It’s hard to see the loss coming with this sense of inevitability. And yet, I can’t say this one has me all that down.
LSU was able to play Alabama about as straight up as possible, given the talent disparity between the two teams. In the end, this really played out, more or less, as I predicted in my game preview on Friday:
LSU winning will take a confluence of events that would look something like this:
The Tigers pitch a perfect game in terms of turnovers and mental mistakes — penalties, missed tackles, dropped passes, etc...
The Crimson Tide play one of their worst games in regards to those areas.
A stolen touchdown on defense or special teams.
An outright heroic performance by one of LSU’s best players — big plays and multiple touchdowns by Derrius Guice or D.J. Chark, a 20-tackle performance out of Devin White, a multi-interception game from one of the corners or a three- or four-stack performance out of Arden Key.
If I had to guess, LSU will need at least two of those four things to happen. Maybe more.
The Tigers matched up as well as anybody could expect at the line of scrimmage. They had a gameplan that created room against Alabama’s defense in the running game. But one big mistake put them in a hole that they were never going to be able to make up in the passing game.
LSU needed a perfect game, plus a bad one from Bama. And while the Tide had their struggles, they never quite committed the major error the Tigers needed, and LSU’s one big mistake created a hole they wouldn’t be able to get out of.
No moral victories, but there are some things to be encouraged about, if the program can build on them over the final three games, plus recruiting.
So let’s break down what happened:
- Right out of the shoot, we see the biggest true difference in this game — and it wasn’t quarterback. Alabama’s J.K. Scott hits a 56-yard punt that pins LSU inside the 10. Scott finished with a net average of 51 yards per punt on the night, and the Tiger’s average starting field position was their own 19 yard line. Compared to LSU’s 40-yard net average, Alabama gained an average of 11 yards in field position every time the Tiger defense was able to make a stop.
- What was that about the house always winning?
- Field position like that will always limit an offense to some degree, but that only gets worse when you have inherent personnel limitations to your passing game.
- Matt Canada came out with exactly the kind of probative type of script early in this game, flashing the shovel pass early, along with lots of jet-sweep motions and handoffs. It clearly helped LSU’s base running game here.
- Lot of snaps for Stephen Sullivan in this one, although fewer targets than I would’ve liked, especially down the field. Does a nice job of high-pointing the ball to convert an early third down. D.J. Chark can be great down the field with his speed, but maybe some back-shoulder plays to a bigger target might’ve been a better matchup? Easy to say in hindsight, of course, given that Chark has easily been the more consistent player.
- Sullivan might’ve been a better physical target too, given that Bama’s corners were given clear leeway to mug receivers down the field. Levi Wallace is clearly interfering with Chark trying to make his break to the sideline here.
- Two plays later, Minkah Fitzpatrick prevents Chark from trying to adjust to an under-thrown deep ball. Would have been a ticky-tack call, because what else is Fitzpatrick supposed to do in a tail position like that, and yet other DBs are often called for it.
- Yes, Etling could’ve checked down to Guice on the play in reference for a big gain, but he also clearly had Chark running free.
- We always talk about the margin in this game, and no play may be more emblematic of that than Hurts’ scramble following the miss by Devin White and John Battle on a blitz:
- Battle is probably the guilty party in terms of not maintaining outside leverage and making sure Hurts couldn’t get wide. But they miss, Hurts had a lot of green grass. Make that tackle, Bama’s looking at a very long third-down situation that they wouldn’t have been very likely to convert. Instead, Hurts gets the first and it keys Bama’s first scoring drive. A breakdown of just a few steps.
- Interesting choice by Dave Aranda to work Donte Jackson at safety. If I had to guess the idea was to get another cover-man on the field while still being able to use a base front against Bama’s multi-receiver looks. And also make it a little harder for Hurts to avoid Jackson. Unfortunately, Kevin Toliver didn’t hold up as well as Aranda and Corey Raymond probably hoped.
- Nerd alert — this play was relatively minor, but it’s indicative of how Canada’s offense can screw with a defense’s run fits.
- From the slot, Guice motions across, with Darrel Williams set to the field next to the quarterback. He comes back for a handoff with Williams and Foster Moreau pulling out side on the play. Williams’ and Foster’s path draw both the nickel back and the nickel corner and the strong safety wide, creating a huge C-gap for Bama’s linebackers to cover. It’s not a huge gain, and against a team with Bama’s speed at linebacker it isn’t likely to be. But in short-yardage? Good luck trying to stop Guice with that much room.
