Brian Kelly spent a good chunk of time this week getting grilled about the LSU defense, which surrendered 55 points and more than 700 yards of total offense in a down-to-the-wire loss to SEC-rival Ole Miss last weekend.
The Tigers’ coach noticed, too, prompting him to pull out of a sheet of paper and read some offensive stats: tops in the league in total offense and passing offense, second in scoring offense, and on and on.
His quarterback, Jayden Daniels, is near the top of every meaningful statistical category, while wide receiver Malik Nabers is second nationally in yards receiving.
“That’s why it’s so darn import to play better defense,” Kelly said. “Because when you have an offense like this, you want to be able to showcase it, and it doesn’t get the showcase because all the questions are about the defense.”
Well, that defense will have a chance to change the narrative Saturday.
No. 23 LSU (3-2, 2-1) heads back on the road to face No. 21 Missouri, which has emerged as one of the nation’s hottest teams on offense. Brady Cook is throwing for nearly 300 yards per game with 11 touchdown passes, and the only player ahead of Nabers in yards receiving this season is Luther Burden III, who has 43 catches for 655 yards and five scores.
Probably makes Kelly wish he had all those playmakers that filled out his defense a year ago.
“I don’t want to talk about what we don’t have,” he said. “What we do have is a good football team that needs to play better, and we need to coach better, and regardless of all the other things out there, this is the position we are in.”
LSU’s season is far from over, of course, despite an earlier loss to Florida State and the setback last week. But it could be at a crossroads when it faces Missouri, which is unbeaten after its SEC-opening romp over Vanderbilt.
Cook and Co. are 5-0 for the first time since 2013, when Missouri won its first seven games on its way to an SEC East title.
“They have a really talented football team. All 11 starters on offense are returning starters in some capacity, whether they’re transferring or not,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said of the other bunch of Tigers.
“I know they didn’t perform the way they wanted to last week so they’ll be ready to improve and I’m sure ready for the challenge this week.”
Kelly hired longtime defensive line coach Pete Jenkins this week to help with that area, which has struggled since D-line coach Jimmy Lindsey stepped away in fall camp to deal with a health matter.
The 82-year-old Jenkins coached in Baton Rouge during the 1980s, then at Mississippi State and Auburn, before returning to LSU from 2000-01. He also had a stint with the Philadelphia Eagles and USC before rejoining the Tigers’ staff from 2016-17.
LSU defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo grew up in Creve Coeur and was the Gatorade player of the year for Missouri coming out of De Smet Jesuit High School.
He began his career in Columbia, making three starts and appearing in 11 games as a freshman, and transferred to LSU prior to last season. He started all but one game and was voted a third-team All-American.
“This is definitely going to be a statement game for us,” Wingo said, “one that we really want to win after coming off a loss like that, and just really putting our identity on film and showing who we really are.”
GAME RECOGNIZES GAME
Daniels said this week that he’s been impressed by Cook, who played most of last season with a nagging shoulder injury and had a tenuous hold on the starting quarterback job throughout the offseason.
“He’s playing lights out for them, getting the ball in the playmakers’ hands,” the LSU quarterback said. “When the plays are there to be made, he’s making the plays. He’s giving those guys a chance.”
Missouri wide receiver Theo Wease said before the season the best he’d ever played with was CeeDee Lamb, now with the Dallas Cowboys, when they were at Oklahoma together.
But Wease admitted this week that Burden was making a strong push to pass Lamb on his personal list. Burden and Wease both went over 100 yards receiving last week against the Commodores.
After struggling early in the year, the Missouri offense has hit its stride thanks in part to everyone growing accustomed to new coordinator Kirby Moore. His bunch is now averaging 433.8 yards per game and is 15th nationally in passing offense.
“Our guys are becoming more and more confident in the schemes,” Drinkwitz said, “and I think Kirby is more and more confident in the players executing the schemes that he wants to call, and I think it’s been good growth.”