What to Watch For When Alabama Plays Clemson

For the second year in a row my own personal nightmare in writing this blog has come to fruition. I grew up with Dabo Swinney and graduated with him from Pelham High School in 1988. He’s a friend and he’s a person whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for. To pick against Dabo is to pick against my childhood, my teammate, my classmate and my friend.

And then there’s the University of Alabama. My father went to school there and, when I was just three years old, he indoctrinated me into the mystique, tradition and aura that is Alabama football. When I graduated from Pelham there was no question where I was going to school and no other schools were even considered (although I did whimsically send my ACT score & transcripts to Hawaii – sadly, I was not accepted). Being an Alabama fan is all I have ever known and Alabama football has given me some of the best moments of my life. Going to games with my dad and being with him in New Orleans for the 1992 National Championship are memories I’ll cherish forever. To pick against Alabama is to pick against my father, my degree, my classmates and my team.

And yet, once again, I have to chose between these two outstanding teams.

Last year the Bama Lighthouse scouted, analyzed and scrutinized the Tigers and what we found was a ridiculously talented team that appeared to be every bit as talented as Alabama. At the end of the day, our analysis pointed to the difference between these two teams being Deshawn Watson’s penchant for throwing interceptions and Alabama’s strength and superiority on special teams. As it turned out, Watson threw a pick that Alabama turned into a touchdown and Saban’s onsides kick and Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return for a touchdown created a dramatic victory for the Crimson Tide. In short, our analysis was spot on.

Neither friendships nor diplomas factored into picking the winner last year and they will not factor into our pick this year, either. Once again, we’ve broken down tape, analyzed matchups and used our film studies to come to our conclusions. And, once again, we should all be in store for an epic game that we’ll be talking about long after it’s played…

So, let’s get to it. This week we reviewed Clemson versus Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Florida State and NC State. It was an exhausting research project and, as a result, we have more notes than we know what to do with. That said, here’s the What to Watch For (W2W4) in the Tide v Tigers national championship tilt, Version 2.0…

Alabama on Offense

For all of the talk about the irresistible force that is Deshawn Watson and the dynamic Clemson offense versus the immovable object that is Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and the steel curtain of the Alabama defense, Alabama’s success or failure when their offense has the ball will determine the final result of this game. Like last year, rest assured that Clemson’s offense will most certainly put up some points. So, the question then becomes whether or not the Tide’s offense can keep pace.

The distractions of the Lane Kiffin circus have been removed, only to be replaced by the distractions of “Sark Week.” Steve Sarkisian hasn’t called plays as an OC since 2008 (he did call plays as the USC head coach in 2014) so the change in coordinators isn’t a change to take lightly.   Changing coordinators one week before a critical playoff game would be upsetting to a 14-year NFL veteran quarterback so the fact that it’s happening to an 18 year -old true freshman should not be discounted, either. Changing the OC is a big, big deal.

Across the field, defensive coordinator Brent Venables employs an uber aggressive defense that ranks third in the country in generating tackles for loss. When you turn on the tape of the Clemson defense you see Venables dialing up virtually everything under the sun to generate pressure in the backfield. We saw 3 man rushes and 7 man rushes and everything in between. Against Virginia Tech he even rushed zero and sat 11 men in coverage! In the back end you’ll see man to man coverages, zone coverages , zone blitzes and pretty much everything else you can think of.   It’s very confusing for a QB to decipher – in fact, Clemson’s defense picked off 20 passes this season which is actually four more picks than Alabama’s vaunted defense had this season. Honestly, Clemson’s schemes are pretty cool to watch…unless you are trying to call plays against it.

Up front, Clemson uses three thick, athletic defensive linemen who all play at over 305 pounds. And, unlike Washington’s small linebackers, Clemson’s linebackers are no runts either, each playing at 235 pounds. This is a defense that looks every bit like the Tide defense that played in last year’s national championship game. Remove A’shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and DJ Pettway and insert Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence and you wouldn’t tell a lot of difference other than the fact that Clemson’s front is even bigger. Yikes.

So, it’s going to be a very tall order for Sark to dial up plays that Jalen Hurts can execute confidently on Monday night. And, all night long in the back of his head Sark will have to be wondering “am I reaching this kid and giving him plays he feels comfortable with?” And, if the offense starts slowly, will Jalen Hurts be wondering, “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” A fast start will be very, very important for the Tide this week – they must have success early.

Here’s what to watch for when Alabama has the ball…

Perimeter Plays are Back: Last week against Washington we told you that Alabama’s biggest success would come between the tackles. This week, bubble screens, fly sweeps and running back sweeps should be back with a vengeance. On tape, when Clemson gave up a big play in the running game it was typically outside the hash marks.

Point, Counter Point: Time and time again teams picked up big yardage against Clemson with counter plays. Plays that would start in one direction would cause Clemson’s hyper-aggressive defense to fire into the running lanes at the snap. Opposing offenses took advantage of this by starting in one direction and then countering to the opposite direction. Pittsburgh, in particular, was very good at this. And, nearly all of Dalvin Cook’s 169 yards rushing came off of counter plays.

