There are no breaks, no chances to breathe. Play after play, they just keep coming.
Fast, physical and vicious, LSU’s secondary members keep attacking, ripping and tearing at offenses like a pack of wolves on the hunt.
From all over the field and in every big game, the Tigers’ defensive backs have provided the game-changing play, the kind that ends up replayed on highlight reels for days, a nightmare for opponents that never seems to end.
“You just can’t point just anyone out, because the whole secondary, as a whole, we’ve made a ton of plays,” LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne said.
No position unit in the country responds better to the big stage, even when its players are on special teams.
Trailing early against Oregon under the bright lights of Cowboys Stadium, there was Tyrann Mathieu, stripping Kenyon Barner on a punt return and scooping up the punt for a touchdown. On the road against West Virginia three weeks later, it was Claiborne, ending a West Virginia comeback with a 99-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter. Mathieu also tipped a West Virginia pass to himself and scored.
Against Alabama, it was free safety Eric Reid ripping the ball away from mammoth tight end Michael Williams on the goal line to deny the Tide one more time.
Mathieu took the mantle again Saturday. Surprised by a pair of early scores from No. 3 Arkansas, top-ranked LSU trailed 14-7 until Mathieu returned a punt 92 yards for a score and set a Tigers blowout in motion.
“It’s amazing, just how many plays they make,” Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said. “They’re exciting to watch.”
Murray is the LSU secondary’s next target. For most of the season, Mathieu, Claiborne and Reid have gotten much of the press, but forgetting about the rest of the Tigers’ game-changers is a mistake.
Strong safety Brandon Taylor has 6.5 tackles for loss. Backup corner Ron Brooks is a big-play machine with 3.5 sacks and two interceptions returned for a touchdown. Fellow cornerback Tharold Simon has broken up 19 passes.
No secondary in the country carries more defensive responsibility. LSU’s top three tacklers -- Mathieu, Taylor and Reid -- are defensive backs, and the Tigers regularly blitz corners and safeties on passing downs. Claiborne has five interceptions, and four more back-end players have two. Defensive backs have scored six touchdowns for the Tigers this season.
“It’s really kind of like a little competition back there between us, like, who can make plays,” Taylor said. “We all add up our tackles after the game and stuff like that.”
A year ago, LSU’s collective strength in the secondary was swallowed up by the star power of former cornerback Patrick Peterson, the first-team All-American who won the Thorpe Award, the Bednarik Award and was picked fifth in the NFL draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Losing a player like Peterson normally cripples a position group.
But late in the season, LSU head coach Les Miles had a feeling his secondary was going to be even stronger without Peterson in 2011.
“The youth of the secondary was really evaporating in the experience, and the good plays and the confidence were really coming of age,” Miles said. “I felt we were really strong in the secondary even though we were playing freshmen.”
Peterson still keeps track of his former teammates.
He texts Claiborne after every game, and he texted his heir apparent again before Claiborne took the phone to handle SEC championship game interviews on Monday.
What Peterson spawned was a secondary full of playmakers cut from his own mold.
“He’s loving it,” Claiborne said. “Before he left, he just told us that we just had to keep working, and we’re going to be good. He said he knew we were going to be at where we’re at right now.”