Oct 15, 2013 11:54 PM by AP
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - LSU coach Les Miles always says he wants his team playing its best at "the back end" of the season, and hopes his Tigers are on that track.
For the second straight season, LSU put its back to the wall with a Southeastern Conference road loss in October. And like last year, the Tigers have responded well through the middle of their schedule. Now only one SEC contest - at Mississippi this weekend - stands between sixth-ranked LSU and an SEC West driver's-seat matchup with No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 9.
The key now for LSU is to not get caught overlooking the struggling Rebels, who are banged up and have lost three straight, but whose last two losses came by a combined seven points.
"Any time you line up against the Ole Miss team, there's tradition and history," Miles said. "It's just more important. (Billy) Cannon's great run on Halloween (in 1959) and Odell Beckham's fourth-quarter punt return a year ago - just a number of exciting finishes to a long-standing rivalry."
LSU has won six of the eight meetings with Ole Miss, but half of those victories were by seven points or less. Last season, the Tigers had to rally for a 41-35 victory against Ole Miss.
A year ago, the Tigers lost at Florida in October, but rebounded to set up a clash with Alabama for first place in the SEC Western Division. The Tigers fell to the eventual national champion Crimson Tide 21-17 on a last-minute touchdown.
Three weekends ago, LSU dropped a 44-41 shootout at Georgia, leaving the Tigers virtually no margin for error if it wanted to catch Alabama for the SEC West title without any help. Since then, LSU has registered a 59-26 rout of Mississippi State and a 17-6 triumph over Florida.
"The personality of our football team is one where they are ambitious," Miles said. "They are looking to the future and this week it's all about Ole Miss."
The defense has numerous young players. Four sophomores are in the starting lineup - end Danielle Hunter, linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Mills and safety Corey Thompson. Freshman Tre'Davious White starts at cornerback, while freshman Rashard Robinson plays in the nickel package.
After allowing 88 points in a span of eight quarters - the second half against Auburn, the Georgia game and the first half at Mississippi State - the Tigers defense has yielded just three field goals in the past six quarters.
"That loss (against Georgia) bears on your heart," Mills said. "You never want to have that feeling again."
Against Florida last week, LSU failed to score at least 35 points for the first time this season. However, the Tigers took a different approach against the Gators' stingy defense. Rather than relying upon Zach Mettenberger's passing, LSU ran the ball with Jeremy Hill.
Mettenberger was just 9-of-17 for 152 yards - all-season lows. But Hill rushed for 121 yards on 19 carries - his fourth 100-yard game of the season.
"The offense in my opinion did exactly what it needed to do," Miles said. "It controlled the game, moved the football, was smart with the ball and finished the game. Zach played a pretty good game. It might not have been his best game, but he managed the situations and allowed us to play well enough to win."
Mississippi coach Ole Miss Hugh Freeze figures Mettenberger is bound to bounce back with a more prolific outing sooner than later.
"He was certainly good in our game last year, but he certainly has improved," Freeze said. "They're certainly playing their strengths of winning one-on-one matchups to the outside. ... Mettenberger isn't missing many open receivers when he has them. He's making very, very good throws and managing the game extremely well."
LSU offensive players believe they have gained confidence since that loss to Georgia.
"Everything happens for a reason," offensive tackle La'El Collins said. "It was time for (loss) to happen. It was time for us to look at our mistakes and see the things we can do differently. We can't take things for granted.
"We're a whole lot better now. The offense has really made strides. We have come a long way, but it is still a process. The road to a championship is always under construction."