By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
It’s been five years since The Game of the Century set a gold standard for defensive slugfests that’ll stand the test of time.
College football, meaning the game itself, has changed dramatically since that night in Tuscaloosa, and LSU’s revamped offense isn’t the only attack that heads into Saturday night’s top-15 clash at Tiger Stadium no longer resembles the one that slogged its way to a 9-6 classic.
Alabama’s offense has evolved in each of Lane Kiffin’s three seasons as offensive coordinator depend on the specific skill set of his quarterback. More spread principles with Blake Simms. More pro-style with Jake Coker.
This season it’s taken on a new iteration previously thought untenable for a Nick Saban-coached team: a wide-open spread attack built around the dual-threat abilities of true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Scoring a Southeastern Conference-leading 44 points per game through eight games, the added dimension has made the Tide as difficult as ever to stop.
Hurts has thrown for 193.6 yards per game with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions this season while rushing for another 521 yards and a team-high nine touchdowns. At 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, the rookie out of Texas packs more of a wallop than most mobile quarterbacks.
“He’s like a Wildcat back there. I treat him as a tailback,” Orgeron said last week. “He’s big, physical, can run the football. (Ole Miss QB) Chad (Kelly) was just a competitor, but you hit him, he’s going to go down. This guy, you have to tackle him. He can run like a big tailback.”
“I’ve seen some videos of that quarterback weight lifting in high school and stuff like that,” nose tackle Greg Gilmore said. “He’s like a running back at quarterback.”
The wildcat comparison can be validated by the stark change in how Alabama positions its signal caller. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Alabama quarterbacks have lined up in the shotgun or pistol on 87.4 percent of offensive snaps. That’s compared to 56.3 percent of the time in 2014 and 75.6 percent in 2015. Alabama quarterbacks predominantly played under center during the seven years of Saban’s tenure before Kiffin arrived.
Unlike in years past, Alabama runs several run-pass options. Specifically, Hurts will scan the defense like a typical zone read play — giving him the option to either hand the ball off at the mesh point or pull it and run the other way — with the added choice of throwing to a receiver on a slant or bubble screen.
Consider that, before Hurts, no quarterback on a Saban-coached team had even run for 100 yards in a single game. Hurts has done it twice this season in road victories at Ole Miss and Tennessee.
The LSU defense doesn’t intend to let him make it three in Baton Rouge this weekend.
“He’s a great runner, so you want to make him beat you with his arm and not his feet,” defensive end Lewis Neal said. “You’ve got to execute and make sure he can’t run the ball.”
The challenge for a defensive front is to constrict evenly and not allow any holes to open for Hurts to escape through and run for big gains. Arden Key is one of the nation’s most feared edge rushers, but as Gilmore explained, the key to the defense will be in the middle.
“We’ve got to get a better push in the middle,” Gilmore said, putting the onus on his own shoulders. “We’ve got great end rushers, so we don’t ever have to worry about end rushing … If you have great end rushers and no push up the middle, he can always step up (in the pocket) and go.”
LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has had the benefit of an open date, meaning an extra week to devise a game plan to slow down the hard-charging freshman.
During that time LSU has used its own athletic freshman quarterback, Zachary product Lindsey Scott Jr., to simulate Hurts on scout team. Scott cedes a few inches to the quarterback he’s pretending to be, but Gilmore said his quickness and elusiveness provide a quality look at what they can expect come Saturday night.
Will that defense and the noise of 100,000-plus screaming fans in a rocking Tiger Stadium be enough to finally make Hurts play like a freshman? Only time will tell.