W2W4 Alabama versus LSU

What can you make of this LSU football team? Early embarrassing losses to Wisconsin and Auburn have turned out to be not so embarrassing losses after all. After LSU finally cut the cord (a year too late) with Les Miles, they’ve been giving their fans the Big O for three straight weeks in victories over Southern Miss, Missouri, and Ole Miss. It appears that ole crazy Cajun Ed Orgeron has infused life into a lifeless offense and suddenly Leonard Fournette looks very healthy and looks like the Heisman candidate everyone thought he would be. Bobby Boucher and his momma are very proud.

But…

Has LSU’s offense looked good simply because they played middle school defenses? Missouri (117) and Ole Miss (115) rank among the worst teams in the nation in total defense so LSU’s offensive output against them must be appropriately weighed and measured. However, surprisingly, Southern Miss (16) checks in with a very respectable total defense ranking so LSU’s 42-7 victory over them may have more meaning than we originally thought.

Hmm.

This week’s W2W4 is the most difficult one the Lighthouse has ever written. Had LSU played Florida a couple weeks ago as planned, we would have a MUCH better indication of how their offense has/hasn’t improved because the Gators have the kind of defense that would truly test the Tigers. Instead, all we have to go on this week is our film study of the Ole Miss game – a game in which Leonard Fournette wasn’t touched by an Ole Miss defender on touchdown runs of 59, 76 and 78 yards. Road kill would have been more effective in stopping Fournette in this game so extrapolating how Alabama’s defense will fare against this group is incredibly difficult. And we suck at math.

So, here we go. Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Alabama on Offense

LSU plays a pretty vanilla 4-2-5 defense that is predicated on simply doing your job. You won’t see fancy blitzes or exotic schemes. Instead, LSU plays a tight man-to-man defense that dares receivers to break free of their sticky coverage and typically the opposing receivers are unsuccessful in getting open.

If there is a weakness in the defense it’s when the opposing offense spreads them out. When Ole Miss lined up in four wide receiver sets and empty sets, LSU countered by leaving just one linebacker in the box. Any and all running plays featuring the quarterback look to be extremely successful this week.

First year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda came to LSU from Wisconsin, where Aranda had a tremendous amount of success running the Badger defenses. Aranda’s 4-2-5 arrangement keeps his safeties back in order to eliminate big plays and with his corners locking down receivers in their man to man matchups, the safeties can play over the top and prevent downfield attempts. This is great against the pass but the safeties are virtually no help against the run. Alabama should be able to enjoy effective runs between the 20’s Saturday night.

Inside the LSU 20, things change significantly with Dave Aranda’s group. LSU’s corners continue to play bump and run but, with no over the top responsibilities due to the short field, the safeties will come down into the box, creating a nine man front that is hell against the run. Ole Miss chose to pass against this look but the Rebs could not find a way to get their receivers free against LSU’s straight man defense.  The game may be won/lost inside the LSU red zone – Alabama must find a way to get touchdowns here.

Here are some other notes from film study:

Tidebits

  • OJ Howard: When Alabama drops to pass, their receivers will have to win their one on one matchups and this will prove to be incredibly difficult. Bama’s biggest mismatch will be OJ Howard against anyone who covers him so OJ will need to show up big Saturday night.
  • Jalen Hurts: We expect the passing game to be a nightmare for Hurts this week but we also think that he should be able to rush for well over 100 yards. LSU’s 4-2 front isn’t aggressive so Alabama should be able to create some space for Hurts to run free.
  • Red Zone: LSU’s defense is outstanding inside the 10 yard line so any opportunities down there will need to result in a touchdown. Look for pick routes and rub routes to be mixed with wide receivers in motion as Kiffin tries to find a way to spring a receiver free. In the red zone running game, Ole Miss finally found some modicum of success by running the zone read between the tackles – Bama should look to do this, as well.
  • No Screens: Screens will not be effective in this game. Also, any “design” plays intent on getting LSU to blow a coverage will not work. The Tigers are assignment sound and have a man assigned to every single eligible receiver. This is the beauty of the Aranda defense – it’s the KISS principle to the Nth degree. Keep It Simple, Stupid.
  • Living on the Edge: Look for Bama backs to get to the edge pretty easily in the running game.

Final Thoughts 

The one constant with LSU this season has been an outstanding defense. Lane Kiffin’s pass happy offense is going to have one helluva task this week in unlocking the handcuffs on his fleet of receivers. LSU will employ a simple defense designed to allow their players to win one on one matchups. Against Ole Miss, LSU was able to own these individual battles and we think they’ll lock down the Bama passing game this week. If so, the question becomes whether or not Kiffin will be patient enough to run the zone read all night long.

Alabama on Defense

LSU’s offense truly has changed since Ed O has taken over the reigns. Instead of maddeningly running Fournette into the middle of an 11 man front, the Tigers’ QB now looks to the sidelines to get a new play call. LSU is throwing more on first down than I have ever seen them do since Les Miles showed up on campus. Additionally, if their first down pass is incomplete, the Tigers will drop back and throw it again on second down. This is not your father’s LSU game plan…

The Tigers’ offensive line is big and physical and against Ole Miss they dominated the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately, it’s tough to understand what dominating a weak line means this week so we have absolutely no idea how the LSU offensive line will deal with Alabama’s defensive line.

