It doesn't feel like week 10 of the season, does it? Two thirds through, and here we are. Pretty damn near to exactly where we thought we'd be. LSU. Alabama. Winner is in the driver's seat to get to Atlanta, and maybe even farther.
Let's be honest, this game is what's been on the mind of nearly every LSU fan for the last 11 months. The two titans of the SEC West Division. The last regular season matchup, Nos. 1 vs. 2. And then the BCS Championship game embarrassment, casting a pall on what should have been the greatest season in LSU history. Hell no the fans aren't over it. Who could be? Everything this team has done since. Every block, tackle, mistake, it's all been seen through the eyes of "what's gonna happen against Bama." For some, they and their head coach have become some sort of preternatural boogie man, always looming in the background, rather than another football team.
But now we're here. Go time.
What to Watch For On Saturday
"The trains run on time!"
Hey! Whaddya know another fascism reference! Much like Mussolini's trains, Nick Saban's Alabama teams are tied to the notions of on-time and on-schedule, both in terms of themselves and opponents. In short (hee), you might say they thrive on dictating (hee) the timing of the game. This offense thrives on staying on schedule in terms of down and distance. Of Alabama's 95 third-down plays, fewer than a third (28), have involved distances of seven yards or longer. Likewise, the defense thrives on forcing that very thing out of opponents -- nearly 59 percent of opponents third-down plays have come in those situations. Not surprisingly, the Tide allow just a 25-percent conversion rate, while converting 45 percent of the time themselves. Overall, Alabama has allowed all of 131 yards on third-down situations of seven-plus this season.
LSU struggles plenty on third down this season for the same reason, because they haven't been so good at avoiding the long-yardage ones. Would you believe that Zach Mettenberger is the second-highest-rated passer in the country on third downs of 4-6 yards? Most quarterbacks struggle in longer-yardage situations. Even efficiency machine A.J. McCarron's completion percentage drops under 50 in those spots. The issue is the approximate six times per game LSU gets put in those situations -- nearly half their average third-down total. The Tide have faced them about half as often. Staying in those manageable situations will be crucial, and for this LSU team, that means more success on first down.
Stick and Move
For the record, I believe that LSU needs to run the football more often on first down, particularly this weekend. The Tigers still average 6.4 on first down, and while Bama is allowing just 2.8, that's still higher than any other down, and the neutral ground in between those figures is still a positive. But more on that later.
In terms of the passing game, the offensive staff needs to think situationally. Bama's favorite coverage is still cover-one-robber.
It's a two-safety look aimed mostly at taking away the middle of the field, which can, of course, mean that the deeper sideline routes can be open against the manned-up safeties. That can dovetail with Mettenberger's best throw, the intermediate-to-deep comeback. The deeper throws will be there at times, but LSU has to be choosy when it comes to taking those shots. They can't afford to miss and wind up in second and 10 as often as they did versus Texas A&M.
If the Tigers can get ahead of the chains that can allow them to press a little bit more with the possession passing game. The screen game to the running backs is an obvious tactic, something I covered earlier this week, especially against Bama's field-side pressure packages.
Two passing concepts that LSU used at times that could find some success against Bama include the three-level oblique stretch and the two-man game. Both are covered here in the spring passing-game prospectus. The Tigers have had some success with them, throwing two touchdowns on the oblique play, and have used the two-man game a few times as well in their opening scripts.
The route structures are somewhat similar, designed to flood the zone, so to speak, and put the defense in a bind with three receivers in a limited area. The principle differences are, of course, that the oblique play is much more of an intermediate-deep stretch featuring an option route, while the two-man game is more of a quick hitter revolving around a 6-8-yard stick route.
The pictures here are limited in sets, but the two-man concept can be run out of any 3x1 set (three routes to one side, 1 to the other), including LSU's ace and spread trips looks. It's a fairly simple high-low read and with Mettenberger's arm strength, he should have no problem spinning the ball to that stick route away from the curl defender. It may not be a play that can pick up big yardage, but high-percentage throws that keep the chains moving are going to be crucial in a game like this. Possibly more important than the ability to connect on all those deep shots Mettenberger missed versus A&M.
Another wrinkle LSU might try to throw in is some motion and tempo packages. The Saban/Smart defenses thrive on constant checks and adjustments, and offenses that can operate quickly throw those off. So if the Tigers do manage to string together a couple first downs, don't be surprised if the offense starts moving at a faster pace to try and knock the Tide further onto their heels a bit.
Alabama's a damn good football team. Worthy of their No. 1 ranking, and of being favored in this game. Will LSU win? I may not know that much, but I damn sure know this -- they can. For shits sake people, it's not like this is the New York Giants. I don't care how many times Todd McShay has simulated this in that hair-product-addled brain of his. The Tigers have a chance.
