By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist
BATON ROUGE – In two of Les Miles’ worst games against Alabama, his vaunted running game was swallowed up by the big, beefy, red Alabama front seven and Miles was unable to adjust during the game, which was one of his weaknesses.
In the 2011 BCS national championship game, LSU came in as one of the nation’s best rushing attacks with over 200 yards a game and was held to 39 net yards on 27 rushes in a 21-0 loss. Kenny Hilliard led the Tigers with 16 net yards on five carries. Quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 15 net yards on 14 carries. What worked in LSU’s 9-6 overtime win over Alabama two months prior did not in this game.
In 2015, LSU brought to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Leonard Fournette, the nation’s leader in rushing with 1,352 yards and in rushing average per game with 193.1 and the runaway favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. He gained 31 net yards on 19 carries in a 30-16 loss and was never in the Heisman hunt again. He was not even invited to New York City for the ceremony. What worked for LSU’s as it roared to a 7-0 start and No. 2 ranking did not in this game.
Alabama, though, is not the thick steak of a defensive front seven it was in past years. As Coach Nick Saban did on offense two years ago – after an inability to get substitution rules changed – when he hired progressive, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, he changed with the times. In recent years, he has moved away slightly from the huge defensive tackles and linebackers to more speed and zeroed in his defense more for the spread attacks than the beef-on-beef games in which LSU-Alabama thrived in recent years.
Therefore, LSU’s offensive line will not be going up against such a heavy front seven Saturday when No. 19 LSU (5-2, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) hosts No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) at 7 p.m. in Tiger Stadium on CBS. Gone are behemoth defensive tackles Jarran Reed (6-foot-4 and 313 pounds) and A’Shawn Robinson (6-4, 312) and bigger linebackers Reggie Ragland (6-2, 252) and Denzell Devall (6-2, 252). Those four players combined for 13 tackles in the win over LSU last year with 2.5 for losses, two pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
Alabama also does not have a complete second team front seven as it did last season when Saban and then-defensive coordinator Kirby Smart rotated in 15 players with very specific duties. They wore people down, particularly LSU.
Alabama’s defense has put up very similar numbers this season to last season as it is once again THE defense in the nation. The Tide is No. 1 in the nation against the run with 70 yards allowed a game, No. 4 in total defense with 274.5 yards allowed a game and No. 4 in points allowed with 14.9 a game. And there is plenty of size remaining with senior defensive end Jonathan Allen (6-3, 283), who is among the SEC leaders in sacks with four, and senior linebacker Reuben Foster (6-1, 240), who leads the team in tackles with 53. Allen has also returned two fumbles for touchdowns as Alabama leads the nation in defensive touchdowns with nine – five fumble recoveries and four pick sixes.
But the beef is not as plentiful as it was, and for LSU, more than for any other SEC opponent of Alabama’s, that is good news as the Tigers are still primarily a power-I formation running team even with the recent changes to the offense – more subtle than drastic as reported in some circles – by new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger under new interim coach Ed Orgeron.
In other words, Miles’ love for the manly, straight-ahead running game would have worked better in this game than it did in the last one. Or, more accurately, let’s say it would not be as dismal a failure this year. Alabama’s defense has a little more lighter fare than the usual red meat.
“We were built in the past for teams like LSU who were I-formation, run-down-hill, very physical offensive lines,” Saban, who was outmuscled by the Tigers in three of his first five meetings with Miles from 2007-11, said last week. “We’re going to have to do a really good job with our guys up front. We probably don’t have as many big guys as we’ve had in the past. But I think we’ve got some guys that can hang in there and play that type of game.”
