W2W4 – Alabama versus LSU

Rivalry games. We love ‘em. It’s what the SEC is all about and it’s what separates this conference from all the other conferences in the land. And, when you talk about rivalry games, these days there is no better rivalry than the Alabama-LSU heavyweight tilt.

This week it’s the “Game of the Century” once again. In fact, we think the “Game of the Century” between Bama and LSU has more sequels than Rocky and provides more surprising finishes than a Stephen King movie marathon. The Tide v Tigers tilt has become must see TV for college football fans everywhere – just last year 8.41 million people tuned into this made for prime time event. And, this isn’t just 8.41 million SEC fans – you know the SEC haters are glued to their TVs as well! The haters hate that the country is absorbed with the SEC but they only have themselves to blame. The country just can’t take their eyes off the best teams and the best matchups in all the land.

Why is this game so popular? Well, aside from the head-banging, blood pumping and hair raising action, this game always features a Goliath vs Goliath or Clash of the Titans kind of matchup that typically goes right down to the wire. Remember, while Nick Saban has won the last four in a row against LSU and six of the last eight matchups, consider that four of those six these could have easily gone either way. Check it out:

  • 2014 – Alabama caps off a miracle two minute touchdown drive with a victory in overtime.
  • 2012 – TJ Yeldon takes a screen pass to the house in the final seconds for the win.
  • 2009 – Trailing 15-13 in the 4th quarter, Julio Jones takes a screen pass 73 yards for a TD for the game winner.
  • 2008 – Alabama wins an overtime thriller 27-21.

Of course the three times LSU has beaten Nick Saban each time the Tigers have won by 7 points or less. In 2007, LSU won 41-34 after Alabama muffed a punt in the 4th quarter. In 2010, LSU used a reverse to the tight end to defeat the Tide in the final quarter 24-21. And in 2011, I’m pretty sure we all remember the classic 9-6 game featuring more wide kicks than a Rockettes show.

This is the best rivalry going in college football because anytime these two heavyweights get together it’s guaranteed to be a knock down, drag out fight that will surely go the full 10 rounds…and this year won’t be any different. Let’s get to it…

Alabama on Offense

This week’s analysis of LSU is brought to you by watching their games against Mississippi State and Florida. It’s interesting to note that LSU hasn’t left the state of Louisiana since September so this road game will be quite a different experience for them. At any rate, in looking at the LSU defense, it’s not surprising that they look a bit similar to the Alabama defense as they are coached by former Alabama defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. However, this season Steele seems to prefer playing his nickel defense nearly all the time – substituting another defensive back in place of a linebacker. This leaves them with a front six showcasing four down linemen and two linebackers which makes it more difficult to stop the run but easier to stop the pass. Since Alabama loves to run out of the spread formation, LSU will be very comfy in lining up to stop them with their nickel defense so it’s an intriguing matchup. Will Steele have to sub in a linebacker in order to stop the run? LSU uses a 4-2-5 about 90% of the time so this would be a significant schematic change if it’s forced to happen.

Steele also seems to use more zone blitz concepts than Alabama does but he chooses to use the blitz much less than Saban/Smart seem to do. Mainly, Steele has the Tigers in their 4-2-5 look and, like Bama, asks his front four to jam up the line of scrimmage so that his backers and backs can fill in the remaining gaps. In both games, LSU seemed very gap sound and their #2 ranking in rush defense seems to indicate what we witnessed in these two games is indicative of what LSU is capable of as a run defense.

Where Alabama can make some hay is by throwing the ball. Florida’s second string QB threw for 271. Western Kentucky threw for 325 (but in fairness their offense and QB are outstanding). And, in the State game, the Bulldogs outgained LSU by throwing for 335 yards. LSU is 19th in the country in total defense and an impressive 6th in rushing defense. However, they are just 65th against the pass and this is where Alabama has the advantage and will have to win the game. Here’s what to watch for…

Flat-man-do: LSU uses a TON of zone coverage and both Florida and MSU created conflicts for the Tiger linebackers and corners in coverage. With trips (three wide receivers) to one side, the outer two wide receivers would run a go route and a crossing route, pushing the corner and the linebacker out of the flats. They would then take their inside receiver (closest to the tackle) and run an out route into the vacated zone. This was there all day long for both offenses – easy pitch and catch opportunities should abound for Mullaney and OJ Howard here. Also, after flashing an out route a couple of times, look for an out and up as Florida had a ton of success with this.

Shake N Drake: After watching the Mississippi State game, I came to the startling realization that the Bulldogs could have and should have won the game and it was all based on one single solitary play that they ran repeatedly. With twin receivers (or trips) to one side of the field, they would each run a slant or a crossing pattern to the middle of the field. This put the linebacker in conflict as he paused to cover the inside routes and thereby taking his eyes off of the running back slipping out into the flat. State’s back dropped a touchdown on one play and dropped a two point conversion on another play. Each time he looked as though he was out to practice early as there was no one in the vicinity when he slipped out of the backfield. If ever there was a game for Drake to be utilized to his full capabilities, this appears to be the one. If LSU makes these same mistakes in coverage against Drake, then much like TJ Yeldon he will be immortalized in the history of this game.

