TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There’s not a more what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sport in the world than college football. Each week is like its own separately encapsulated season, leaving fans and commenters alike prone to hyperbole and over-exaggeration in one way or the other.
So in the hours following No. 2 LSU’s 30-16 shellacking at the hands of No. 4 Alabama — an utter domination far more thorough and resounding than the 14-point margin on its face would indicate — the salty denizens of Tiger Town were searching high and low for a singular scape goat to shoulder the brunt of their frustrations following a fifth consecutive loss to Nick Saban and the hated Crimson Tide.
Naturally, the first impulse is to point the finger at Les Miles and the coaching staff. The ‘Fire Miles’ contingent is an extremely vocal subsection of the LSU fan base even when The Hatter’s teams find victory, and many moderates temporarily rally to the cause for a day or two following just about any loss.
Some even directed their ire at Leonard Fournette. The sophomore tailback’s savage season powered LSU’s undefeated start and made him not just a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, but the glowing beacon of hope that LSU could at long last snap that frustrating losing skid against Alabama. The belief that he could power the program back to Atlanta and maybe even into the CFB Playoffs.
Fournette entered Saturday’s tilt averaging more than 190 yards per game and 7.7 yards per game, so at least on paper, gaining 31 yards on 1.6 yards per carry in the most important game of the season can be gauged as anywhere from a choke job to a complete disappearing act of Houdini proportions.
Only it wasn’t his fault.
Now Fournette doesn’t need me — or anyone else for that matter — to defend him. But some of the scorching hot takes unleashed on twitter and message boards alike in Saturday’s aftermath — Fournette was exposed; Fournette is overrated; Fournette isn’t the best running back in the nation anymore — are flat out ridiculous.
More so, such arguments demonstrate an ignorance of some of the basic points of football. More than any other positon on the field besides maybe wide receiver, running back is a position dependent on circumstance.
What that means is when an offensive line gets as consistently dominated at the point of attack for all four quarters, it no longer matters who the back is. If there’s nowhere to run, there’s nowhere to run.
And on Saturday night, there was nowhere to run.
“We didn’t perform how we should have,” senior right tackle Vadal Alexander surmised, taking the metaphorical bullet as the only member of LSU’s ground game to speak with the media after the game. “We didn’t perform the way we wanted to.”
“I’d like to tell you there was well-blocked holes,” an agitated Miles said at the postgame podium. “I’d like to tell you that we gave Leonard an opportunity to run. I don’t know that we did that. I’m not putting it all on the offensive line either. It may have been some of the things we did and it may have been Alabama.”
Odds are, it was a concoction from both column A and column B. The talent mismatch up front became evident from the get go.
The LSU offensive line probably played its worst game of the season — the first time Fournette wasn’t able to overcome their shortcomings, at least — but given the way that Bama front seven full of future NFLers swarmed and suffocated every lane on Saturday night, there’s not a team in the country that wouldn’t have gotten similarly washed away by the Tide.
It wouldn’t have mattered if Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker and Barry Sanders were rotating in and out of the Tiger backfield. The way LSU blocked, they weren’t going to have anywhere to go. Take the handoff and slam into a sea of crimson to no avail.
“Administration of the offense, in terms of snap count and procedure, suffered a little bit today as well,” Miles said. “I think the offensive line faced a talented and capable defensive line. They were tested.”
While Miles and Alexander each elected to reserve final judgement until getting a good look at the film, the tone of each interview indicated both men knew the tape would confirm what’s become a general consensus.
They didn’t pass.
That brings me to my next point. With Fournette bottled up, many LSU fans — at least those that spent Saturday night on Twitter — wanted Miles and Cam Cameron to scrap the run game entirely, spread the field and “turn Brandon Harris loose” from shotgun.
The sophomore signal caller had thrown LSU even after falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter, and his two deep connections to Travin Dural was one of the rare semblances of offense LSU could muster.
But, as Miles and Cameron surely feared, the passing game went stagnant the moment it became predictable. He threw a brutal interception on the first play from scrimmage of the second half and completed just three of his ten second-half passes for a measly 38 yards.
As a result, the Tide out possessed the Tigers by a nearly two-to-one ratio and Derrick Henry (210 yards, 3 TDs) eventually broke the LSU defense’s psychological back.
Many LSU fans blasted Miles for how long he stayed with the power running game, but the fact of the matter is he knew he had no choice. Everything LSU does offensively is built around Fournette and the dynamic things he can do with the ball in his hands. Unfortunately for LSU, none of said things can happen if the war in the trenches is decidedly lost.
Fingers will be pointed at Miles, Cameron, Fournette, Harris and each individual offensive lineman indicating culpability for the putrid offensive output. It was the play calling. No, it was the effort. Wrong again, it was the crowd noise. Everyone will have a theory.
But at the end of the day, football at its primitive base remains a test of strength wrapped in a contest of wills. And this game was decided by a physically superior front whipping an inferior one the point of attack.
If you can’t block, you can’t win. It’s just that simple.