LSU football's defense confuses Mississippi State. Credit it for Brian Kelly's first SEC win
BATON ROUGE - Micah Baskerville started inching toward the line of scrimmage.
The LSU football linebacker had been playing a lot, lining up in an array of different spots in the box and at the line of scrimmage. This time he was standing at the line and ready to pounce as a pass rusher between Mississippi State's center and the left guard. It was third-and-10 and the Bulldogs trailed by eight with six minutes and 32 seconds left to play.
Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers took the snap but Baskerville bluffed, bailing out into zone coverage instead. Rogers then hesitated and it cost him, as the Tigers' four-man pass rush forced him to shuffle an incomplete pass out to running back Dillon Johnson.
The incompletion was the last gasp for a confused and sputtering Mississippi State offense in LSU's 31-16 win and new coach Brian Kelly's first over an SEC foe.
"The most important thing is that you can't give them a pre-snap look that is comfortable," Kelly said. "And I think our players did an incredible job of following through with a gameplan that gave them a pre-snap look and it changed post-snap."
The victory was driven by an LSU defense that flummoxed the Bulldogs (2-1, 0-1 SEC) from start to finish. The Tigers (2-1, 1-0) held Mississippi State to 289 total yards and forced the Bulldogs to turnover the ball on downs three times. Rogers finished the game with only one touchdown pass and 214 passing yards while completing 24-of-42 attempts.
It was a stark difference from what their offense looked like in the first two weeks. Mississippi State's Air Raid attack posted 49- and 39-point performances against Memphis and Arizona, respectively, in the first two weeks. Rogers had completed 78.6% of his passes and led the SEC in passing yards prior to Saturday.
"We played a lot of man (coverage) on the back. We did not give them free dump-offs to the (running) back which gets them in really favorable down and distance situations," Kelly said. "(It) forces them to execute the ball down the field which they hadn't shown that they were going to push it vertically that far."
Unlike Arizona the week before, LSU wasn't content with dropping eight defenders into coverage and giving Rogers all the time he needed to make throws.
The Tigers muddied the picture by changing their alignment post-snap, weren't afraid to send pressure and made aggressive plays in coverage when they needed to be had.
The star of the secondary was Jay Ward, the safety turned nickelback who led the Tigers with 11 total tackles and had the game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter. Freshman linebacker Harold Perkins and junior defensive end BJ Ojulari stood out for the front seven, both grabbing a sack and a half while combining for four tackles for loss.
"Before we started playing together, everybody executed well," Ward said about LSU's continuity within the secondary. "So when they kept on transferring here, they fit right in."
LSU FOOTBALL WIN OVER MISS. ST.LSU football delivers emphatic comeback win over Mississippi State, Brian Kelly's first in SEC
LSU would have lost the game if it weren't for its defense. Because on offense, the Tigers were anemic until the final minutes of the first half.
LSU punted the ball away on five of its first six drives, and the sixth drive ended in a fumble. While the defense was forcing Mississippi State to turn the ball on downs, the Tigers' offense couldn't do anything to help them out.
Eventually, the offense found a rhythm and played with a quicker tempo in the third quarter. A muffed punt from Mississippi State at the end of the period gave the Tigers the ball at the Bulldogs' 9-yard line. A touchdown soon thereafter gave LSU the 17-16 lead.
"It's about just moving with more urgency and tempo," LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels said. "We just played better as a unit that way, not just me personally but everybody else."
But none of it would have been possible if it weren't for LSU's defense.
"We had to set the tempo, we had to set the tone coming in and bring the energy which we did," LSU defensive end Ali Gaye said. "We came in and shut them down and got off the field and get the ball to our offense."
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.