Since the summer, each time the LSU offense has been discussed, the Alabama game has quickly followed. Every move that unit has made has been viewed in the “will it work against Alabama” light. Well we get to figure it all out Saturday night. LSU stunk in up for two games against one of the best defenses in college football history last year. The first time, it was just enough. The second time…not even close. This LSU offense is different than that one. It’ll have to be better if the Tigers want to get out alive. We’ll see if the week off has helped
LSU Offensive Line vs. Alabama Defensive Line
As you know, the Tiger offensive line has been better the last two times out. After plugging holes for weeks upon weeks, the newly solidified group has settled in nicely. We haven’t seen any egregious errors from Josh Dworaczyk at the left tackle recently. La’El Collins continues to dominate. P.J. Lonergan, who may have benefited more than anyone from the week off, is hanging in there. Trai Turner is gaining confidence, and Vadal Alexander has steadily improved. I think the staff getting him the start in the Towson game was a really savvy move. The new question now becomes, where does Josh Williford fit in? I’ve learned to take Les Miles injury reports with a grain of salt, but word is that Williford did practice Wednesday. From the tone in Miles’ voice and the phrasing of his answer, I would expect Turner to start. Williford adds MUCH NEEDED depth if he can dress, but why mess with a good thing?
Alabama is large up front. Very large. Jessie Williams, the Australian nose guard, plugs the middle as well as anyone in the league. He tips the scale at 320 lbs. and moves well for that size. He’s got 14 stops this year and has hurried the quarterback three times. Twice more he’s swatted a pass away with those big mitts. Damion Square plays an end. He’s 6-feet-3-inches and 286 lbs. He carries the weight well, though, amassing five hurries and a pair of sacks. He’s also got 18 tackles, two for losses. The other end is Ed Stinson who is almost exactly the same size. He leads the team with 7.5 tackles for loss and is second with three sacks. Quentin Dial (6’6” 290) relieves Williams at times and has given the Tide some very quality snaps. This group, as a whole is designed to choke off the running game and occupy blockers that cannot reach the second level where Alabama’s linebackers roam. It’s a really good group.
LSU had next to no success up the gut last year against a similar defensive front. And that LSU line had Chris Faulk, Alex Hurst and Will Blackwell. It’s just hard to do anything running straight at these guys. They are gap sound and physical as anyone. This challenge is different than South Carolina who was a little bit more dynamic on the edges. These guys don’t try to beat you up the field. They just shut the middle. I love the matchup on the inside with Williams banging on Collins-Lonergan-Turner. I think Lonergan will need help which is exactly what Alabama wants. In terms of the pass rush, I don’t expect much from the two Alabama ends. That’s not their game. Stinson could give Alexander some trouble out there, but he’ll likely have help most of the time. Dworaczyk is veteran enough to keep Square under control in the passing game. Obviously it will be a rare case when LSU’s front five have to block just the Alabama front three, but in the overall view of the battle in the trench, Alabama is superior here.
LSU Running Backs vs. Alabama Linebackers
This looks familiar. A young freshman surging forward in the LSU ground game. Spencer Ware did it in the Cotton Bowl two years ago and Kenny Hilliard exploded toward the end of last season. Here’s Jeremy Hill. He’s run for 124 and 127 in the last two games. Want to know which stat I like in those two games? Zero yards lost. Hill has great vision, he's decisive and gets up the field as soon as possible. That’s when he’s at his best. It’s fairly clear that Les Miles wants to go to Hill late in games to deliver the knockout blow. That’s made possible because some of the other guys do the early lifting. Spencer Ware has been fairly pedestrian since the Auburn game when he was a monster. I still think he runs hard, and I think he’s still got a use in this offense. Perhaps we see more WareCat. More on that later. Hilliard has been even more distant. He did break a 17 yarder against South Carolina but was a non-factor in College Station. Michael Ford has been great. He made the play to get a first down on the Ware pitch at A&M and followed that up with a nifty little touchdown run on the next snap. That was another toss where Ford’s speed was just too much for the defense. This is still a very talented backfield.
The 2011 Alabama linebacking corps was just outrageous. Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw have moved on to the NFL, but a new crop backers is filling in rather nicely. The leader in the middle is C.J. Mosley. He’s a junior now and has broken out to become the linebacker recruiting services saw. He’s got 65 stops and a pair of interceptions. He can run, shed blocks and make tackles. Weakside starter Nico Johnson is a senior. He’s got an NFL future as well. He’s only got 32 tackles, but don’t let that number fool you. He’s a great player. Trey DePriest has started every game on the inside. He’s third on the team with 34 stops, three for losses. The sophomore is another of those 240+ lb linebackers that Alabama has plugged in for the past few years. Adrian Hubbard plays the Jack linebacker. That’s where you saw Upshaw have such a remarkable year in 2011. Hubbard will put his hand on the ground at times, and he’ll play upright as well. He spends a ton of time rushing the passer but can drop into the flat if need be. Hubbard has 5.5 tackles for loss and a team-best 3.5 sacks. Xzavier Dickson does a little of this as well. He’s a 6-feet-3-inch 240 lber.
