LSU vs. Georgia shows that the difference is still in the trenches

Scott Cunningham

The SEC's year of high-scoring offenses and great quarterbacking still boils down to which defensive lines can beat which offensive lines.

ATHENS, Ga. -- No, the SEC isn't changing forever.

Mark Richt assures you the defense will return, and soon. A few minutes after Les Miles grumbled that he "hoped" the league wasn't permanently becoming an offense-driven brand of college football in the wake of Georgia's 44-41 win over LSU Saturday night, Richt shrugged off any kind of intricate analysis and stated the obvious.

"I don't think we're in a different era. I mean, obviously both of our defenses took a hit. I think there's 16 guys in the NFL today from our team and their team, on defense alone, from last year. That's a lot of really young guys and inexperienced guys trying to figure it out. The body types are the same, the athleticism's the same. They just played against two veteran senior quarterbacks. I'm sure next year when all these quarterbacks leave, it'll be the year of the defense again."

Former UGA teammates Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger looked familiar, but to the chagrin of a hundred newspaper columnists, it had little to do with them being ex-roommates. The pair was so effective that you could picture one quarterback swapping into the other's offense without affecting the final outcome. It's even arguable that the losing quarterback (Mettenberger: 23-37, 372 yards, 3 touchdowns) had as good or better a day than the winner (Murray: 20-34, 298, 4 touchdowns, 1 interception).

"He played an amazing game, certainly. It took a few years off my life," Murray said of Mettenberger.

The sum of Murray, Mettenberger, Johnny Manziel, and AJ McCarron is the SEC's great year of offense, but the deciding factor Saturday was still the ability to rush the passer, that other, much more venerable hallmark of speed country. The Georgia offensive line allowed zero sacks, while Mettenberger was sacked four times, including once each on LSU's last two drives.

Daniel Shirey, USA Today.

"Anytime you're a winning team, pass rush is going to be important," Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said after the game. "Because you're going to be ahead in the fourth quarter, and that means you've got to go close 'em out. So when you're winning, pass rush is important because teams are going to try and come back at you [in the pass]. For a team that wants to get to Atlanta now, pass rush is going to very important."

I'm pretty sure that I wasn't even touched the whole day. -Aaron Murray

When asked if the six-play, 75-yard game-winning drive that ended with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Welsey would validate Murray, the quarterback brought the conversation back to his pass protection.

"That's probably the best game I've ever seen those guys play," Murray said of his offensive line. "I'm not 100 percent, but I'm pretty sure that I wasn't even touched, not once the whole day."

Statistically, he's right. No LSU defender was credited with even a hurry, and the Tigers recorded only two tackles for a loss, both on running plays.

Scott-Wesley's game-winning catch from Murray. GIFs via CBS.

Essentially, when little else mattered in a back-and-forth, possession-to-possession shootout, the team with the cleanest pocket won the game. Grantham's defense was actually most effective at stopping the run, keeping Jeremy Hill to 86 yards and the Tigers to a net 76-yard total on the day, but as Mettenberger continued to narrowly escape blitz pressures on third down, the SEC adage of "run and stop the run" grew increasingly irrelevant, as it has all year. The three games this season featuring two SEC teams ranked in the top 10 have combined for 91 (Texas A&M vs. Alabama), 71 (Georgia vs. South Carolina), and now 85 points.

Grantham said he felt confident enough in his run defense to play with a "seven-and-a-half-man" box on most downs, to avoid playing single-man coverage on the outside against receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham. But on a day when both quarterbacks arguably played their most accurate, effective games to date, if you didn't bring pressure, you didn't get off the field on third down.

Case in point, the Tigers' 3rd-and-22 conversion. On LSU's next-to-last drive, down 37-34 with under eight minutes remaining, Grantham sent one of his many multiple-look zone pressures on first down, and Georgia's Jordan Jenkins hit Mettenberger on a corner blitz. Following a fumbled snap, the Tigers faced a seemingly impossible conversion on their own 13-yard-line, backed up against a deafening Bulldog student section. Instead, Georgia only sent three rushers and dropped eight into a zone, and Mettenberger hit Beckham for a 25-yard gain. Five plays later the Tigers would score to take the lead.

"When you're playing zone in that situation, you've got to have better jams [on receivers] and re-routes, and we had too much free access into the defense," Grantham said.

Grantham's gripes -- poor technique, poor on-field communication on third downs -- are hallmarks of a young defense.

"You can't get caught up on what happened in the previous play. We've got to get the call and get lined back up. If we'd have done that we probably would've been better on third down. A great example of that is the 3rd-and-22. We should've been off the field right then. The game should've been over," he said.

He also acknowledged that many of LSU's conversions (the Tigers finished 10 of 15 on third downs) were a credit to Mettenberger's "being in a groove," as one reporter suggested to him. But, standing emotionless among celebrating players in Georgia's locker room after the game, Grantham seemed unfazed and unwilling to concede the death of the SEC defense.

"For the most part they hung tough and did the things we need them to be successful. By no means was it perfect, but we just have to be consistent with our teaching habits. I thought we played better in the latter half of the fourth quarter than we did in the start of the third quarter," Grantham said.

Grantham's faith in his young secondary seemed unshakable at times, even when it burned him. LSU's first touchdown of the game came when a corner blitz failed to reach Mettenberger in time, allowing him to check down to Kadron Boone a step past his single coverage and facing no high safety for an easy 48-yard touchdown.


"To play the amount of freshmen we've played says a lot about their resiliency," Grantham said.

Despite beating two top-10 SEC opponents since, the Bulldogs' opening week loss to Clemson likely leaves no room for an in-conference loss on the path towards national title contention, a luxury LSU can still thankfully embrace. But with a protected Murray playing the best football of his career and an ability to hit the opposing quarterback enough to win the final possession, Georgia might be in the best shape of the SEC's upper-tier to make a title run.

"I mean, I  would hope folks notice us after this game," Scott-Wesley said after the game. "We're playing good football down here. This game should put us in the national spotlight, but if it doesn't, we don't play for everyone else. We play for us. The rest of the country can follow suit when they want to."

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