"The time has come...to talk of many things: Of cabbages-and Kings...and whether pigs have wings."
As the threat of a government shutdown loomed over Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the explosive LSU Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs prepared to face off in Athens, Georgia, in what promised to be an epic shootout that would come down to whichever team had the ball last.
When all was said and done in Athens, however, it wasn't the much heralded quarterbacks that decided the outcome of the instant classic between top ten foes LSU and Georgia. The game didn't end up being won by the team that had the ball last, marching down the field to score the game winning touchdown.
After 85 total points scored and nearly a thousand combined yards, it was the Bulldog defense that found a way to shut down the LSU offense and the red hot Zach Mettenberger with the game hanging in the balance. When even a field goal would have sent the game to overtime, the 'Dogs shut down the Tigers and didn't allow a point.
As inconceivable as it would have sounded the past several years, the usually defensive minded LSU Tigers found themselves on the losing end of a game after piling up 450 yards and 41 points in a road test that was not for the faint of heart. Mettenberger outgunned his former teammate Aaron Murray in his return to his hometown as he threw for 372 yards and 3 touchdowns, more yards than any LSU quarterback since Rohan Davey's Sugar Bowl performance following the 2001 season.
When Georgia scored to take a 44-41 lead with 1:47 left on the clock, most LSU fans must have felt that everything was perfectly set up for Mettenberger to lead the game winning drive against his former team and teammates, in the stadium that he dreamed of playing in since he was a child. The Georgia defense hadn't stopped the LSU offense since the first drive of the 2nd quarter. The Tigers had scored on their last 5 drives, including three straight touchdown drives. But it wasn't meant to be. The Bulldog defense stepped up with their best series of the year when they needed it most, and shut down Mettenberger without a point on four straight incompletions.
But they certainly didn't ruin his quest for redemption. In fact, the performance of the Bulldog defense only made Mettenberger's stellar play all the more impressive. Despite the final score that could indicate that both offenses simply moved the ball at will, Georgia without question made LSU earn every single point and yard on the day.
The inspired Bulldog front seven held the Tigers to only 77 rushing yards on a paltry 2.1 yards per carry, and had consistent pressure on Mettenberger whenever he dropped back to pass. Georgia regularly forced Mettenberger to convert on third and long in order to sustain drives, which makes LSU's 10-15 third down efficiency on the day all the more impressive and noteworthy. Time after time, when LSU needed a play, Mettenberger delivered. It wasn't until the final series that Mettenberger was unable to crack the Bulldog defense.
There has been much hysteria about the LSU defense's inability to shut down Georgia's offense in similar fashion at the end of the game. While there are certainly issues on defense, it is important to remember that this should have been expected. There were clear signs throughout the first quarter of the season that there were holes on the LSU defense. Most notably a lack of depth on the defensive line, particularly at defensive tackle, an inability to generate a consistent pass rush, a lack of playmakers at linebacker, and a secondary prone to giving up big plays, often due to miscommunication.
All of those obvious issues were exploited repeatedly on Saturday by a perfectly prepared Bulldog offense that is without question one of the best and most balanced in the country. Georgia's ability to both run and throw the ball in any situation and an offensive line reminiscent of Alabama's dominant unit from the past several years made this matchup a nightmare for a Tiger defense still trying to find the right personnel and scheme.
All that said, however, just as Georgia did, the LSU defense generally made the 'Dogs earn everything they got as well, despite two glaring blown coverages for touchdowns. The Tigers forced two turnovers on the day, and after giving up two relatively easy touchdowns in a disastrous first quarter, the LSU defense settled in and were able to hold Georgia to 23 points over the next 43 minutes, until the final touchdown with less than two minutes to play. Notably, the defense also held Georgia to 3 points throughout the second quarter before giving up a touchdown with less than one minute before halftime, the same two minute issues on defense that led to losses against Alabama and Clemson last year.
Coming out of halftime, the Tiger defense appeared focused, and held Georgia to a miraculous 55 yard field goal on their opening drive. After the LSU offense tied the game at 27-27 late in the third quarter, the defense gave the team a chance to build a lead by forcing a three and out. Unfortunately, a fumbled punt gave Georgia the ball back in the red zone.