- Corey Thompson’s sack on third down on Bama’s ensuing drive is another great illustration of how Aranda can mess with a protection:
- LSU’s in an “Okie” five-man front with every gap covered, and all five guys rush in on the snap. But Thompson gets a fantastic jam on the tight end, and Donnie Alexander flashes into his gap and then drops right where Hurts’ outlet would have been. Greg Gilmore draws two linemen deep and Thompson can loop right in at Hurts, who can no longer spot his protection read in the tight end thanks to Alexander dropping.
- Unfortunately, Etling would commit the big mistake LSU couldn’t avoid on the next offensive snap.
- LSU has an empty set with a quick man-read into the boundary and a zone-beater to the field. Bama shows one-on-one across the board, so the idea is for Guice to run a quick out, catch Ronnie Harrison flat-footed and maybe have a chance at a big play after the catch. But Moreau can’t hold up in protection and as a result, Etling can’t step into the throw, the ball is too flat and Harrison has an easy pick. I’ve seen a lot of people rip on the decision — it’s the right read, but Etling has to step into that throw to hit that window, and he just didn’t. Maybe he could’ve, but chances are the hit comes before he can make a clean delivery and the ball is still up for grabs. A stronger-armed QB can maybe hit that window. Etling, typically, throws those passes well, when he isn’t rushed.
- It’s been kind of vogue to rip on Etling’s performance, and don’t get me wrong — his inability to make the key plays was a big factor in this one, especially in contrast to what Hurts was able to do when Bama needed him. But, overall, I’d say he gave LSU everything he had. He took a beating, and was able to make a handful of throws early. Some of the deep-ball misses to Chark were on the receiver — one that was an outright drop, and another deep pass was misplayed by Chark in the air. He seemed to have a problem tracking it in the lights at times (especially on punts).
- Etling was night-and-day better than he was in this game last year, but if a game is going to come down to him making deep passes down the field, that’s just not his strength. He even came back and hit a couple of nice third-down passes in leading a scoring response, including a nice scramble play to Sullivan.
- Likewise, I think Orgeron may regret putting Myles Brennan in for the final offensive drive, mostly because it will only raise questions going forward. Etling is the starting quarterback of this team, and will be for the remaining three games. He gives LSU the best chance to win because he can manage the offense, particularly all of the pre-snap shifts and motions, and make sure he stays in the right play. That’s a key part of keeping the running game moving and helping this young offensive line — something the staff hasn’t been confident in Brennan to do on a consistent basis.
- And yes, there is still plenty to play for. A 9-3 regular season, a 6-2 conference record and a chance at a New Year’s Six Bowl game and to finish with 10 wins. Anybody saying otherwise is just lying to themselves about how they’d feel if LSU lost any of the three games left.
- Honestly, there may still be a chance to get Brennan some work anyway.
- Back to the game: a minor quibble with Canada’s play-calling on LSU’s first red-zone trip. I’m a bigger fan of play-action passes on first down in tight, when the defense is more likely to be thinking run. That said, the corner route to Tory Carter probably could’ve drawn a DPI flag.
- Defensively, LSU’s front played its best game since BYU. The defensive line played with great technique across the board, using their hands to stay free and occupy blockers. White was his usual play-making self, and Arden Key looked like his 2016 vintage. Key had a season-high eight tackles, plus a sack-and-a-half that got him to four overall this season. With the remaining schedule all rated in the bottom half of the SEC in sacks allowed, there’s still decent chance Key can get to double-digits.
- I’ve come to have some pretty low expectations of CBS’ broadcasts, but Gary Danielson was particularly mind-numbing this weekend. I almost hate to bring it up — complaining about Danielson passed the point of cliche a few years ago, but he was noteworthily bad this week. His particular brand of myopathy is even beginning to affect the otherwise professional Brad Nessler. When he wasn’t offering spirited legal defense for any possible transgression by a Tide player, he was dropping turds like this nugget:
- On this particular run, Guice presses to his right and pick up a short gain. Danielson inanely brayed on about a supposed cut-back lane that Guice missed. You see that supposed lane to Guice’s left? About two steps away from the very strong, very athletic Da’ron Payne? And Guice is supposed to stop, start back the other way and pick up what, exactly? But by all means, Gary, continue on.
- I think that’ll be about it for me. This game has been sadly predictable, and so has fan reaction to it, and it’s all very tiring. LSU played this game about as even as we could all expect, given the disparities in the two programs right now. What remains is to close that disparity by building on what’s left of this season. We’ll see what the next step is on Saturday versus Arkansas.