Bootlegs: Many teams used play action bootlegs to get their QB outside of the blitzing Tigers and this was very effective. Last season, Jake Coker converted a huge 3&3 on a naked bootleg inside the Clemson 10 yard line. Jalen Hurts is perfectly suited for bootlegs and rollouts so look for Sark to move the pocket Monday night.

QB Runs: Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans rushed for two touchdowns between the tackles off of zone read keepers. It was tough sledding for him as he rushed 17 times for only 62 yards but he was one of the few runners who found room between the tackles. And, when Clemson rushes just three or four, while they are able to push the pocket they often do not apply much pressure. Opposing QBs have easily broken containment and pick up yards when Clemson only rushes their big guys so Hurts’ scrambling should be a weapon.

Misdirection: Two of OJ Howard’s huge catches last year came on a play action run fakes in one direction while OJ slipped out undetected in the opposite direction. Pittsburgh also used their tight ends in a similar fashion against Clemson this season. Look for Bama to generate the flow one way and then sneak OJ out in against the flow.

Up Field Rush: Clemson’s defensive ends are hell bent on getting up the field and, at times, offenses were able to take advantage of this. The ends would take themselves out of the play by coming up the field hard and running lanes would open up behind them.

Zone Defense: Clemson played waaaay more zone defense than normal last week against Ohio State, presumably because they were playing a mobile QB. Look for Venables to call for a heavy dose of zone coverage and zone blitzes this week. If he does, 5 yard hitches and quick crossing throws underneath should be the order of the day.

Bama’s Best Matchups: OJ Howard on any of the Clemson linebackers should be a big win for the Tide but perhaps Alabama’s biggest mismatch could be Ardarius Stewart on Clemson’s 5’9 corner, #31 Ryan Carter. If Hurts spies Carter in a one on one situation with Stewart, he should just throw the ball up and let Stewart go get it. At 6’1, 210 lbs, the former runner up in the state long jump should be able to elevate over Carter and come down with the football.

Running Backs Become Passing Backs: I really like Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris this week more than big Bo Scarborough. Their speed and quickness may be more useful than Bo’s power, particularly if they are used (as they should be) in the passing game. Yards are available if anyone gets matched up on #10 Ben Boulware in coverage. Boulware is better suited as a blitzer and a plugger than he is for playing against athletes in space. FYI – James Conner and Dalvin Cook each got wide open on wheel routes so I’d like to see Sark dial up a couple Monday night.

Protect From Inside Out: Venables brings a ton of A gap pressure so Bama’s line will have to protect from the middle out to the flanks. This is where Boulware excels and is another reason to use Harris more than Scarborough since he’s the better pass protector.

Throw it Deep: If all else fails, Alabama should just drop back and throw the ball deep wherever they can find one-on-one coverage. Clemson was among the leaders in the FBS in committing pass interference and defensive holding penalties. Pittsburgh’s QB took advantage of this by standing in the pocket until the last minute and then firing it down the field towards one on one matchups. Typically they either got a completion or a penalty. FSU attacked Clemson’s man-to-man coverage as well – this is a MUST for the Tide offense. And, it’s not like Kiffin didn’t call for deep shots last week. On five separate occasions off of play action, Hurts appeared to have down field options but, instead, he tucked the ball and tried to run.

Tidebits

  • At 6’5, 6’4 and 6’3, Clemson’s front line bats down a lot of passes.
  • Only one true freshman QB has ever won a national championship.
  • Clemson’s defense has given up the same number of touchdowns (12) as the Alabama defense has this season. The Tigers sacked the QB 49 times this season, just one fewer than the Crimson Tide defense.   And, Clemson’s defense has 20 interceptions – four more than the Tide. Clemson’s defense is outstanding.
  • What you see is not what you get with Clemson’s defense. If they show a three-man front, it’s likely that three more pass rushers will come at the snap. When they show a seven-man blitz, typically two or more will drop into coverage – you just never know which two.
  • Clemson likes to time their blitzes to the snap count so hopefully Hurts will be able to have some dummy counts that will either get the Tigers to jump offsides or will declare the Clemson blitzers.
  • The Clemson corners and safeties are wired to stop the run so when they see run, their instinct is to come up fast. Look for Sark to dial up some play action passes and fake bubble screens where the Tide receivers appear to be blockers but then quickly release down the field for a pass.
  • FSU killed Clemson with crossers and tunnel screens against the blitz so look for Ridley on shallow crossing patterns.
  • I think Venables will play a ton of coverage in an attempt to limit Hurts’ running abilities.  Look for him to rush just three or four and then drop defenders into zones so that they can keep their eyes on Hurts.

Final Thoughts on the Offense

There will be plays available this week for the Tide offense but Jalen Hurts will have be the one to make them. While perimeter runs and counter play runs may be available, the majority of the damage inflicted against Clemson has been thru the air. Unlike last week, Jalen Hurts will have to win this game with his running and throwing…and Steve Sarkisian will have to find a way to help him do it.

