Tigers defense seeks spot in LSU history
No one can accuse Morris Claiborne of selling LSU's defense short.
''We want to be labeled as the greatest defense to ever come through here,'' Claiborne said this week as No. 1 LSU began preparations for Saturday's game at Mississippi. ''We talk about that all the time.''
The junior cornerback and his teammates are aware of some of the defenses from championship seasons past, which sent a handful of players to the NFL. Current Tigers often talk of upholding the standard and at this point the 2011 defense is doing just that - giving up only 10.7 points and 253.2 yards per game.
LSU's 2003 title team, a squad included current NFL regulars Marcus Spears, Kyle Williams and Corey Webster, gave up averages of 11 points and 252 yards per game.
The 2007 Tigers gave up 19.9 points and 288.8 yards per game en route to their championship. That defense included Glenn Dorsey, Tyson Jackson, Rickey-Jean Francois, LaRon Landry and Perry Riley, all now in the NFL.
Neither of the previous LSU teams had to play against an Oregon offense that is among the most prolific in college football, the same offense that scored 53 points against previously undefeated Stanford last weekend.
Statistically, LSU's worst performance of this season was the 27 points and 335 yards it gave up against Oregon. But even that doesn't look so bad when considering the Ducks (9-1) have averaged 46.7 points and 498.3 yards per game, and that their only loss was to LSU.
The fast, hard-hitting, play-making defense is the main reason the Tigers are 10-0 for the first time since 1958 and on track for a bid to the national championship game.
''You can pick any position on the field. We pretty much have one of the best players at that position,'' LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu said. ''A lot of guys look forward to being the best and just holding each other accountable and competing at a championship level.''
Although LSU lacks the size or experience of Alabama's defense, which ranks first in the Southeastern Conference, the Tigers, which rank second, have held their own against highly productive offenses of widely differing styles. LSU also has depth, routinely rotating eight players into its four-man defensive front and playing a slew of speedy defensive backs who've shut down the passing game of every offense they've faced.
While the Tigers' speed, particularly in the secondary and on the edges of its defensive line, allowed them to contain Oregon, LSU faced an entirely different challenge against Alabama, with its massive offensive line and tackle-breaking star running back Trent Richardson.
Alabama, which averages 34.5 points per game, managed only two field goals, and LSU escaped Tuscaloosa with a crucial 9-6 overtime victory.
''We wanted to prove ourselves to the country because everybody was saying that we were too small and stuff like that, that they'd wear us down,'' LSU senior safety Brandon Taylor said. ''Just the depth that we have, the versatility. ... We can put multiple people at different positions and they still make plays.''
In fact, the biggest star on LSU's defense is one of its smallest players, the 5-foot-9, 180-pound Mathieu, whose relative lack of size led many major programs to overlook him.
Nicknamed the ''Honey Badger'' after a small but fearless animal by the same name, Mathieu has caused four fumbles, recovering three and returning two for scores. He has two interceptions and 5 1/2 tackles for losses.
His play-making seems contagious. Two dozen LSU players have been credited with tackles for losses, and 12 have been in on LSU's 24 sacks. End Sam Montgomery has a team-leading seven sacks.
LSU's 14 interceptions have been made by eight defenders, with a team-leading four made by Claiborne.
Although three of LSU's top five defensive backs are sophomores, they've shown the maturity and instincts to make heady plays, none bigger than safety Eric Reid's dramatic interception against Alabama. Reid left his man when he recognized a breakdown in coverage on Crimson Tide tight end Mike Williams and raced back just in time to rip away what was nearly an reception on the LSU 1-yard line.
In studying the defense he'll meet this weekend, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said it looks every bit as good as the Crimson Tide defense that held his team to one touchdown last month.
''You just flip a coin. They're both really good,'' Nutt said. ''LSU is just so good, so fast, so quick at every spot - defensive line, linebacker, secondary.''