ATLANTA — The most obvious matchup of strengths Monday night in the Chick-fil-A Bowl will be Clemson’s high-scoring spread offense against Louisiana State’s defense.
“These guys are top 10 in defense,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re top 10 in offense. So it’s pretty easy to get excited about that.”
A closer look shows No. 9 LSU’s pass defense hasn’t been so stingy lately.
LSU gave up more than 300 yards passing in three consecutive wins over Mississippi State, Mississippi and Arkansas to close the regular season. That sets the stage for a tougher test against Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
LSU began November ranked fourth nationally against the pass. It has dropped to 11th – still a strong ranking. The exposed late-season vulnerability against the pass will be tested by No. 14 Clemson, which ranks sixth in scoring with 42.3 points per game.
LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Clemson has a “very, very talented offense.”
“I certainly would rank it as high as any offense we’ve faced,” Chavis said.
Chavis has plugged holes to have LSU eighth in the nation in total defense and 11th with its average of 16.9 points per game.
Defense was the strength for the 2011 LSU team that played for the national championship. Then cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, while safety Brandon Taylor went in the third.
An unexpected loss followed when star cornerback and return specialist Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team.
Suddenly, LSU was forced to start freshman Jalen Mills at cornerback. A redshirt freshman, Jalen Collins, joins the defensive backfield on passing downs. Each has two interceptions.
Junior safety Eric Reid said Mills and Collins are young “but very talented.”
“I have seen them develop and tried to help coach them,” Reid said. “They’ve come a long way.”
Hopkins and Watkins combined for 126 receptions for 1,922 yards and 19 touchdowns, including 16 by Hopkins. Watkins was suspended for the first two games and missed another game with a sickness.
Watkins, a first-team All-America as a freshman in 2011, has had a decline in production this season but could be poised for a big bowl game.
“We expect Sammy to be Sammy,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Saturday. “We need him to play well and we’re going to turn him loose.”
LSU already has proved it can beat a similarly talented quarterback and offense. The Tigers beat Texas A&M 24-19 on Oct. 20 while holding Johnny Manziel, the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, to 23 yards rushing and 276 yards passing with three interceptions and no touchdowns.
LSU linebacker Kevin Minter said Boyd “may have a better arm, a little more accurate” than Manziel.
“Other than that they’re pretty much the same,” Minter said.
LSU can’t expect Clemson to play a one-dimensional game on offense. Senior Andre Ellington has 1,031 yards rushing with eight touchdowns. Boyd, a dual-threat quarterback, leads Clemson with nine rushing touchdowns and has almost 500 yards rushing.
“It’s a great challenge anytime you play that kind of attack,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “A quarterback that can throw and very, very explosive receivers. You have to handle it in a variety of ways. Certainly changing coverages and an opportunity to rush the passer.”
Added Miles: “We enjoy the matchup.”