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Gators cannot forget passes under attack

LSU's secondary hopes to jog some unpleasant memories.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published October 3, 2006


GAINESVILLE - As they jogged off the field after LSU's 21-17 win over Florida last October in Baton Rouge, Tigers defensive backs laughed and pointed at the frustrated Gators.

One even yelled, "See you in Gainesville."

It's a scene that has haunted Florida players for a year.

Chris Leak had one of his worst days as Florida's quarterback, completing just 11-of-30 passes for a season-low 107 yards.

"We had a chance to win at the end," Leak said Monday. "We just didn't finish off strong. That's one thing we've focused on this year is making sure we get stronger as the game goes on."

The Gators finished just 2-of-16 on third-down conversions and had 206 yards total offense, their worst output of the year.

It most likely won't get any easier for Leak and his teammates Saturday at Florida Field: Three of the Tigers' top four defensive backs return from the unit that led the SEC in pass efficiency defense a year ago.

"They are the best secondary in the country," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "We thought Alabama had two very good corners, which they do. But this will be the best because of their safeties. They have two very good corners; I think their corners are as good as Alabama's, but their safeties are better. Their safeties have played a lot of football and their numbers reflect that."

LSU leads not just the SEC but the nation in passing efficiency defense in 2006. The Tigers rank fifth among Division I-A schools in interceptions with nine, and have given up just one touchdown pass this season.

"They have a lot of veterans on that team," Leak said. "They've played against us many times. You know that they are going to be prepared, they're going to be ready. We're going to have to play our best game to be successful."

LSU's attitude about pass defense is simple.

"If the ball's in the air against the LSU secondary, there's a chance that's LSU's ball," Tigers coach Les Miles said. "I think that we're doing a really good job looking to those opportunities."

The Tigers' secondary was ranked the nation's best by several preseason publications, and it is living up to that billing.

Safety Craig Steltz has intercepted a pass in four straight games and is tied with Florida's Reggie Nelson for the SEC lead. Cornerback Jonathan Zenon is the first Tiger in over 40 years to return interceptions for touchdowns in back-to-back games.

Safety LaRon Landry, a third-team team Associated Press All-American last year, has started 40 straight games, the fifth-longest streak in the nation.

The Tigers rank among the top five in the nation in five categories, including No. 1 in total defense (193.4 yards per game) and pass efficiency defense (73.46 rating) and No. 2 in scoring defense (7.4 points per game).

In five games, LSU has given up just three touchdowns and the Tigers rank third nationally in passing yardage allowed per contest (124.2 yards per game). The secondary's ability to play man defense is huge in the LSU scheme.

"They blitzed us a lot and pretty much challenged us to beat man-to-man coverage (last year) and we couldn't do it," Gators receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "So we've got to do a better job of that this year."

LSU'S hopes for a national title took a hit after a controversial 7-3 loss at Auburn on Sept. 16, but the Tigers are ranked No. 9 and a win in Gainesville could put them right back in contention - if things fall right in October and November.

Much of that hope hinges on the secondary's ability to frustrate Florida players into tears yet again this weekend.

"We are going to have to play our best to win this one," Meyer said.