LSU’s offensive line has been playing that type of game better as the season has gone on behind senior center Ethan Pocic (6-6, 309), sophomore left guard William Clapp (6-5, 303), sophomore guard-tackle Maea Teuhema (6-5, 315), junior left tackle K.J. Malone (6-4, 303) and senior right guard Josh Boutte (6-5, 346). Sophomore right tackle Toby Weathersby (6-5, 302) may return for the Alabama game after missing the last four games with a foot and ankle injury. The open date came at a good time for Clapp as well as he has been nursing a shoulder injury. The Tigers are up to fourth in the SEC and 20th nationally in rushing offense with 239 yards a game after just getting Fournette back two weeks ago from an ankle injury that has made him miss three games.
Fournette returned to his pre-Alabama, 2015 form against Ole Miss as he set a school record with 284 yards on 16 carries. But despite the euphoria surrounding the newness of Orgeron and company, LSU is yet to play a good team since he took over.
Nevertheless, Saban has noticed some small changes with LSU’s attack and the same old Fournette.
“They’re well coached,” he said on the SEC teleconference last week. “They’ve been able to run the ball extremely effectively. They’ve got a really good play action pass game that goes with it and some really good skill guys that can make big plays and a quarterback who has done a nice job for them. So, this is a very challenging team based on the balance that they create and what they do.”
Saban sees some of the Miles’ influence still in the offense.
“They probably play a little more two tights than two wides, which is a good thing for them because it features the players that they have,” he said. “We see some subtle differences in what they’re doing, but I think the thing about it is their execution has been really good. And that’s usually what makes the difference.”
In LSU quarterback Danny Etling, Saban and new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will also be facing LSU’s best quarterback to play against Alabama since Zach Mettenberger came within minutes of delivering a win in 2012.
“He’s done a great job,” Saban said. “He understands the offense. He makes good, quick decisions, and he’s been able to throw the ball accurately and take advantage of the explosive plays that they can make with the skill guys that they have.”
LSU has brought into the Alabama game quarterbacks having good seasons in the past, though, and they failed to dent the red meat. Jarrett Lee was leading the SEC in passing efficiency and was No. 17 in that category in 2011, but two quick interceptions benched him. Last year, Brandon Harris entered the Alabama game No. 2 in the SEC and No. 17 nationally in passing efficiency and No. 5 in the nation in third down quarterback rating. But he hit just 6 of 19 passes for 128 yards with one touchdown and an interception and was sacked twice in last year’s loss.
And Alabama is even better at rushing the passer this season with its more svelte approach. The Tide leads the nation in sacks with 32 and it is spread throughout its defense. Senior edge rusher Tim Williams (6-4, 252), one of the rush specialists last season from University High in Baton Rouge, leads the Tide with 6.5 sacks on the season. Senior linebacker Ryan Anderson (6-2, 253) has 4.5 sacks and 11.5 stops in all behind the line.
A key for LSU will be able to run with Fournette when Alabama is expecting something else. That was not the case last year. Saban and Pruitt will undoubtedly be ready for No. 7 given what they saw him do against Ole Miss.
“The guy’s a fantastic player,” Saban said. “He’s been a fantastic player for – this is the third year in a row. I know he was a little nicked up earl on and missed a couple of games, but I haven’t really seen a guy dominate a game like he did that game for a long time. So, we have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and he looks as good as ever. And maybe even better.”
This may be the year to run Fournette 32 times at Alabama. Miles would be proud.
GUILBEAU POLL: 1. Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC). 2. Texas A&M (7-1, 4-1). 3. Auburn (6-2, 4-1). 4. LSU (5-2, 3-1). 5. Florida (6-1, 4-1). 6. Arkansas (5-3, 1-3). 7. Kentucky (5-3, 4-2). 8. Ole Miss (3-5, 1-4). 9. South Carolina (4-4, 2-4). 10. Tennessee (5-3, 2-3). 11. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3). 12. Mississippi State (3-5, 1-3). 13. Georgia (4-4, 2-4). 14. Missouri (2-6, 0-4).
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is probably the best defense we’ve played against all year long – top to bottom, front and back.”
—Alabama coach Nick Saban on LSU’s defense.