STARKVILLE, Miss. — With its high-powered offense taking more time than usual to get going, LSU needed a spark to find separation against a feisty Mississippi State squad.
The Tigers got it from their defense, and in particular the safety tandem of Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens.
Delpit and Stevens were billed before the season as one of the major strengths of LSU’s defense. Two versatile defensive backs capable of making plays all over the field. The kind of multi-faceted talents that NFL scouts drool over in the modern game.
But the season had been somewhat disappointing for Delpit and Stevens in the early going. Delpit, the Unanimous All-American, was suddenly missing tackles. Stevens found himself getting picked on in coverage.
Both had been playing steadily better as the LSU defense made strides in recent weeks. The duo was flat-out dominant on Saturday as LSU defeated Mississippi State 36-13 in Starkville at a raucous Davis Wade Stadium.
“In my head, we were always the best safety duo in the country,” Stevens said. “Today we actually finally put a good game together. It just shows what me and Grant know.”
Stevens set the tone early. He flew off the edge on a fourth-and-one play on the game’s opening possession to stuff Mississippi State quarterback Garrett Shrader in the backfield. That turnover on downs set up LSU’s first points of the afternoon.
Later in the first half, Stevens dropped into the middle of the field and pulled down a one-handed interception off a Shrader pass. That turnover helped set off an avalanche as LSU scored 27 unanswered points to pull away for good.
“That was a huge play for us,” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “There was momentum going for Mississippi State, and that turnover gave us a lot of confidence going into the half.”
Making a play in the passing game felt especially rewarding for Stevens given the constant questions about his coverage skills. It’s the product of a lot of hard work behind the scenes.
“That wasn’t a strong suit of his game coming into the season,” Delpit said. “I think he’s improved greatly.”
Delpit meanwhile was once again a free-flowing force all over the field. He led the Tigers will 11 tackles against Mississippi State and was credited with a quarterback hurry. Stevens was second with eight tackles, including a sack.
The All-American has looked increasingly like his old self since the bye week. He missed time during fall camp with a shoulder injury, and Orgeron acknowledged that the ailment had affected his star safety a bit at the start of the season.
“He was overcompensating for his shoulder a little bit,” Orgeron said. “Now he’s just playing free right now and he’s playing the type of ball he can play.”
Delpit downplayed the significance of the injury on his early-season struggles. To him, getting back to his old ways was more about cutting down on the thinking and allowing his natural instincts to kick in.
The numbers speak for themselves. Delpit has led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back weeks while totaling an interception and two pass break-ups since the bye week.
Perhaps the biggest difference has been in the way LSU used the dynamic duo.
At the start of the season, the plan was to let them roam while Todd Harris handled most of the deep safety duties.
That plan was dealt a body blow when Harris was lost for the season to a knee injury suffered in the win at Texas.
It took some time to re-calibrate, but now LSU has Delpit and Stevens thriving at the right time with Auburn and Alabama to come in the next three weeks.
“Us as a tandem, we’re pretty dangerous,” Delpit said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re on the same page at all times, and I think we’re doing that. Clicking as a defense as a whole really.”
“Now we’re just feeding off each other,” Stevens added. “He makes a play and then I make a play. We just keep going back and forth.”