Alabama on Defense

The nation’s number one defense will face its biggest challenge of the year this week when they take on Deshawn Watson and the Clemson offense. The Tigers have so many terrific weapons available to them that it must be incredibly difficult for them to call plays. Should the two-time Heisman runner up Watson run it? Or, should he throw it to the best wide receiver in college football in 6’3, 220 lb Mike Williams (#7). Last season against Alabama, Watson found little known Hunter Renfroe (#13) for two touchdowns but this year they’ll have speedy Deon Cain (#8) as an even better option in the passing game (he sat out the game last year due to a suspension). Oh, and then there’s Artavis Scott (#3) who is just Clemson’s all-time leading receiver with 242 career catches – more than Sammy Watkins or Dendre Hopkins – and Jordan Leggett who at 6’5, 260 lbs is a matchup problem at tight end.

And that’s just the passing game. Honestly, any of those guys (and #34 Ray-Ray McCloud) above could be a very real problem for the Tide secondary but Clemson compounds the passing game problems by presenting a challenge in the running game, as well. Wayne Gallman (#9) is very, very solid and he gives the Clemson offense the perfect run/pass balance.

So how do you stop this Clemson attack? Well, last year Alabama didn’t. Clemson gained 550 yards, 405 of which came thru the air. They generated 31 first downs and 40 points. Yikes.

But this year is different. Gone is Kirby Smart and his “picket fence” approach of pushing the pocket and containing Watson. This time it’s Jeremy Pruitt who will be calling the shots and his FSU and Georgia teams were extremely effective in shutting down the Tigers attack. In 2013, Pruitt & the Noles limited Clemson to just 14 points.   In 2014, Pruitt’s Georgia defense held the Tigers to 21 points. But, Watson didn’t start either one of those ballgames.

This season, Alabama’s defensive personnel is different, too. The 255 pound LB Reggie Ragland was a complete non-factor in last year’s game. A 240 lb Reuben Foster really didn’t show up on tape, either. They were just too big and too slow to make a difference in the open field. This year, in place of Ragland is Alabama’s fastest linebacker Rashaan Evans – he had Bama’s only two sacks of Watson last year. And, Foster is a totally different player when he’s playing at a svelte 225 pounds instead of his 240-pound frame from last season. Evans and Foster will be the keys to stopping the Tigers from gashing the Tide as they did last season.

So, here’s what to watch for when Clemson has the ball….

Empty Sets: When Watson is alone in the backfield, look for either a quick throw or a QB draw. FSU batted down four passes when they anticipated the short throws (usually intended for slot receivers) so Bama’s front line should get their hands up when Watson stands alone in the pocket. And, when Watson runs, he’s gift-wrapping opportunities for the Tide to knock him out of the game. We think Watson will run the ball 20 times this week so that will be 20 times that Tiger fans should hold their breath.

Off Script: Last season, Watson burned the Tide defense with a number of “off script” plays when he escaped the pocket. Look for Alabama to blitz their fastest players in an effort to trap Watson in the pocket. Opponents had a lot of success when blitzing up the middle so look for double A gap pressure from Evans and Foster. However, this is where he’s most dangerous – if he evades the rush then we got problems.

Pace & Depth: Clemson used pace to tire out the Tide defense last year, forcing Saban to try an onsides kick just to keep the ball and give his defense a chance to rest. Look for Clemson to go very, very fast as they’ll attempt to prey on the lack of depth in the defensive backfield, linebacker and defensive line positions. Eddie Jackson’s injury and the multiple defections from the secondary have left he Tide woefully thin in the back. At linebacker, the loss of Shaun Dion-Hamilton will be felt. What was once thought to be a thin red line across the front may actually be the deepest position on the defense – Williams, Hand, Frazier, Jennings and Miller all may have to play a role this week up front.

Attack the Left Tackle: #75 Mitch Hyatt is Clemson’s left tackle and we think he’s in for a very long day. He struggled mightily against Ohio State and Florida State and he would be the guy I would try to isolate Tim Williams on as much as possible. Look for Alabama to blitz off the left side of the Clemson line in an effort to force Hyatt to take on Williams all by his lonesome.

Predeterminations: Watson’s Achilles heel is his penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team. In fact, his 17 interceptions are more than all but four teams! Watson determines where the ball is going pre-snap and this is what gets him in trouble. He eyeballs one receiver and often doesn’t see underneath defenders who are in the passing lane. Alabama typically disguises their blitzes until a fraction before the snap but this week I think you’ll see Alabama “tip” their blitzers in an effort to encourage Watson to pre-determine his throw. Of course, Pruitt’s secondary will be expecting the route and the throw and should be able to create a couple of interception opportunities.

Slants: Mike Williams is a huge, huge target for Watson and Alabama will likely have to devote two defenders to him throughout the game. But, Williams is damn near unstoppable on slants – it’s their “go to” route.