While the names are different for Alabama, the assignments and body types are very similar. These guys are big, they can tackle, and they are never out of position. That’s just the way it is. Ford as able to have some success in Tuscaloosa getting the edge. I think that’s still a soft spot for this Alabama defense. None, and I repeat, none of the Alabama linebackers run as well as Ford. He can get to the edge if he gets a step. I think the staff knows that, and I think they’ll use that. I don’t think the toss lead with Ware and Hill will have much success. It’s just the wrong play against a group that tough. But. I think Ware has a role in the WareCat. That’s a way to hold the linebackers and make them find the football. That half a step can be the difference in a one yard gain and a six yard gain. Those six yard gains are like gold. Look for some of this, not a ton. Some. I think the other area for LSU to exploit is these linebackers in coverage. Alabama’s linebackers want to play downhill behind that big defensive line. Forcing them out in space is to LSU’s advantage. That’s why I think the screen game can be helpful. It slows blitzes and creates space. LSU has run a small number a screens this year, but they’ve worked. The South Carolina game is an example of that. While I’ve come up with some ways to help LSU find soft spots, the fact is that Alabama’s linebackers are an incredible bunch. They are so fundamentally sound that it’s tough to find anything against them. Talent for talent, this is a push, but without some creativity, I don't see LSU's backs being a huge factor. Alabama gives up 57.2 yards per game.
LSU Quarterbacks and Receivers vs. Alabama Secondary
LSU put it up early against South Carolina. Then followed that up by throwing 29 times at Texas A&M. The book is out, stack the box with everybody you got and LSU won’t hurt you throwing it. Until Kadron Boone’s excellent grab, LSU didn’t hurt the Aggies. What was encouraging was LSU’s ability to get open at A&M. That Aggie secondary is garbage, but LSU did get open which is improvement. The other big stat was the turnover number. Mettenberger protected the ball. The drops have been few and far between now. Jarvis Landry said this week that the receivers have started catching 200 balls after workouts. The work ethic is there. Will production follow? We’ll have to see.
Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Mark Barron are gone. Those guys were really good. So are the ones left over. The best cover corner is Dee Milliner. He may have been the best one on the 2011 squad. Milliner has long arms and great hips. He can really cover, breaking up 13 passes already. That’s tops in the SEC by five. Toss in two picks. He’s no joke. Deion Belue is the other corner. The JUCO transfer has held up well in his first season at Alabama by breaking up six passes and picking off two of his own. He’s also made three tackles for loss. The safeties are returner Robert Lester and sophomore Vinnie Sunseri. HaHa Clinton-Dix will get in the mix as well. Lester is a stud. He’s got three interceptions and 21 tackles. Sunseri is a coach’s kid. He’s always in the right spot and makes plays when he gets there. His 36 tackles are second on the team. That means he’s in the box often. The two interceptions and three passes defended means he’s just as comfortable out of it.
This is where LSU wins or loses it. I truly believe that. I also believe that LSU has the tools to win it. This Alabama secondary has been great, but it’s easier to throw the ball on the Crimson Tide than it is to run it. I think Mettenberger will be given a chance by the LSU staff to throw the ball. They’re going to have to. My best advice? Stay away from Milliner if you can. He’s simply better than any receiver LSU has. I think LSU throws similar balls to the ones it threw against South Carolina and Texas A&M. That means slants, outs and hitches. It also means some go’s. I think LSU’s passing game is pretty vanilla. That’s because you have to execute vanilla before you get to the complex stuff. LSU hasn’t done that. I think LSU opens it up on occasion in this one. Alabama will play a ton of press man to man coverage. Nick Saban's best teams do. That means pressure on the quarterback and opportunities on the outside. The most important thing, however, is keeping it with the white shirts. Turnovers will make this thing ugly in a hurry. Last little note. Look for Terrence Magee. He may factor in.
This is where I get to have fun. I get to come up with the gameplan and results. Here’s my first belief. Handing the ball off and tossing the ball off guard will result in a punt. You can’t run against a front this big and strong with a young offensive line and no creativity. It won’t work. I open the game by throwing some on first down and trying to get into 2nd and 3rd and manageable. Third and 9 is a death sentence. Saban will crank up the heat and Mettenberger can’t move well enough to get out of the line of fire. Remember Jarrett Lee? That means it needs to be 3rd and 3. I think a STEADY diet of screens can slow the blitz packages and force the big boys on Alabama’s defense to deal with the best athletes they’ve seen all year in space. That’s you Michael Ford. You too Russell Shepard, Jarvis Landry, Jeremy Hill. I think the jet sweep has its place in the gameplan. I also think some deep shots can be productive. Justin Hunter from Tennessee dropped one late in the first half that could have kept things interesting. If LSU is going to win this game, Mettenberger will have to have his best game as a Tiger. He needs to throw for pushing 200 yards. He needs to take care of the ball. He needs to win the game for LSU. I can’t quite predict that.
Prediction: Alabama 20, LSU 10