It was a relatively simple play.
The ball would be snapped and the entire Ole Miss offense would move in unison to one direction. Then, Rebels’ quarterback John Rhys Plumlee would cut back the opposite direction and run into vacated field.
It’s a quarterback counter run that has been widely used in college football since Florida’s Tim Tebow took his first snaps in 2006. But for some reason, the LSU defense couldn’t stop it. Plumlee scored on that play three times, twice for touchdowns and once for a two-point conversion. Then on top of that, there were two read options that Plumlee scored on.
There were 46, 60, and 35-yard runs from the true freshman quarterback, all in the second half. He finished with 212 yards and four TDs on 21 carries
It didn’t hurt the Tigers because they scored 58 in a 21-point victory, but it was a troubling sign. If Ole Miss could find success against LSU defense with a counter, then surely the likes of Oklahoma, Ohio State and Clemson could feast.
What was traditionally the most consistent aspect of an LSU football team became its biggest weakness.
That’s when the LSU leadership decided to intervene. Several upperclassmen voiced discontentment about the state of the defense. They didn’t want to become the unit that leaned on its high-powered offense to bail them out. Something had to change and it had to come from the top.
“I wasn’t happy,” LSU safety JaCoby Stevens said. “I was embarrassed. I felt like we didn’t play to the LSU standard of performance. A couple of our defensive leaders called each other out on it. Especially after the Ole Miss game, we really stepped it up.
“From Ole Miss on, that was like we’ve had enough. Coach O (LSU head coach Ed Orgeron) says to block out the noise, but we heard the noise. We just had enough after that.”
After the game, fellow safety Kary Vincent Jr. tweeted, “It’ll be handled … 10-0.”
The Tiger defense responded by only allowing 20 points against Arkansas, 14 of which came in garbage time at the end of the game. Next week, LSU held Texas A&M to just seven points and a zero percent success rate on passing downs.
In the SEC championship game, Georgia was limited to just 10 points. The Tigers allowed 28 points in last Saturday’s Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl CFP semifinals against Oklahoma, but that game was largely decided by halftime.
By whatever metric you choose, Vincent was proven right. The defense had turned things around in the nick of time.
“We’re playing with an edge about ourselves,” Tigers’ defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “We’ve heard some of the outside noise, we’re not going to sit here and act like we haven’t heard it. That’s the biggest thing, playing with an intensity and a passion that is LSU defense.
There is one final test for the Tiger defense, and this one is the hardest of them all. When it meets Clemson in the CFP national championship game on Jan. 13, it will play one of the few offenses that can win matchups in as many ways as LSU.
Clemson sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence was one of the best pure passers in college football as a freshman and is 25-0 as a starter. With each game, running back and Jennings native Travis Etienne becomes the biggest miss in LSU recruiting history. Outside of LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson, Clemson’s Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins are the best receiving duo in the country.
LSU defenders recognize as much. When asked about Clemson, they weren’t shy from the superlatives.
“I feel like (Etienne) is better than Alabama’s running back (Najee Harris),” outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “No knock against (Harris) but Travis is just a special back. Just watching him on film and the way he can hit holes, he’s explosive. His acceleration is amazing.
“So from having a great receiver core, running back, and quarterback, we’ve just got to look out for everything. We can’t just not account for someone because they’ll make you pay for it.”
Rashard Lawrence placed Clemson’s Lawrence in the same class as LSU Heisman Trophy winning QB Joe Burrow.
“(Trevor Lawrence) and Joe Burrow are 1A and 1B of top quarterbacks in the country,” Lawrence said. “I think Trevor is going to be the number one pick next year when he comes out. They have a senior-led offensive line and they’ve battled with Alabama. They’ve battled with a lot of great teams and they won a lot of consecutive games. It’d be stupid to sit here and say that they’re not a great offense and a great team.”
The Tigers especially aren’t taking Trevor Lawrence lightly. Speedy wide receiver Jontre Kirklin is serving as the scout team quarterback to mimic him. In Clemson’s Fiesta Bowl semifinal win over Ohio State, Lawrence’s 67-yard TD run helped his team pull out of a 16-0 hole.
“I think that was a plan of attack for them as far as a lot of quarterback schemes and that kind of caught Ohio State off guard,” Rashard Lawrence said. “He moves well. He doesn’t mind getting hit. He’s not as elusive as a (Oklahoma QB) Jalen Hurts but he gets the job done. You have to be real disciplined with your eyes. Sometimes the guys didn’t even catch him from Ohio State. He’s a very fast, physical guy.”
Working in LSU’s favor is the litany of high-powered offenses it has had to face so far in the season. LSU has played four teams ranked in the top 15 of offensive SP+ and it has won them all.
In two of those games, the Tigers gave up 28 points which averages a touchdown per quarter, which might be all the cover the LSU offense needs to seal a national championship.