Danger Zone: Really, the zone pass defense that LSU plays is a danger zone for themselves. Short slants, shake routes, curls, etc are all available as LSU plays a very soft zone. There are lots of spaces for Alabama’s receivers to be found on intermediate and short routes. This should be the difference in the game as everything else in this matchup is pretty close to even.

Sneak Doggy-Dog: LSU sometimes will show a three man front but will then walk up two linebackers and a safety to show a dog or a blitz. At the snap, one of the backers flees into coverage while the other backer and safety blitz off the same side, creating confusion in the offensive line. Zone blitzes seem to be the favored Tiger blitzes.

Three Dog Nite: Steele seems to dial up blitzes on third and long so look for Bama to have to max protect sometimes in long yardage situations. This also opened up some one on one opportunities for #57 (Godcheaux) and he looks impressive in the interior of LSU’s line.

Man in the Middle: Florida’s slot receivers were open all night long as they were continuously matched up on LSU’s linebackers. Look for Alabama to move Calvin Ridley and Ardarius Stewart into the slots to take advantage of the Tigers two linebackers in coverage. Chris Black would be a weapon here if he got onto the field.

Tidebits and Final Offensive Thoughts

  • MSU and Florida converted 3&1 and 4&1 relatively easily, especially when running at #49 Arden Key. Florida got them with play action and toss sweeps against LSU’s short yardage defense.
  • Against Florida and MSU, LSU’s defense looked very tired and wilted in the fourth quarter. Both teams employed the hurry up offense and it impacted LSU’s ability to rush the passer (meaning they didn’t generate any pass rush at all). Look for Bama to go hurry up Saturday night.
  • Both Dak Prescott and Treon Harris made hay against the Tigers when they scrambled. Coker’s ability to convert third downs with his legs may be on display.
  • Screens to the running backs continue to plague the Tigers’ defense.
  • The health of Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson may tell the tale Saturday night. Jackson left the Tennessee game with an ankle injury but is expected to play Saturday – likely at less than 100%. Meanwhile, no one on the planet needed a week off more than Robinson. His play must improve.
  • LSU really seems to be more of a read and react defense than one that shoots gaps. In the last two games against A&M and Tennessee, both teams blitzed their linebackers and shot gaps in order to create 25 tackles for loss. LSU doesn’t seem to be nearly as aggressive so Alabama should show improvement here this week.

Alabama will be challenged to run the ball effectively against the Tigers but the short passing game should be able to open up running lanes as the game wears on. If Alabama can move the chains in the hurry up offense, it doesn’t appear that LSU’s front four can handle the pace. Look for the pace and the flood routes against the LSU zone to be successful and allow Bama to move the ball.

Alabama on Defense

After watching two full games of Leonard Fournette, I’ve come to this conclusion. That dude is one bad mofo. Yep, these are the kinds of insights you can only get from the Bama Lighthouse film study, right? Seriously, Fournette is every bit as good as advertised or even better. He’s big, strong, fast, elusive and perhaps his best attribute is that he’s just one mean spirited dude when he runs the football. It’s like he bursts thru the line of scrimmage and into the secondary and begins wondering “who’s my bitch?” Then he spies some not-so-committed defensive back coming over to attempt a tackle and he absolutely wastes them. I’ve seen him use his stiff arm to violently throw defenders out of the way and then I’ve seen him simply lower his pads and emasculate some poor soul. He’s a beast.

Thankfully, Alabama has about 8-10 beasts of their own that they can play along the line of scrimmage and they should be able to stop the #7 train before it gets started. Rashaan Evans, Tim Williams and even Ryan Anderson should have a light night as Bama will use their heavies up front most of the time this week. A’shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen, Darron Payne, Darren Reed, Dalvin Tomlinson, and DJ Pettway will be rotated heavily making the front wall as stout and physical as possible. Their ability to control the line of scrimmage and, more importantly, keep the guards and center off of our linebackers will be the key to limiting Fournette’s interior runs.