Even after such a devastating turn of events, the LSU defense forced Georgia into converting a 3rd and 11 before the first blown coverage resulted in an easy touchdown to give Georgia another seven point lead. When Mettenberger then orchestrated another touchdown drive to tie the game yet again, the LSU defense held Georgia to another field goal, which allowed LSU to take a late 41-37 lead with Mettenberger's next touchdown drive.
None of this is to claim that LSU's defense does not have issues. But on the road against an offense like Georgia's, on a day when two of the best quarterbacks in the country were locked in a duel for the ages, it's worth noting any positives that can be taken away for a struggling defense. The fact that LSU was able to hold the potent Georgia offense to field goals on several key drives despite almost zero pressure on Aaron Murray is a surprising footnote in a game that will be remembered for offensive fireworks.
In fact, it could be argued that LSU's defense actually played better in some ways against Georgia than they did against Auburn the week before, when they gave up 300 yards in the second half at home against a team not nearly as good as Georgia. Many in Tiger Nation will undoubtedly consider this analysis overly optimistic and perhaps pointless. But with seven games left in the regular season, no analysis should be considered pointless.
One needs to look no further than the 2012 Tigers to find hope that this defensive unit can still make rapid improvement. In the sixth game last year, in The Swamp, the LSU offense looked as bad as it ever has against an outstanding Florida defense. The Tigers were held to 6 points on just 200 total yards, and a shocking 42 rushing yards with 1.7 yards per carry. This was also following a frustrating 12-10 win against Auburn where the offense again appeared anemic. The sky appeared to be falling in Baton Rouge as the offensive struggles appeared to be carrying over from the previous quarterback era.
But the Tiger offense found it's footing the following week against one of the best defenses in the country, as they piled up over 400 yards in a monumental win against #3 South Carolina, and then ran for over 200 yards in a gutsy road win over Johnny Manziel's upstart Aggies. All of this built to an offensive eruption against the #1 defense in the country, as Zach Mettenberger dissected Nick Saban's Crimson Tide defense and continued dominant offensive play against Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a record setting three game stretch against SEC opponents late in the year.
Similar progress on defense this year is not guaranteed, obviously, but it is certainly not impossible. Not many teams are as capable as Georgia is on offense, and the defense will hopefully grow and be more battle tested after going toe to toe with such a powerful offensive attack.
And it is also important to remember that the defense does not have to be dominant. With Mettenberger putting up Heisman worthy numbers on a weekly basis, the defense simply has to be able to get off the field on third downs and hold teams to field goals in the red zone to give the offense the opportunity to put games away.
The next two weeks will be challenging, however, as both the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Florida Gators have defenses that are very capable of slowing down the Tiger offense. The last time LSU played in Starkville, the great 2011 Tiger team was locked in a 9-6 war of attrition in the 4th quarter before pulling away to a hard fought 19-6 win, and the Bulldogs put up over 300 yards passing on the LSU defense just last year in Tiger Stadium.
Florida has one of the best defenses in the country yet again, and will bring in a revitalized offense with dangerous Tyler Murphy taking over for injured Jeff Driskel at quarterback. Will Muschamp's defense embarrassed LSU last year, and has the best chance of any team on the schedule to shut down Mettenberger this year.
So LSU will certainly need improvement from the defense if they have any hope of winning the West to earn another chance to face the Bulldogs in The Georgia Dome. While Zach Mettenberger may not have been able to escape with a win between the hedges, all he has to do is continue doing what he has done all year, and he most certainly may find himself back in his home state fighting against his former teammates for an SEC Championship in December.
I predicted LSU would lose a shootout to Georgia before the season started. I also predicted wins over Alabama and Texas A&M. But I felt that the five game SEC stretch in October would result in a second loss that would prevent LSU from representing the West in Atlanta.
The historic play of Zach Mettenberger and his duo of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham at receiver has convinced me that I was wrong. If Mettenberger can remain as focused as he has been leading up to that epic clash in Athens, and the defense can find a way, either through personnel or scheme, to generate even the slightest pass rush, I believe this LSU team will find itself where it was in 2011, 2005, and 2003.
In Atlanta, playing the Georgia Bulldogs for the SEC Championship, and perhaps much, much more than that.
"I have seen so many extraordinary things, nothing seems extraordinary any more"