Blitzes: It will be fascinating to see how much Pruitt utilizes the blitz because Watson typically can recognize it and deliver the football before anyone gets home – he beat Ohio State’s blitzes frequently. Alabama will likely have to play Allen and Anderson at DE as they attempt to play the run but this will not generate much of a pass rush. If Anderson and Allen are at defensive end then we think Evans will come as a fifth pass rusher quite a bit. Bud Foster used his linebackers to blitz the bejeepers out of Watson and this was very effective in forcing Watson to get the ball out. Va Tech blitzed on nearly every play and his guys got a lot of clean hits on Watson.

Fly (Sweep) Guys: Unlike most college offenses, Clemson does not typically use fly sweep motion as window dressing. In the games we watched, the fly sweep guy (typically Scott, #3) either got the ball on the sweep or received the ball in the flat about 90% of the time.

Wheel Routes: In many of the games I watched, backup running back CJ Fuller (#27) was utilized as a receiver – particularly on a wheel route. If they can isolate him on Evans then the Clemson band is likely going to be playing their fight song.

Follow the Pulling Guards: Alabama held Clemson’s rushing attack in check last season primarily because they focused on attacking wherever the pulling guards went. Clemson uses a ton of “window dressing” with motion going in virtually every direction. However, if the Tide linebackers key on the pulling guards and tight ends, then they’ll be taken right to the ball. Of course, Clemson likely has some counters to this, as well, as they showed against Ohio State.

Watch the Inside Slot Receiver: A large percentage of Watson’s throws to a three wide receiver side of the field will be to the inside slot. Basically, if there are three receivers to a side, look for the receiver closest to Watson to get the ball. Additionally, slot blitzers were not effective against Watson as it just gave him a clean line of sight to his favored targets.

Mike Williams: #7 for Clemson is just a beast.   He runs all the routes, too. Slants, back shoulder fades, go routes – everything. And, at 6’3, 220 lbs, he’s always open. Look for Watson to find Williams any time Alabama blitzes and he’s in a one on one situation

Redemption: Minkah Fitzpatrick will be playing with a mad on after last year. He gave up two touchdowns and a pass interference and was targeted in the end zone on five separate occasions.

Spies Like Us: I personally hate the whole idea of a spy as most of the time they are just standing around doing nothing. But, last year Evans played the spy role and was actually effective. Pruitt will be mixing things up but I’d bet you anything that he shows blitz (intentionally) and then just rushes three with Evans as a spy.

Jordan Leggett – The X Factor:  When times have gotten tough for Watson, the tough has looked for #16, Jordan Leggett.  Leggett is a 6’6, 260 pound TE that moves like a wide receiver and is a matchup problem for anyone.  When things get tight, the ball goes to Leggett.  The like to split him out wide and run him on a slant against the safety so look for them to target Minkah once again.  In Clemson’s close games, Leggett has performed:

  • Louisville – 3 catches for 71 yards and one touchdown.
  • Pittsburgh – 9 catches for 95 yards and zero touchdowns.
  • Florida State – 5 catches for 122 yards and one touchdown.
  • Virginia Tech – 4 catches for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Alabama (2016) – 5 catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

Tidebits

  • How much will Tim Williams play? If he’s in the game then Clemson’s ability to run the football will increase. However, he’s the defender who is best suited to disrupt the pocket and chase down Watson. So, what’s the balance between playing Allen and Anderson at defensive end versus moving Allen to tackle and playing Anderson and Williams at DE? Look for Allen and Anderson to start the game and then Williams will come in any time Clemson substitutes.
  • If it’s first and goal inside the five yard line, Clemson will run the zone read repeatedly. Look for Watson to keep the ball more times than not.
  • As good of a receiver as Leggett (#16) is, he’s an awful blocker. Bama will dominate him at the point of attack any time he’s asked to block.
  • If it’s 4&1, Dabo is going for it. Book it.
  • Gallman likes to extend the ball at the goal line so look for Bama defenders to rip it out if he does.
  • The Jeremy Pruitt factor is not to be ignored here.  In our opinion, he’s better suited to defend the Clemson attack and he has better weapons to do so this year.
  • When Clemson has struggled in games, it’s been solely due to turnovers.  With Watson throwing 17 picks this season, Bama could get a NOT (Non-Offensive Touchdown) that turns the game around.
  • While there were occasional breakdowns along the Clemson offensive line, other than Hyatt there were no repeatedly blatant issues. And, aside from Hyatt (295), Clemson’s line is over 305 pounds across and seem to form a relatively solid front.  But, Alabama’s front four is the trump card.  When LSU and Washington held Alabama’s offense in check, it was the defense and the front line that dominated the game and allowed the Tide offense to score just enough to win.

Final Thoughts on Defense

I thought, for the most part, Ohio State and Florida State both held up pretty well at the line of scrimmage.   Even Pittsburgh limited the Tigers to just 50 yards rushing, so I sincerely doubt the Tide will be challenged by Clemson’s running game. The difference in those games and likely in this matchup will come down to Watson’s ability to read coverage and deliver the ball. Even when the plays are perfectly defended, Watson’s ability to extend plays absolutely sucks the life out of a defense.

