LSU's Lavalais has opponents at a loss on how to stop him

Defensive tackle sets pace for SEC title, Sugar Bowl hopes of No. 3 Tigers

National notebook

November 28, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He is the undisputed leader of the nation's top rushing defense, a player who is so difficult to contain that Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said this week, "He plays with such passion. He never stays blocked. You can't cut him off."

Meet Louisiana State's Chad Lavalais, who just might be the best defensive lineman in college football this season.

Of the 48 tackles Lavalais has made for the third-ranked Tigers, 14 have been for losses and six have resulted in sacks. He also has 20 quarterback hurries and forced at least one key fumble.

Perhaps the pressure Lavalais puts on opposing quarterbacks was best illustrated in last week's 17-14 win over Mississippi in Oxford. On fourth-and-10 from his team's 37 late in the game, Rebels quarterback Eli Manning tripped over the foot of Doug Buckles as the guard was getting ready to block Lavalais.

Manning fell backward - some say right on his Heisman Trophy aspirations - and LSU closed out the game.

"I think if you count up the lost yardage plays [by Lavalais] this year, he either gets the credit for it or he's bringing more attention to himself to where his teammate makes the play, so he's disruptive and such a valuable component of that defense," said Nutt, whose Razorbacks play the Tigers today in Baton Rouge.

Lavalais, a 6-foot-3, 289-pound senior, said that the lack of publicity he and his defensive teammates have received this season compared to defenses at other schools - Ohio State, for instance - has helped motivate them.

Not that LSU was supposed to have such a dominating defense this season, one that is currently ranked first in fewest points allowed and fewest yards surrendered and sixth overall. The Tigers have given up just two rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

"I knew with the guys we had coming back, our defensive line was going to be pretty good," Lavalais said this week. "With some of the other parts of the defense, we had big shoes to fill."

Lavalais is only one of three seniors on a relatively young defense. Its leading tackler, strong safety Laron Landry, is a true freshman. Though the pass defense isn't as good as it was a year ago, the Tigers have come up big when they needed to, as evidenced by what they did to Manning last week.

"We've played really well, especially up front," LSU coach Nick Saban told USA Today last week. "Our guys on the defensive line have all improved."

There are some who believe that because of its defense, LSU has the best chance to knock off top-ranked Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers can get to the Jan. 4 national championship game in nearby New Orleans, but they must beat Arkansas and win next week's Southeastern Conference championship game. Even then, LSU will need help from Southern California and the Bowl Championship Series computers.

Saban admitted during his weekly news conference that all the questions about the BCS might be distracting to the Tigers.

"I know that it is difficult to sometimes understand, but you want your team to play well and focus on execution and fundamental things that are going to help them play well and sometimes when you start thinking about all that other stuff, it just kind of clutters your ability to prepare," Saban said.

Lavalais said that he is not thinking past the Razorbacks, and for good reason. Last season in Fayetteville, the Tigers shut down Arkansas for most of the game before wilting in the final three minutes of a 21-20 defeat.

"We preached that all of preseason," Lavalais said. "When we were running sprints, the coaches would say things like `Three minutes ... three minutes.' It's paid off this season."

A messy divorce

The whispers have become louder, and now it appears that today's game at Colorado will be the last for Frank Solich as head coach at Nebraska. Despite a 57-19 record in six years since succeeding the legendary Tom Osborne, Solich appears to be a lame duck.

What has apparently upset athletic director Steve Pederson during an 8-3 season is that two of the defeats have been televised nationally, including a 38-9 loss to Kansas State in Lincoln. It was the worst home loss for the Cornhuskers in more than four decades.

Some of Nebraska's most prominent boosters might have their say with more than just vocal support for Solich. One of them, David Sokol, told a Lincoln newspaper this week that he is rethinking making a significant donation to a $40 million expansion project for Memorial Stadium.

"I can't imagine it hasn't affected virtually anyone who's thinking about giving to it," said Sokol, the CEO of a Omaha company. "In my professional career, I've never seen a personnel issue handled more poorly than the way this is being handled by the athletic department in Lincoln."

Pederson is mum on Solich's future, and the coach said that he and his staff "are holding up fine." One of Solich's biggest allies, Osborne, said that he isn't interested in giving up politics for a return to the sideline.

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