BATON ROUGE, La. — If there’s one thing LSU’s defenders are expecting this weekend, it’s to see the ball in the air. A lot.
Ole Miss leads the SEC in every passing category. Every one of them. Yards, attempts, completions, touchdowns (tied with Missouri), completion percentage, passer rating. You name a stat, Ole Miss is at the top of it. No other SEC team is even within 400 yards of Ole Miss’ passing production. Led by standout sophomore Shea Patterson, the NCAA’s third-leading passer in yards per game, the Rebels throw the ball as often and as effectively as any team in the country.
Which presents an interesting challenge for LSU. Pass defense has been LSU’s strength all season. The Tigers rank No. 14 in the FBS in pass yards allowed per game at with 170.6 and allow a paltry 5.9 yards per pass attempt, 12th-best in the country. No SEC team has allowed fewer touchdown passes than LSU and only No. 1 Alabama forces a lower passer rating.
It’s a battle of strength vs. strength in almost every way. But you don’t have to tell that to junior cornerback Donte Jackson.
“I’ll be ready,” Jackson said on Tuesday. “Regardless of how many passes they throw at me, I’ll be ready. That’s the message.”
Heading into the Auburn game last week, Jackson talked about setting a tone against Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Stidham came into the game the SEC’s most efficient passer, completing better than 71 percent of his passes. Jackson said the numbers were impressive, but Stidham hadn’t faced LSU yet, so they weren’t that impressive.
A few days later, Jackson backed up his words. Stidham went 9 for 26, the least-efficient passing day of his college career, knocking his season completion percentage down to 65.5. Jackson said LSU achieved this by taking away Auburn’s run game, dialing up the pass rush, scoring a few points and putting the pressure on Stidham and Auburn’s receivers to win 1-on-1 battles against LSU’s defensive backs. The plan worked and LSU won the individual battles.
LSU is going to carry a similar plan into the game against Ole Miss … but with one added caveat.
“If you get out of your gap, he’s going to take off,” senior defensive end Christian LaCouture said of Patterson. “He’s not like a Tom Brady or a Peyton Manning where he’s going to sit back there no matter what you’re doing. I feel like if Shea, if he sees something he’s going to want to throw the ball, but if he sees a hole he’s going to definitely want to run, as well.”
Patterson’s reputation for running is far more dangerous than the stats show. On 42 attempts this year, Patterson has minus-14 rushing yards. But if you factor out sacks, Patterson has run 26 times for 97 yards and a touchdown. It’s still not the most impressive stat line for six games, but it’s enough to give defenses second thoughts.
Jackson likened Patterson to Kansas City Chiefs rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who LSU faced in the 2015 Texas Bowl when was Mahomes was at Texas Tech. The most dangerous part of Patterson’s elusiveness isn’t that he’ll gash you downfield a la Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. It’s more the way he can scramble behind the line of scrimmage and keep plays alive while his receivers try to get open.
Throwing on the run is Patterson’s strong suit. Jackson said it’s evident while watching film that Patterson loves to scramble to his right and extend plays for his receivers downfield. As a corner, Jackson said this doesn’t matter too much. When you’re in man-to-man coverage, you’re not supposed to look into the backfield. But for safeties in zone coverage or for pass rushers trying to bring down the quarterback, Patterson’s combination of elusiveness and arm talent is a wrinkle the Tigers haven’t yet had to prepare for this season.
Then there are the receivers. Ole Miss had three of the top 10 and four of the top 20 receivers in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Sophomore A.J. Brown is the only player in the conference averaging more than 100 receiving yards per game with 113. Junior DaMarkus Lodge, freshman D.K. Metcalf and sophomore Van Jefferson all average at least 4 catches per game, as well. Patterson has as many weapons to throw to as any quarterback in the country.
Just ask LSU coach Ed Orgeron.
“There are three receivers on this team that will be drafted in the top three rounds,” Orgeron said Monday. “They’re very talented. This is going to be a challenge for us.”
But one week removed from breaking up 11 passes as a team, Jackson said the men in the LSU secondary aren’t feeling any added pressure against this talented, productive group. There’s no way to feel more pressure than these guys already put on themselves.
“It’s pressure every time we step out there,” Jackson said. “That’s how we look at it. We pride ourselves on our secondary here at LSU. There’s pressure every time. Just getting ready to get out there and play. We’re aware they pass the ball a lot. That’s going to be the key this week, just touching up on our techniques, staying healthy and staying conditioned.”