Look at Bama's schedule. Who's their best win -- Mississippi State? A good team, but one whose own marquee win may be Middle Tennessee State, gives up nearly 100 yards more per game, an extra 1.5 per play and that also has about half as many sacks as LSU. The next closest defenses include Western Kentucky and Michigan, a middle-of-the-pack team from one of the worst AQ conferences this season. The closest Bama has come to seeing a team like LSU is in practice. And those were probably much closer halfway through than most of the Tide's games have been.
In addition to the substance discrepancy, there's also a question of style. Michigan, Ole Miss, State, Tennessee, Missouri -- all teams that either struggle to run the ball or largely specialize in running wide out of the spread. Speed backs like Jeff Scott, Denard Robinson and Laderius Perkins. Only Arkansas (who can't run the ball on anybody) and WKU fit the profile of a team that might try to out-muscle Alabama. Am I saying that LSU can line up in the I-formation and pound the Tide between the tackles on every down? No, but they need to try. It's the team's identity, and frankly the Tide have seen fewer than 30 or 40 running plays from a similar look against BCS conference opponents. I guarantee this much: it won't work if they don't try.
Look, we know what we're going to see from Bama's defense at this point. Cover-1-robber on first down, with some mixed looks and zone pressures on second and third. Given LSU's penchant for max-protect looks, I don't think you'll see a ton of all-out blitzes from Kirby Smart. He won't risk exposing his secondary if he doesn't have to. You also won't see Alabama stack the box too much unless LSU makes them. From Saban's own mouth:
The University of Alabama philosophy on first and second down is to stop the run and play good zone pass defense. We will also play man-to-man and blitz in this situation. On third down, we will play primarily man-to-man and mix-in some zone and blitzes. We will rush 4 or more players versus the pass about 90% of the time.
Offensively, new offensive coordinator (former Saints QB) Doug Nussmeier hasn't changed much. Bama zone-blocks a little bit more with fewer power plays and pulling guards, but the passing game relies on most of the same typical concepts. Largely, it's the offense the Tigers would like to run. McCarron may rarely be in a less-than-ideal passing situation, but he almost always makes the right call, even if it means checking down and punting. There may not be that Julio Jones type that commands bracket coverage, but freshman Amari Cooper is emerging as a speedy deep threat and frankly, McCarron find whichever wideout is open, regardless of pecking order. The offense isn't as tight-end heavy as last season, but LSU also doesn't have the same vulnerable linebackers for them to pick on either. Bama has generally been fairly balanced early, averaging nine passes and runs apiece in the first quarter and leaning more on the run as the score gets out of whack. Look for McCarron to test LSU's young corners early. They also may try and involve T.J. Yeldon on screens and checkdowns as well.
The offensive line has struggled in pass-protection, particularly up the middle and on the right side. Watch for Kevin Minter to be active on some A-gap blitzes when McCarron is under center, and Micah Eugene to get involved out of the Mustang look on third down.
All of the talk of this game has been viewed through the prism of last January, and that's been funny to me, because a lot of that talk continues to miss the point, especially in the local media. The standard line has been that LSU tried to stick with the same gameplan from November and Bama adjusted and shut it down. Wrong. If you don't believe me, how about these quotes from Kirby Smart:
"They changed everything," Smart said. "It was like a different team out there tonight. They did everything completely different from what we thought... We had to make some adjustments early," Smart said. "We had to change our fronts, change our coverages, because they were running a lot of option plays, which we thought they would, but they didn't run ‘em like they did the last game. They ran a lot of two-back option and tonight they ran it all out of one back. They got in a lot of different formations against us. We actually had to play against stuff we had never practiced."
The truth is the Tigers completely abandoned the run-and-playaction attack that had worked for 13 games in 2011 for a more spread-option oriented attack that failed miserably (and that Bama has suffocated very well in 2012). LSU tailbacks carried the ball 12 times in that game and Jordan Jefferson had 14. God knows how many zone-reads, compared to ONE power-toss (that picked up 5 yards actually). LSU's offense didn't struggle that night because they "just did the same old thing over and over again," they lost because they tried so hard to change to fit one perceived advantage that they lost sight of what got them there.
THAT, is what cannot happen this Saturday. LSU must be true to their identity. Commit to running the football between the tackles. That doesn't mean just thudding it into the line no matter what, it means working to establish the thing that the Tigers do best. Let the passing game be a compliment. The wide runs will be there at times, especially with Michael Ford and Jeremy Hill, but not if LSU can't force the defense to look inside-out. Play to this team's strengths. Throw those body blows until Bama has to open something else to stop them, and then take advantage. Nobody has even tried to do it this season. Between that, special teams and a defense and pass-rush unlike anything the Tide have seen this season, the Tigers have a shot to open things up early and make Alabama look human. To make them bleed.