LSU junior center Lloyd Cushenberry and senior defensive end Rashard Lawrence sat catercorner from one another, media members splayed in between the two Tigers’ booths as they answered questions ranging from Oklahoma to blocking out Christmas distractions. But one question caught Lawrence off guard a bit.
“Why did this season happen,” a reporter asked Lawrence.
“The quarterback starts it and the head coach starts it, and we go as they go,” Lawrence said. “It’s a process and everything, but things have to go your way. And I look at all the things that kind of went our way with all the different hirings, guys coming back to school, and, I mean, ultimately Joe just taking over this program.”
This time a year ago, LSU was preparing for a Fiesta Bowl game against UCF that while demanding a ton of focus, also allowed for some freedom to have fun and enjoy the bowl experience. Long gone are the days where Garrett Brumfield and Joe Burrow stood around debating which super-hero was better, Iron Man or Batman.
This year you’ll get no such reaction from the Tiger players, who are laser-focused on punching a ticket to the national championship game in New Orleans.
“We got to understand what the end goal is, and that’s the National Championship,” Cushenberry said. “If you’re not focused and locked in on that, I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like the whole team is just pretty much focused. Coach O and the staff does a great job of letting us know that it’s not a bowl game. It’s a playoff game. It’s different.”
For Lawrence and the LSU defense, finding a way to hinder the explosiveness of an Oklahoma offense that statistically is neck and neck with the Tigers in 2019 is a tall task. Since taking a punch to the mouth with poor outings against Alabama and Ole Miss, the Tiger defense has held its last three opponents (Arkansas, A&M, Georgia) to 37 total points.
“The good thing about football is that you want to ascend as the season goes on,” Lawrence said. “I think this defense has done that. We struggled. We had different injuries. We weren’t playing well at all. But now, with this time of the season coming around, with postseason ball, we’re going in the right direction.”
This isn’t the first time Lawrence and a few veteran leaders on the Tigers have gone up against Hurts, losing to the former Alabama quarterback in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. Lawrence has seen a ton of growth in Hurts as a player, noting his increased accuracy and the leader he’s grown to be for the Sooners.
“I think the biggest thing is he can sit back there and throw it,” Lawrence said. “They’ve got a lot of different designed runs for him, but he’ll sit back there and throw it. He can throw it, he can run it and he’s also the heart and soul of that team.”
On the offensive side, the status of running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a hot topic but there are three running backs behind the junior who could all see an increased workload on Saturday.
Cushenberry, aside from Burrow, the offense’s unquestioned leader, said it doesn’t matter who’s in the backfield if the o-line can’t find a way to create holes for the running back.
“Whoever gets carries, it’s on us up front to do our job so they can make plays,” Cushenberry said. “It doesn’t change anything for us.”
Freshmen running back Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery figure to be the likely candidates to receive carries against a Sooner defense that Cushenberry describes as smaller than SEC defensive lines but faster.
“All those guys, they play hard and a lot of speed,” Cushenberry said. “And not really, you know, bigger guys that we’ve seen just throughout the season, but they play fast and they play hard.”
Oklahoma comes in with 35 sacks on the season, top-30 in the country while holding opposing rush units to 132 yards per game, ranked No. 33 in the country. The Sooner defensive line will be without leading man Ronnie Perkins, who will be serving a suspension Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley confirmed on Monday.
Perkins had combined for a team-leading six sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss in 2019 but Cushenberry says they aren’t a one-man horse by any stretch of the imagination.
“They move a lot up front and play with a lot of speed,” Cushenberry said. “So they’re probably the fastest team we’ve played all year. We have to get ready for that. They have great players. I feel like they’re much faster than a lot of SEC teams. That’s what they do. They play fast, they play hard.”
If LSU does what its players preach and “do their job” there’s no reason the team shouldn’t be playing in the national championship in New Orleans for the fourth time in the 2000’s.
“I think just trusting our process, how we do things. We keep things simple here,” Lawrence said. “We don’t make things bigger than they are. That’s a testament to Coach O and how we do things. We’ve been practicing hard. Not long, but hard. When we hit, we hit. When we lay off, we lay off. When we’re in the film room, that’s where we do most things right now, especially during this season.”