What we do know about Alabama’s defensive front seven is that they are much smaller and quicker this year and while that’s been highly effective against the spread offenses, it will be put to the test this week against LSU’s downhill running attack. Gone is Reggie Ragland who had the physicality to stack and shed LSU’s fullbacks and pulling guards and hog tie Fournette all by himself. Gone, too, are defensive beasties like DJ Pettway, A’Shawn Robinson and Jarren Reed. Da’Ron Payne is an excellent replacement for one of them and Dalvin Tomlinson should hold his own up front as well. But, beyond those two there are question marks about how Josh Frazier, Jonathan Allen (he’s better suited as an end than a true defensive tackle) and others will fare up front.

In the secondary, this is the first week that Minkah Fitzpatrick will be taking over the safety position from Eddie Jackson. The run fits are totally different. The angles are totally different. And when he fills, he’ll be taking on Fournette in the hole. Not exactly the way you want to pop Fitz’s cherry as a safety.

Here are some other notes:

Tidebits

  • Size Matters: Honestly, beyond Payne and Tomlinson, Alabama has an alarming lack of experienced depth on the interior. As the game wears on, keep an eye on how many snaps guys like Frazier, Ball, and Davis play on the interior. If you haven’t seen them much, Payne and Tomlinson will wear down.
  • Linebackers: Foster and Dion-Hamilton will have to have a huge day and will be called upon to make solo tackles against Fournette. If big Leonard gets to the second level Saturday night, other than the defensive backs lying on the ground, things will not be looking up for the Tide. They must contain #7 at the line of scrimmage.
  • Etling: LSU QB Danny Etling has been around for a while and appears to be unfazed whenever he’s facing critical moments. While he has a noodle for an arm, he’s accurate on short to intermediate throws and LSU does a good job in calling routes that maximize Etling’s abilities to throw the short passes. If Etling tries to throw the ball down the field, there’s a high likelihood that Bama’s secondary will be able to make a play on the ball because everything he throws has a hump in it (it hangs in the air for a while).
  • Audibles: With LSU audibling at the line of scrimmage, this is where a fascinating chess match will take place. Alabama will show one front that crowds the line of scrimmage in the hopes that LSU will check out of a run. Any time the Tide can force LSU to get the ball to someone other than #7 will be a win so if they can get LSU to check out of a run then it’s advantage Tide.
  • Backs and Tight Ends: LSU does a nice job of getting their backs and tight ends involved in the passing game. These short routes are perfect for Etling’s arm.

Final Thoughts

Nick Saban has emphasized creating a smaller, quicker defense in an effort to deal with the spread offenses of today’s game. Therefore, defending a downhill rushing attack becomes pretty problematic. Gone are the big thumpers that eliminated the LSU running game last year. In their place, Bama has some excellent athletes who don’t quite have the same physicality as their 2015 brothers. Early on, Alabama will be able to withstand the brute force of the LSU attack but, as the game progresses, it will be imperative for Alabama to find a way to get some other guys along the defensive line into the game. The other concern is having a brand new safety playing the position for the very first time in his career. Being sound in the run fits will be crucial this week and everything will look very, very different for Fitzpatrick when he comes down from his new safety position.

Conclusion and Prediction

Listen, when you only have the Ole Miss game to go off of, it’s a problem for the Bama Lighthouse staff. The Rebs defense isn’t anything like the Alabama defense so it’s impossible to look at individual matchups and make any determinations of how the line of scrimmage will be won or lost. This week, we don’t have a clue how the battle between LSU’s offense and Alabama’s defense will play out.

What we do know is that LSU’s defense is legit. We loved what Aranda did at Wisconsin and now that he’s at LSU, he’s got even better athletes to defend with. The Tigers did a great job of shutting down the Ole Miss passing attack and they did so by playing straight man to man and locking up the Rebel receivers. Given Lane Kiffin’s penchant for calling passing plays, this could very well be an issue for the Tide. If Kiffin is patient and takes advantage of the numerical advantages he has up front with a running quarterback, Alabama should visit the Rouge Zone often Saturday night. The question then becomes whether or not they can dial up a play to get the Tide seven points instead of three.

We think the game comes down to a field goal kicking contest and we all know how that will play out if we are right. In the end, Bama’s lack of depth on the defensive line and lack of size in the front seven will be a problem as the night, and Fournette, wears on. But, then again, we don’t have a clue what to make of LSU as they haven’t played the sort of competition they’ll face Saturday night.

Death Valley.  At night.  Frenzied crowd.  Invigorated Tigers.  A true freshman QB who has been struggling to throw the football down the field.  Schizophrenic kicker.  We just don’t like the way this game is setting up.

Final Score: LSU 20   Alabama 17

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