Alabama MUST get off the field on third down. Clemson will once again be using pace and this year’s defense, while better, isn’t as deep as last year’s defense was. The longer Clemson can keep the Tide defense on the field, the worse the results are going to be later in the game. Lastly, in each game I watched the Clemson offensive coaches adapted to what they were seeing defensively and were able to counter with plays that took advantage of what the defense was trying to do to them.

Alabama on Special Teams

The two return games are pretty similar so, aside from Trevon Diggs looking like a complete train wreck last week, unlike last season all should be relatively even here.

However, Alabama has a significant advantage in the punting game as the nation’s third ranked punter, JK Scott, owns a 47.4 to 38.0 punting advantage over Clemson’s Andy Teasdall. Once again, the Crimson Tide should own the field position game and that was no small part of their victory over Washington.

But, this year there is no Cyrus Jones and no Kenyan Drake to save the day in the return game and with Diggs’ problems last week we’d guess if something catastrophic happens in the kicking game it will happen to Alabama.

In the place-kicking game, the two teams are pretty similar. Greg Huegel hit 73.7% of his attempts, missing three times inside the 40 and twice outside the 40. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith hit 74.1% of his kicks, missing three times inside the 40. From outside the 40, Griffith hit just 3 of 7 while Huegel made 5 of 7 kicks so the Tigers may hold a slight advantage when dialing up kicks from long distance.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

The Alabama offense limps into this contest with a new offensive coordinator and a passing game that forces you to hold your breath and pray each time Hurts drops back to pass. Last year, Bama was very creative in utilizing misdirection against the aggressive Clemson defense and they once again have the athletes who can take advantage of this attacking style of defense. Unlike last week, the Tide will not be able to just run between the tackles and play conservatively this week so Jalen Hurts is going to have to play more like the SEC offensive player of the year than the 18-year-old true freshman he was against the Huskies.

Defensively, this is the ultimate nightmare for Alabama. Clemson has multiple game breakers at wide receiver, a fleet footed tight end, an outstanding running back and the game’s best player at the quarterback position. Saban loves to take away what you do best but when you put on the tape of Clemson they have playmakers everywhere and do so many things well. There were a few signs of weakness across the offensive line but Watson’s fleet foot and surprising strength usually negated the pass rush when it arrived.

Clemson will score – probably in the high 20s. Early on, the Tide’s defense will more than hold their own but, as the game wears on, if they don’t get some help from the offense then things will get mighty dicey. There is little to no depth in the back seven and, over time, Clemson’s pace of play and vast array of athletes will take a toll on the Alabama defense. With special teams being negated, it will be up to the offense to win a sixth national championship for Nick Saban and lately I haven’t seen any indication that they can get it done.

Clemson does not fear Alabama – they are the one and only team that truly wants Alabama. They aren’t scared and they want revenge for last year. They believe they should have won the game last season and they will be the more motivated team. They are also the most cohesive team and they are playing much, much better offensively than Alabama is right now. I just think it’s Clemson’s year…

 

Final Score: Clemson 34 Alabama 27

  

Note: IF Clemson does win this football game, Alabama fans should take a ton of pride in what Dabo is doing at Clemson. Since 2011, Alabama has the highest winning percentage in the country, winning 91.6% of their games. Guess which team has the second highest winning percentage during that span. Ohio State? No. Oklahoma? No. Oregon or FSU? No. Clemson actually has the second highest winning percentage at 84.1%. Since 2012, Dabo has beaten Urban Meyer twice, Bob Stoops twice and Les Miles once. Each one of these coaches has been somewhat of a nemesis for Saban and yet Dabo has each of their pelts on his wall. When you look at the Clemson program, you can’t help but see a lot of Alabama in it and I, for one, think that’s pretty damn cool. No matter what the result is on Monday night, Alabama rules college football.

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W2W4 Alabama vs Washington

Saturday afternoon, the Alabama Crimson Tide will return to some very familiar territory. Over the last several years, the Georgia Dome has been extremely good to Alabama and Nick Saban. In fact, since 2008, the Tide is 9-1 in their Dome away from home with their only loss coming in 2008 against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators.

But Saturday Alabama also makes a familiar return to the college football playoffs. Alabama is the only team to make the playoffs in all three years of its existence so the travel, the routines, the practices, the events and the pressures of the game are almost as familiar as the Georgia Dome is for the Tide.

And then there’s Washington.

Washington hasn’t been relevant in the landscape of college football since Nick Saban’s mentor, Don James, was roaming the Husky sidelines from 1975 to 1992. Now, suddenly in Chris Peterson’s third season in Seattle, the Huskies have mushed their way into the spotlight of college football’s biggest stage.

Is Washington ready?

Well, our crack staff was able to put down their new toys from Santa long enough to watch the Washington Huskies take on Utah, Colorado and USC and we came to a very startling conclusion. This is one damn good football team. The Huskies are very balanced on offense, exhibiting a penchant for power running and a perfectly timed passing game with a big play receiver. On defense, they are superb.

