LSU junior cornerback Morris Claiborne made his fifth interception of the season during last Friday's 41-17 hammering of Arkansas in Baton Rouge.Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/JASON IVESTER
ATHENS, Ga. — LSU football coach Les Miles was asked this week to pinpoint the leader of his secondary, so he just named everybody.
Safety Brandon Taylor is the lone senior of the bunch. Junior cornerback Morris "Mo" Claiborne is a finalist for the Thorpe Award a year after former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson won the honor. Sophomore cornerback Tyrann Mathieu is the most recognized, and sophomore safety Eric Reid made the biggest play in the biggest game when he wrestled an interception away from Alabama tight end Michael Williams.
"I think Tyrann leads in a way but always, always finds out kind of where Mo is at and what Mo's take is on everything," Miles said. "I think Mo is certainly the leader of the secondary. I think Eric Reid has a place. I think Tyrann Mathieu has a place. Certainly Brandon Taylor.
"I mean, it's a position of wealth for our team."
That wealth has been a huge reason the Tigers are 12-0 entering Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game against No. 12 Georgia (10-2). LSU ranks second nationally behind Alabama in scoring defense (allowing 10.58 points per game) and total defense (284.4 yards), and the Tigers are tied with the Crimson Tide for fewest passing touchdowns allowed with six.
LSU's six aerial scores allowed are countered by six touchdowns that have been produced by Tigers defensive backs.
"If the ball is in the air and we can't get it, we've got to tackle their guy and get that 15-yard penalty," Georgia receiver Michael Bennett said. "We've got to secure that ball high and tight. We watched a play yesterday where Tyrann Mathieu stripped the ball from a West Virginia guy and just totally took the thing from him."
Mathieu, dubbed the "Honey Badger" because he takes whatever he wants, has made the most big plays of the group. He caused and recovered a fumble for a touchdown during the 40-27 opening win over Oregon in Dallas, and he returned a punt 92 yards for a touchdown last Friday against Arkansas.
Claiborne has produced his share as well, returning an interception 89 yards to ignite LSU's 38-7 win at Tennessee and intercepting AJ McCarron late in the third quarter to set up a field goal early in the fourth that pulled the Tigers into a 6-6 tie at Alabama. He considers that pickoff his personal favorite.
"I think Mo Claiborne is doing everything we've asked him to do," Miles said. "There is a real want to throw away from him. Like I said, I'm very fortunate to have guys in that secondary that play outstanding, and Mo is as good, if not better, than any."
Georgia coach Mark Richt called LSU's secondary "fantastic" and expects a lot of man coverage from the Tigers. The Bulldogs have been surprisingly solid at receiver following the departures of A.J. Green and Kris Durham, but can solid hold its own with fantastic?
Richt isn't about to make any wholesale changes this week.
"If you change too much, you're just going to probably cause more confusion than anything else," he said. "I'm sure we'll have a wrinkle here and there, but we'll just try to continue to do what we've been doing all year long. We're in this game for a reason, and that's because we've done some things well enough to get here."
Georgia redshirt sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray leads the SEC in efficiency, having completed 202 of 331 attempts (61.03 percent) for 2,698 yards with 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Murray is seventh nationally in touchdown tosses and has thrown at least four touchdowns in three of his last four games.
"He actually can run a lot better than people think, and he's probably one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the SEC," Taylor said. "He knows how to manage a game well, and he limits his mistakes."
So the LSU defensive backs will enter the Georgia Dome respecting Murray and Georgia's passing game but also wanting to continue the fun. It's a combination that has worked out well for a collection that remains close-knit despite being praised as individuals on numerous occasions.
"We never really had a problem with egos because we know we're all back there pressing for one goal," Taylor said. "It's really kind of like a little competition back there between us, like who can make plays and stuff. We all add up our tackles after the game and stuff like that."
Said Claiborne: "We know that we want to be the best. We just can't stop. We can't be satisfied with where we're at."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...