This article was copied from the Times-Picayune Sports Desk Log.
Pelini says defensive system fine
Thursday, 09/15, 1:22 p.m.
By Jim Kleinpeter

BATON ROUGE – LSU defensive players spoke with a measure of relief prior to last Saturday’s delayed season opener against Arizona State.

No longer saddled with the mental baggage of the multiple possibilities of former coach Nick Saban’s high-tech defenses, defenders were ready to let it rip under the simplified plan of new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini.

But in the course of allowing 560 yards - 461 passing - in a 35-31 victory, it was the Sun Devils doing the ripping while LSU defenders at times looked more confused than in their worst moments under Saban.

LSU coach Les Miles chalked it up mainly to a first-game shakedown combined with a quality opponent. Players pointed the finger at themselves while Pelini laid it on coaching for not getting the message across.

One thing Pelini didn’t blame was the system.

LSU fans may already be drawing parallels between Pelini and Lou Tepper, whose stint as defensive coordinator in 1998 precipitated the fall of Coach Gerry DiNardo a year later. Opponents ran roughshod over the defense Tepper installed, helping to end three consecutive years of winning records.

Might it be happening again? Don’t bet on it, Pelini says, and don’t expect any wholesale changes.

“I believe in my system, I believe in what we do,” said Pelini, who joined LSU after stints at Nebraska and Oklahoma the past two years. “It’s not necessary to change. It works. It’s proven.”

Not here, not yet. But the 37-year-old Pelini has earned some serious credibility in his coaching career. He’s worked under such NFL names as George Seifert, Pete Carroll and Ray Rhodes, in addition to his big-time college stops.

Two years ago, Nebraska led the nation in turnovers (47) and pass-efficiency defense (88.66) and was second in scoring defense with Pelini running the same defense.

So what happened Saturday?

“We didn’t execute the things we did in practice,” he said. “They (Arizona State) didn’t give us anything out of the ordinary, that we didn’t expect. We practiced against a lot of the things they made plays on. We just didn’t execute very well throughout the course of the game. That’s more on us as coaches than anything else.”

Pelini’s defensive philosophy is built around aggressiveness and turnovers – he likes lots of both. Unlike Saban, who preferred man-to-man coverage in the secondary, Pelini likes zone and while he will blitz, it won’t be near as much as Saban.

Saban was a chess master once the offense broke the huddle, giving his players many options and relying on them to pick up the changes quickly. Pelini wants his players’ minds uncluttered so they can take the shortest distance to the ball and be ready to take it away when they get there.

“You play with great effort and get 11 hats to the football,” Pelini said. “That’s where great defense starts. We talk about it all the time.

“When you get there you have to get there in a bad mood with the awareness that you’re not going there just to make a tackle but get the ball out, too.”

LSU players welcomed the change, even while they couldn’t argue with the success they had under Saban. Last year, LSU was No. 3 in total defense, No. 5 in pass defense and No. 7 vs. the run with most of that crew returning.

But these days, when a defense is called from the sideline, the confusion ends there. Usually, regardless of what the offense lines up in or changes into, Pelini’s defenses play the hand they’ve dealt.

“(Under Saban) we would get two or three calls at a time and we’d make the call according to the formation,” said middle linebacker Cameron Vaughn, who calls the defensive plays. “That was good but a lot of times we lacked communication because it’s hard with 92,000 people screaming in your ear. We had a lot of busts doing that.

“With Coach Pelini, the call is going to be the call 90 percent of the time. We’ll check it sometimes, but usually it will just play out. We have a lot fewer communication busts.”

Said safety Jessie Daniels: “It’s much easier to execute when you have so much less to think about. We made a lot of mistakes Saturday, but if we execute this defense the way we’re supposed to, we’ll be fine. The guys really like playing it.”