In our opinion, Washington is the most complete team that Alabama will face in the college football playoffs. Yep, we said it. Here’s what to watch for on Saturday…

Alabama on Offense

When we turned on the tape of Washington’s defense, the first thing that jumped out was their outstanding secondary. Earlier this week, Coach Saban compared them to the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary and while we aren’t quite ready to go that far, we can definitely say they are outstanding. Their corners hold up very well in man to man coverage and their safeties are the ballhawking, hard hitting safeties that you are accustomed to seeing in crimson jerseys.

If there is a weak spot on Washington’s defense, it’s in their front seven. We never saw them generate much of a pass rush in any of the games we watched. Additionally, Utah ran for 213 yards – most of which was between the tackles. Further research revealed that the lowly Arizona Wildcats thundered for 308 rushing yards in a 35-28 overtime thriller earlier in the year. Yes, that’s the same Arizona team that went 3-9 this season.

Still, Washington’s defense comes into the game ranked 11th in the country in total defense (316.2 yards per game) and they lead the country in forcing turnovers. Even after giving up over 200 yards to Utah and Arizona on the ground, the Huskies’ rushing defense still ranks 20th in the country, giving up 123.5 yards per game on the ground. The Huskies are also ranked 20th in the country against the pass, giving up 192.6 yards per game. Basically, they are really good at playing defense.

Here’s what to watch for when Bama has the ball…

Run the Damn Ball, Lane: You will very likely be screaming “RUN THE DAMN BALL” at the TV Saturday afternoon, just as you have done all season. Washington’s defense is predicated on speed, speed and more speed. Defensive end Connor O’Brien is just 232 pounds. Their middle linebacker DJ Beavers is 216 lbs. Playmaking linebacker Keishawn Bierra (#7 – he’s outstanding) is only 221 lbs. If Alabama can root out Washington’s two husky defensive tackles (both weighing over 318 lbs), then they can have their way with the ends and the second level. Utah slammed the ball down Washington’s throats between the tackles and that’s where Alabama’s bread should be buttered Saturday.

Beware of the Passing Game: Washington’s pass defense is outstanding. They have playmakers all across the back end of their defense and they love to play coverage. So, look for Washington to employ a three man rush and a spy against Hurts much of the day in an effort to force Hurts to throw into tiny windows. Washington is 6th in the country in forcing interceptions (19 picks) because they play solid coverage and they have playmakers who can catch the rock. If Kiffin gets pass happy Saturday, things will not go well.

Beware the Tell Tale Blitz: I’m convinced Washington actually wants the QB to read the blitz early before the snap so that they can bait the QB into throwing where they want him to throw. I saw Husky defensive backs jump routes in all three games – when I tell you these DBs can play, please hear me. Their DBs can play. Kevin King (6’3), Sidney Jones (6’0), Taylor Rapp (6’0) and Budda Baker (5’10) are all big and physical and can all play the football in the air. In particular, look out for Baker (#32). He reminds us of the Honey Badger.

Remember Thy OJ Howard: Utah and USC both confused the Husky coverages by slipping their tight ends out into the deep flats (think corner routes). Washington plays a ton of zone coverage and both Utah and USC used their wide outs to clear an area for their tight ends to freely roam. While Ridley and Stewart will likely have difficulty getting the ball, OJ should be a big factor.

North/South, not East/West: Washington’s defense will surprise you with their team speed. The Huskies fly to the football and come up with a mean spirited nature about them. This season, Alabama has had a tremendous amount of success with the fly sweeps, bubble screens and other East/West plays designed to stretch a defense. From what we saw on tape, these Huskies will devour perimeter plays like a doggie biscuit. Between the tackles is the way to go.

Passing Lanes: USC beat Washington because they limited the Huskies to just 17 yards rushing and because Sam Darnold played out of his mind. For those of you chalking up the USC victory as a sign that Alabama will easily have their way with Washington, you should go to You Tube and check out the USC game – it was a tight one. Darnold was able to complete numerous passes in tee-tiny little windows as Washington challenged nearly every throw. There were a couple of times where their zone coverages were confused but, by and large, Darnold had to be pin point accurate. Can Jalen throw the ball as well as Darnold? No, he cannot. Hurts cannot, at this stage of his development, make the same throws Darnold did against the Huskies. Consider it a win for Hurts if the pass goes incomplete.

Blitzen: Against USC, Washington repeatedly brought slot corners and linebackers effectively on the blitz. In particular, look for #7 (Bierria) to hit the A/B gaps hard. They do tip their blitzes so Alabama should have some checks to counter the blitzes for some big gainers.

