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It takes time to learn LSU's defense

1/2/2004

NEW ORLEANS -- Members of LSU's in-your-face, blitz-until-you-cry defense have no trouble picking the most uniquely-named scheme in their ultra-thick playbook. It's called Sally.

The only problem is nobody knows what it's for.

"I've got no idea," said cornerback Travis Daniels.

"Nope," said defensive end Marcus Spears.

"I think it's a blitz," said linebacker Lionel Turner. "But I'm not real sure."

The confusion is nothing new. When Nick Saban left his job as defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns to become coach at Michigan State in 1995, he brought his forward-thinking NFL defense with him. The goal wasn't to confuse his players, it was to confuse the opposing quarterback.

But it's hard for his kids not to scratch their heads. A tweak here, an add there and it's become one of the most complex college schemes around. While most college defenses run two or three different coverages with two or three different fronts and maybe 10 or 15 blitzes, the Tigers say they have about nine coverages, six fronts and some 50 blitzes.

"It's kind of like learning calculus," linebacker Eric Alexander said. "The only problem is you're in the fourth grade."

Once the players catch on, the result is pure chaos. Players estimate that roughly 70- to 80-percent of the time, a safety, linebacker or cornerback is blitzing. Linebackers will pick up receivers, defensive tackles will drop back and take tight ends. Anything and everything is possible.

The result is one of the most confusing, complex schemes a team will face. After he was battered, bruised and beaten in the SEC title game, Georgia quarterback David Greene said he had no idea when and where guys were coming from. And that was after seeing the LSU defense for the second time in two months.

When the Tigers faced Ole Miss earlier this year, Eli Manning stood at the line of scrimmage, surveyed the defense and audibled out of nearly every play. The LSU defense would then shift, and he'd audible again.

"He'd make three or four changes each time," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "He's a pretty darn good quarterback, but even he didn't know what was happening half the time."

Oklahoma coaches, though, don't seem real impressed. Sure they offer the customary kudos to the LSU scheme. But you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who is shaking in his boots. Especially offensive line coach and run game coordinator Kevin Wilson. In Wilson's eyes, the more LSU blitzes, the greater opportunity Oklahoma has to make a big play.

"They blitz during warm-ups," he said. "But you live by the sword and die by the sword."

His plan is to attack the LSU defense before it attacks his quarterback.

"There's only so many guys they can send," he added. "And it's not exactly a Chinese fire drill to figure out what they're doing. It isn't nearly as complex as everyone thinks."

Perhaps Wilson knows something that nobody else does. Or perhaps he's just a little naive. Whatever the case, his players aren't exactly following his lead. Ask most of the Sooners if this is the most complex scheme they've faced and almost to a man, they share the same answer. Yes.

The reason? All those blitzes and all that speed.

"Man, I've never seen anything like it," receiver Mark Clayton said. "It's sort of what we do, but it's not. I'm telling you, they're going to come after us from the first quarter to the fourth quarter. And they won't stop."

For 13 games this year, it's worked. The Tigers led the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of just 10.8 points per game. In a midseason game against South Carolina, LSU didn't allow a single rushing yard on 17 attempts. Only twice has a team rushed for more than 100 yards.

And in 26 halves of football, only three times has a team managed to score more than a touchdown.

But against a high-flying team like Oklahoma, one would think the Tigers are going to absorb a few big plays, right? Wrong.

"We don't talk about accepting anything," defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "And anybody who does will be standing next to me on the sideline."

And to think, entering the season, the defense was the side of the ball on which LSU was overloaded with question marks. The prevailing thought was that for the Tigers to win, the offense would need to shoulder the load.

But that was before the emergence of true freshman LaRon Landry. His development at free safety allowed Saban to move junior Travis Daniels back to cover corner, allowing Saban more confidence to leave Daniels and Cory Webster on their own coverage islands, while everyone else tried to smack the quarterback.

Despite the contributions of Landry, who's had his defensive playbook for less than a year, the scheme is anything but easy to learn. Most of the starters say it took them about a year of studying and a half-season of on-field experience before they felt comfortable.

The reason is the endless number of tweaks and twists. Though the play coming from the sideline might be a zone in name, it might include a wrinkle in which half the defense is actually playing man.

"Everybody knows their responsibilities and that's pretty much it," Daniels said. "You can't worry about what anybody else is doing because that just confuses you even more."

Blitzes are named after states, cities, birds and people. There's the Montana. The Alaska. The Eagle. The Atlanta. And of course, Sally.

"But we try to stay away from names because then people start looking around thinking we're calling for them," Turner said.

Safety Jack Hunt is on the defensive quarterback. He takes the signal from the sideline, calls it out to his defensive backfield then passes the rest onto Turner. Turner then sets the linebackers and defensive lineman in place. Usually a handful of plays are called for each snap and based on formation, motion, etc., Hunt and Turner decide which one to put in place.

Turner said he memorizes approximately 50 blitzes each week that he's in charge of distributing to the defense. Knowing that Saban is watching from the sidelines, making sure the right adjustments are made in a mere matter of seconds, makes it one of the less enviable jobs on the defense.

"No, no, no," Spears said. "They couldn't pay me enough. I just want to worry about where I have to go. Lionel and Jack -- they've got so much pressure on them. No, no, no."

The winner of the tug-of-war between the potent OU offense and the stingy LSU defense likely will be crowned the 2004 national champion. The Sooners are taking the approach that they need to attack the Tigers before the Tigers attack them. They want to keep quarterback Jason White upright and give him time to find 1-on-1 receivers downfield.

LSU, on the other hand, plans to keep doing what it's always done.

"Let's just put it this way," LSU wide receiver Michael Clayton said. "I'm glad those guys are on our side. I wouldn't want to go up against them."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.