But, that’s just half the issue. LSU has designed runs that start up the middle but then bounce to the outside and these plays have been the death knell for opposing defenses. Couple that with the fact that they love to get QB Brandon Harris on bootlegs to the perimeter and suddenly you have yourself a containment issue. Florida’s defensive front seven is very, very good and yet LSU bounced outside their containment more times than I could count, resulting in Fournette gaining 180 hard earned yards (his longest run was just 25 yards). Fournette is the real deal folks. If Eddie Jackson or Geno Matias-Smith are asked to make too many tackles, you may see them on the wrong side of ESPN’s Top 10 plays. Here’s what else we are watching for…

The Following: As is Les Miles’ custom, when LSU is on offense if you want to find out where the ball is going, follow the fullback. Fournette (and the other backs) followed the fullback 100% of the time during the two games I watched. ONE HUNDRED PERCENT OF THE TIME. So, watch the fullback and he will lead you to the tailback. Also…

Heavy D: LSU isn’t cute about what they want to do. The Tigers will line up two tight ends on one side and then they will send their fullback and a pulling guard to the same side in an attempt to run their “student body” to one side in an attempt to overload the defense. But…

Weakside: Unlike the fullback thing, LSU doesn’t always run to the strong side every single time. When they have one tight end in the game AND they have a fullback, oftentimes they will send their fullback to the weakside and have Fournette follow him away from the strength of the formation. This prevents a defense from completely loading up on the strong side and presents some favorable matchups for Fournette as he’s able to get outside containment and into the secondary. Run support from the safeties will be huge this week as the Tigers try to scheme their way outside of the carnage between the tackles.

Passing Fancy: LSU typically takes their deep shots on first and second downs. On third downs, they typically ask Harris to either run for the first down or they ask him to throw at the sticks. Slants, crossers, comebacks and more slants are typically the order of the day on third and six or so. I only saw Harris take one deep shot on third down and that was when he was about to get sacked and he just heaved the ball away. Oh, and I only saw LSU use an empty set once or twice and that usually meant QB draw.

Running Down a Dream: Look for Alabama to blitz heavily on run downs from the linebackers and safeties in an attempt to build a brick wall and/or contain the edges. MSU used this tactic well in the second half as they forced everything back inside.

Tidebits and Final Observations

  • Harris can be very, very good on the zone reads and that has given Bama trouble as recently as the Tennessee game. Harris doesn’t run a lot but when he does he is usually effective.
  • In the one back set with Fournette to Harris’ right, MSU blitzed LSU’s left flank with tremendous success. On the zone read, Fournette would be running left into the blitz or else Harris would have to keep the ball. This was very effective.
  • In both games, Fournette was rested during very critical times in the fourth quarter. I guess you can only go to the whip on your favorite horse so many times but it was interesting to see him leave critical drives against both MSU and Florida.
  • LSU’s staff didn’t ask Harris to be a hero on third downs. Short, quick throws were the order of the day and, if it was third and very long, they simply ran the ball and punted. Harris has apparently not won the full trust of the staff and therefore they manage him pretty tightly. As a result, he’s second in the league in passing efficiency but LAST in the league in passing yardage.
  • The staff encourages Harris to take deep shots on early downs and LSU’s two wide receivers absolutely have the ability to go up get the football.
  • LSU starts two freshmen guards so look for Bama to attack the interior with blitzes and stunts.

With Alabama concentrating on stuffing Fournette, this will open up downfield opportunities for Dural (#83) and Dupree (#15). Look for LSU to land a significant punch or two thru the air as they certainly will take their shots down the field. They probably take 5 or more shots down the field in each game and with Bama slamming the line of scrimmage, this could hurt the Tide.

Alabama on Special Teams

With the reemergence of JK Scott, Alabama has a decided advantage in the kicking game as LSU is last in the conference in net punting. They are also last in punt coverage and kick coverage so look for Cyrus Jones and Kenyan Drake to provide Alabama with excellent field position all night long.

LSU is 9 of 9 on field goal attempts this year but they haven’t hit anything over 49 yards this season. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith continues to be on a hot streak as he has hit 10 of his last 12 kicks.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

LSU’s offensive line has dominated their opponents this season and this has allowed Fournette to run his way towards a Heisman trophy. However, there is no defensive line in college football that is as talented and as deep as the Crimson Tide line so this will be an incredible matchup all night long. The key to the Bama line having success is keeping the LSU lineman off of linebackers Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster. If #19 and #10 are making a slew of tackles, then know Alabama is winning the battle up front. If #4 and #24 are making several tackles, then things are not going well.

Offensively, Alabama shows they are much more confident in Jake Coker than LSU is of Brandon Harris. This should allow Alabama to move the ball more consistently as there are numerous windows that should be open for Coker to make some throws. If this is the case, Derrick Henry should then have more room to run. Offensive keys to this game should be OJ Howard and Kenyan Drake as Florida and MSU used comparable players to hurt the Tigers’ D.

At the end of the night, it should be yet another T-town thriller between two outstanding football programs.  While many Bama fans still circle the Tennessee game on the calendar, Bama’s move to divisional play means that LSU is the end-all be-all game of the season each year. They are similar teams that feature rough, tough, physical players who go on to make millions in the NFL and we get the pleasure of seeing them do battle once a year in an epic “Game of the Century” tilt. With games like this, it’s good to be us…and it should be good to be us once again Saturday night…

Final Score: Alabama 24   LSU 23

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