Tidebits

  • Colorado, Utah and USC used slants effectively. Washington did jump a couple of them for interceptions, however.
  • Against Utah, the Huskies played with two down linemen and two stand up defensive ends. The Utes stayed in a spread formation and attacked the smaller linebackers and ends by slamming the ball between the tackles.
  • Look for Washington to rush two or three and use at least one spy on Hurts. They want to force Hurts to throw the football just as LSU did.
  • USC used a TON of crossing patterns in the middle of the field causing confusion in the zone coverages for the linebackers. This is not Hurts’ favorite throw to make but there should be open receivers between the hashes around 10 yards down the field.
  • Utah’s big back Joe Williams (5’11, 210) carried UW defenders down the field like little piggy backs so look for Bo Scarborough to push his way for chunks of yardage.
  • Utah ran a beautiful passing play inside the five yard line for a TD. Their TE flared out at the goal line, forcing the flat corner to vacate his zone and come up to play the TE. Meanwhile, the wide receiver on that side simply ran to the back corner of the end zone and was wide open for the touchdown. Kiffin will flood zones and create conflicts for UW in coverage.
  • Look for Hurts to effectively use play action and then roll right to find open receivers. USC ran this play three or four times with big success.
  • Washington effectively defended every screen pass we saw.
  • We think the QB draw could be huge against a blitz.

Final Thoughts on Offense

This game will test Kiffin’s patience like no other and we think Washington’s defense will be more challenging for him than Kiffin getting on the team bus. Will Kiffin get cute and attempt to show the country how awesome his FAU offenses will be? Or will he stick to his knitting and hit the small UW defenders with heavy doses of Hurts, Scarborough, Harris and Jacobs on the ground? Washington knows that if Hurts’ first couple of options are not there, he’s going to tuck and run and they will defend Hurts’ running game at all costs. When Hurts drops back, he’ll have tons of time so the question becomes whether or not he can throw an accurate ball into tight coverage.

Alabama on Defense

After watching Utah, Colorado and USC cause serious problems for Jake Browning in the passing game, we came away with the conclusion that the Washington offense really isn’t about Browning at all. Yes, he has some outstanding numbers this season. However, UW’s offensive success is entirely dependent upon running the football. USC controlled the line of scrimmage and limited the Huskies to just 17 yards rushing. As a result, Browning was asked to put the game on his shoulders and, aside from one bomb to the outstanding John Ross, Browning failed to deliver (17 of 37 for 259 yards, 70 of which came on the aforementioned bomb to Ross).

In a tight game against Utah, it was the running game of Miles Gaskin that came to the rescue in their seven point win on the road. UW rushed for 199 yards in the game and Gaskin accounted for 151. Against the Colorado Buffaloes, Browning was just 9 of 24 for 118 yards so, once again, Gaskin and the Husky running game had to come to the rescue. Gaskin rushed for 159 yards while Lavon Coleman rushed for 101 yards and the Huskies rolled to 265 yards on the ground in the Pac 12 championship.

So, stop the run and Alabama should win the game. As it happens, Alabama is the #1 team in the country in stopping the run so the odds are forever in their favor that they will contain the Washington running game.

Can Browning win this game on his own? In a word, no. Here’s why…

Dominate the Trenches: Utah and USC both disrupted the pocket, forcing Browning to flee from his usual launch point. When Browning is on the move, he’s a sub par passer. Therefore, Alabama must dominate the trenches and generate pressure in the UW backfield. It’s of paramount importance that Alabama stuff the running game so Daron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen must own the interior of the line. USC says this is possible so we think it’s likely that Bama will own the line of scrimmage.

Contain the Edges: Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams will be asked to contain the edges as Miles Gaskin loves to sweep the ball and bounce the ball to the edges. Most of Gaskin’s big runs are outside the tackles so Alabama will have to contain the edges (as they always do).

John Ross: Ross caught 17 of Browning’s 42 touchdown passes this season and, against USC, Ross was THE focal point of nearly every single throw. Out of 37 passes on the day, 20 of them seemed targeted for Ross. Alabama really needs to keep a safety over the top of Ross and force the other UW receivers beat them. Alabama’s Achilles heel on defense this season has been giving up the deep ball and that is precisely where John Ross excels. Ross reminds us of Calvin Ridley and he will certainly beat man coverage more times than not so the Tide front will have to generate pressure and the defensive backs will need to disrupt the routes and timing of the passing game.

Chris Peterson: Washington’s best chance to win this game boils down to Chris Peterson. Peterson is one of the best coaches in the country and he’s had a month to break down the tape of Arkansas & Ole Miss throwing for over 400 yards against this vaunted Tide defense. He’s had a month to look at how Austin Appleby directed three outstanding drives against Alabama in the SEC Championship game. Peterson will employ a quick passing game predicated on timing and rhythm. He will attempt to attack Rashaan Evans in the passing game by targeting backs out of the backfield and tight ends down the seams. IF there is a game plan out there that can beat Alabama’s defense, Chris Peterson is the man who will find it.

Trick Plays: Peterson is, of course, renowned for his arsenal of trick plays. During the games we watched, the double pass seemed to be his favorite gadget play this season. If it’s in his bag of tricks then look for it to be used Saturday afternoon. With Evans starting his first game in place of Shaun Dion Hamilton, he will be challenged to make the right read and fill the right gaps. Look for Peterson to find a way to isolate him into coverage on some kind of throwback to a tight end or running back.

