Moscona: Ex-Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze Explains Why LSU’s Defense Is So Good

Moscona: Ex-Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze Explains Why LSU’s Defense Is So Good article feature image

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Greedy Williams

  • LSU is a 12-point favorite over Ole Miss this weekend in Baton Rouge.
  • Matt Moscona had ex-Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze on his radio show to explain why the Tigers' defense is so tough to prepare for.

On paper, LSU looks like the newest version of the same team the Tigers have been for more than a decade. They are 106th in passing offense and 107th in total offense, compensating with an athletic defense and solid special teams.

While there may be truth to that, according to one coach familiar with the Tigers, there may be more than meets the eye.

“So many more multiple sets and shifts and motions,” Ex-Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze told me Tuesday when asked about the difference between this LSU offense and the ones he coached against during his five seasons in Oxford. “(Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger) is doing RPOs some, and he’s not all the way in it like I would be because that’s just my world, but he’s doing enough of it where it’s not any longer: Hey, we’ve got to figure out how to stop the tight end, fullback power and the play action off of it.

“We’ve now got to defend 3-by-1 and 2-by-2 and empty and RPOs off of the run game and the stretch play out of the gun.”

Freeze was 2-3 against the Tigers, winning his two home games and losing three times in Baton Rouge. After the Tigers won a 41-35 shootout in Freeze’s first season in 2012, LSU averaged just 17 points over the next three games against the Rebels.

In 2016, with Ensminger as interim offensive coordinator, LSU rolled to a 38-21 win.

“He has expanded that offense,” Freeze said, “and they’ve always had great skill guys at the receiver and tight end, and this quarterback seems to be managing the game pretty well, too. So, he’s doing an efficient job coaching that position also … and he’s throwing in a little tempo from time to time.”

Freeze acknowledged that LSU’s success on defense might also be hindering its statistical prowess offensively, in terms of raw numbers.

“They have to manage the game offensively from the viewpoint of, ‘Our defense is one of the best,’ so I don’t know that they always have their gas pedal pushed down,” he said.

Freeze said there were times where he felt like he “had to score 40” to give his Ole Miss team a chance to win, because he didn’t always have a defense such as LSU’s.

“I don’t know if that’s the strategy that, ‘We don’t need to score 40 and we need to manage the clock, manage the game because our defense is going to be good enough not to give up those,’” he said.

Without having a stat sheet in front of him, Freeze hit the nail on the head. The Tigers have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown this season, outscoring opponents 38-3 in the first 15 minutes.

The trend continues in the second quarter, with the Tigers holding a 47-21 edge. Conversely, LSU has scored just nine points in the third quarter all season. The Tigers are getting ahead and managing the game with an elite defense.

As for that LSU defense, Freeze knows it well. He came up as an offensive coach and ran the Rebels’ offense before resigning amid a recruiting scandal in 2017.

“Dave Aranda is one of the best guys I’ve ever gone against,” Freeze said, and the third-year defensive coordinator became the highest-paid assistant coach in college football this offseason when LSU agreed to a deal worth $2.5 million per season.

Before going into detail about Aranda, Freeze was quick to praise LSU’s talent: “I’ve always felt like LSU’s defensive backs were as good if not better than any that we played. So any time you can put people out there on an island and feel like they can control some of those one-on-one matchups and be able to add people to the box to be able to stop the run, that’s a very, very scary game for me to have to call.”

During Aranda’s first season in Baton Rouge, his defense allowed the fewest touchdowns in the nation (16) and finished in the top 10 nationally in total and scoring defense. His 2017 unit finished near the top of the SEC in every major statistical category.

“I think he does an excellent job with that odd front that he plays,” Freeze said. “He does a great job of disguising it, whether it’s the nickel-sam that’s adding to it, whether it’s the weakside standup and where he’s going to be pre-snap, post-snap and from snap to snap, he’s different places.

“It’s easy for our quarterback to see it after the snap, but did you have the right call to throw the hot route off of that, off of a run call? And if you didn’t, then it’s not a good play, because they’ve added an extra hat, and chances are it’s not going to be a successful run.”

There is no need to take notes on Freeze’s stream of consciousness — there isn’t going to be a test — but it does illustrate the complexity of what play callers must consider when attacking Aranda’s unit.

“I love his demeanor,” Freeze said of the soft-spoken 41-year-old. “I think those kids respond to that for him. He’s just a really, really good coordinator.”

Aranda’s challenge this week will be slowing down an offense of skill players that Freeze recruited to Oxford. Through four games, the Rebels are 14th nationally in total offense, averaging 522 yards per game.

“I think Ole Miss’s offense should be able to score against most people they play,” Freeze said, “because of the offensive line and those receivers and quarterback, and they’re efficient in the run game to make you honor it.”

LSU is a 12-point favorite over Ole Miss on Saturday night at Tiger Stadium, a place where Freeze never won, but certainly reveres.

“Man, I loved it,” Freeze said of being a visiting coach at Tiger Stadium. “You truly haven’t experienced everything there is to experience as the Ole Miss head coach until you beat LSU in Baton Rouge.”

Matt Luke will get his chance to do so this week, but he will have to do it against a multiple offense and one of the best defensive coordinators in the country.

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