in his as well.

Key’s two sacks Saturday bring his season total to five through three games. All of the sudden his preseason goal of 20 sacks doesn’t sound so astronomical to those who here it. Mathematically, assuming LSU plays 12 games, he’s on pace to reach that lofty plateau.

Not that Key himself ever had such reservations.

“It’s always been doable,” Key said matter-of-factly. “There was never a doubt in my mind I wasn’t going to get it.”

To revisit, Key told reporters his goals for the 2016 season included, in addition to the 20 sacks, at least two pick-sixes and five balls batted down at the line. Disbelief is becoming more suspended by the week.

Key added one more statistic to his already impressive season on Saturday night: a clutch save LSU needed in the worst way.

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James Moran
James Moran was Editor of Tiger Rag from August 2018 to October 2019. He previously served as the associate editor since 2014. He is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.
About James Moran 1377 Articles
James Moran was Editor of Tiger Rag from August 2018 to October 2019. He previously served as the associate editor since 2014. He is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.

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