Student Body Left: The bread and butter of UW’s running game is a delayed lateral handoff that allows three (THREE) offensive linemen to pull and lead Gaskin around the edge. USC attacked this with safeties, linebackers and team managers so look for Alabama to do the same. Gaskin is very agile and has excellent vision to find yardage among the mass of humanity so look for Alabama to push up field and take out as many of these pullers as they can before the OL can get up the field to make their blocks.

Fun with Formations: Peterson will test Alabama’s alignments by shifting multiple tight ends, wide receivers and anyone else they can find to move around before the snap. If Bama overplays one side or the other, Washington has checks to attack the weak side with an option pitch.

Tidebits

  • UW scored a touchdown on more than half of their opening possessions this season so the Tide better be ready at the opening kick.
  • Gaskin is very fast and loves to get to the edge. Alabama must contain this. Oddly enough, nearly all of UW’s handoffs are of the delayed variety so the hope here is that it allows Alabama to get up the field and stuff the running lanes before they can open.
  • Right guard Shane Brostek (#60) was repeatedly beaten in every game we watched. At just 289 lbs, he’s going to have a long day.
  • Washington’s OL goes 309, 297, 293, 289 & 308 across the front line from left to right. Look for Tomlinson and Payne to dominate the guards and center as they introduce themselves to the country and take up residence in the Husky backfield.
  • Browning has more agility than he gets credit for but he’s certainly not a dual threat QB. When he’s forced to flee the pocket, his accuracy does way, way down.
  • Browning doesn’t have a lot of arm strength so he makes his living on timing and accuracy. Bama must disrupt routes and get pressure in his face in order to disrupt the passing game. Browning has a long windup and had a few passes batted down so that may play a factor, as well.
  • Running back Lavon Coleman (#22) is asked to pass protect quite a bit and he’s not very good at it. If he stays in to block, look for Evans and/or Foster to come on a delayed blitz. God help Coleman on Saturday.
  • If the Huskies line up in a bunch formation, look for Gaskin to run wide (usually away from the bunch).
  • USC and Utah used twists and loops from their defensive ends with great effect. UW did not pick up these games with the linemen.
  • Washington left the defensive end unblocked numerous times and, if you’ve read this blog a while, you know Alabama capitalizes on this by sending their DEs on a seek and destroy mission.

Final Thoughts on Defense

If Alabama can stuff the Washington running game then they will win the game. It’s just that simple. For all of the love of Browning, there are numerous examples of the running game being the key to the Huskies attack. The interior of the Bama line should overwhelm the UW front so Peterson will look to attack the flanks in an effort to get his skill guys outside of the brutality of the Tide defense. Ryan Anderson, Rueben Foster and Rashaan Evans will all have to play a huge game and we think they will.

Special Teams

This is actually a game where we think the special teams strongly favor Alabama’s opponent. John Ross (#1) returns kickoffs and he’s exceptional with the ball in his hands. Dante Pettis (#8) returned a punt for the winning score against Utah and is ranked 13th in the country in punt returns so the Huskies have two game breakers at the return positions.

Meanwhile, Alabama has been struggling to find their way in the return game since Eddie Jackson was injured. Also, Alabama is ranked 83rd in kick coverage so Washington has a huge advantage in the return game.

To the good, Alabama ranks 16th in the country in net punting (40.22) while Washington is ranked 122nd with a 33.98 yard net punting average so field position should be the Tide’s friend throughout the game.

The Huskies look to be more solid in the place kicking game as Cameron Van Winkle is 16 of 20 on the season, only missing one kick inside of 40 yards. However, Washington has allowed three kicks to be blocked this season – USC flew in off the left side to swat one down in their game so that could play a role.

On the Alabama side of the ledger, Adam Griffith comes into the game hitting 19 of 26, missing three times inside the 40. You’ll remember the Georgia Dome was a house of horrors for him during the SEC championship game so let’s watch those first few kicks to see how the ball is flying off Griffith’s foot.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

We expect this game to be a low scoring, hard fought contest and Alabama absolutely can lose this game if they play into the strengths of the Washington defense. Washington will likely generate points via the long pass to Ross, a trick play or two and an early drive that takes advantage of a slow start by Alabama. What the Tide simply cannot do is give the Huskies additional possessions by committing turnovers.  Washington is one of the very few teams that offers up a challenging, balanced offensive attack so we’d prefer not to see them have any extra possessions.

Alabama’s offensive line should be able to overpower the Huskies at the point of attack so the Tide running game should play a huge role in getting Saban yet another win in Atlanta. If the Bama defense can stuff the UW running game as we expect, then it should be Alabama who is able to create turnovers and take advantage of UW mistakes.

It’s all fun and games until Alabama’s front line hits you in the mouth and then the shit squarely hits the fan. Alabama has been here. They’ve done this. They expect to do it again. Washington is here for the first time and when the game kicks off at 2PM EST, it will be 11AM PST on the west coast. In interviews, the UW players admitted the time change is “very real.” We expect they will say the same about the Alabama Crimson Tide as the Tide is “very real” as well. Look for Bama to win a close one and advance to Tampa…

 

Final Score:   Alabama 24   Washington 20

 

 

 

 

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