LSU From The Couch

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

LSU sure made it interesting for about 36 minutes of their game against Alabama Saturday - but not for 60. There was something about that successful fake punt not quite half-way through the 3rd quarter that stole the starch out of LSU's sails and injected it straight into Alabama's, and the last 24 minutes of the contest were enough of a beatdown that the final score kind of sounded like the whole game was that way.

It wasn't - a beatdown the whole game, that is - and perhaps some of the giddy praise of the Tide's performance around the Bama nation is a bit overblown. This ain't your 2011 daddy's LSU team, this is the team that lost to Ole Miss, let Mississippi State stick around for 3 quarters, and gave up 16 points to Furman. For sure, nobody else has come within a country mile of sticking it to ‘em 38-17, but Alabama has been doing that to everybody it plays recently, and without some great breaks in the first half, the Tide could've been in serious trouble by halftime. Alabama can play a better game than this, and I expect it will.

Don't get me wrong, the Tide rolled in a championship way once the rolling truly commenced, dominating LSU in all phases and showcasing a brand of football that fell somewhere in the range of unbeatable. The run defense for the entire game was the best the Tide has shown this year. Even if you take out the sacks, LSU still only averaged 2.8 yards per carry, while the Tide running game got it going when it needed to, although the 4.6 yards per carry average is not far over the 3.9 LSU was giving up coming in. And there were holes: the pass D only held LSU to around its average on yards per attempt, and the Tide's passing offense took too long to get going.

No, this wasn't the ultimate performance from the Crimson Tide; we saw one fine 24 minutes of play, for sure, but 60 would be nicer. We did, though, see something else very significant on Saturday: an accurate depiction of the current reality, spelling out clearly that the string of hard-fought razor-thin battles between LSU and Alabama is o-v-e-r. Alabama has now beaten LSU 3 times in a row; only one of them was close, and that one was close because the LSU quarterback played out of his mind and the Alabama quarterback was injured and ineffective, not because the teams were evenly matched. While team-impacting key injuries and heroic performances can never be ruled out, they're not the norm.

No, the norm is that Alabama is now a clear cut ahead of LSU as a program, and it starts with recruiting. LSU had a definite talent edge on Alabama early in Saban's tenure in Tuscaloosa, but first Saban evened the playing field, and then he tilted it heavily in one direction. Now, at least as measured by recruiting rankings, Alabama is way ahead of LSU in the talent arms race, and the disparity is only growing larger.

Check these numbers out:

YEAR

Alabama (Scout)

Alabama (Rivals)

LSU (Scout)

LSU (Rivals)

2006

18th

11th

7th

7th

2007

22nd

10th

5th

4th

2008

1st

1st

7th

11th

2009

2nd

1st

2nd

3rd

2010

4th

5th

7th

6th

2011

7th

1st

8th

6th

2012

2nd

1st

6th

18th

2013

2nd

1st

6th

6th

2014

1st

1st

18th

6th

While Les Miles has done a great job coaching his guys up against the Tide, it's a pipe dream for that program's fans to expect him to continually outcoach Nick Saban, and the talent levels are no longer close to equal. Saturday's game was the new norm: this is a series between one great program and one good program that can create problems if not dealt with properly.

At least that's what it is for now. But Alabama has already made inroads into LSU's talent-rich Louisiana recruiting base, pulling guys like Landon Collins and Cameron Robinson, and now that the Tide has clearly established itself with a superior product on the field, those inroads may start to accelerate. Here's one to watch for: this year's top all-everything recruit, running back Leonard Fournette, plays for a high school in the heart of Tiger country that wears purple and gold unis. If Bama pulls Fournette, this rivalry could go the way of the Alabama-Tennessee rivalry (yawn).

Miscellaneous Stuph

I don't really make it a point to comment on coaching in these columns, but I hate it when a team doesn't use time outs at the end of the half when a legitimate scoring opportunity could've been possible, and Alabama did exactly that at the end of the first half. If Saban had used a timeout, the Tide would've gotten the ball back with about 1:20 left and two timeouts.

That's plenty of time to score, and with A.J. McCarron calling signals, there's really little risk. Statistically, it's far more likely for Alabama to score with 1:20 and two timeouts than for Alabama to make some kind of mistake and give LSU points. Not only would a score have, of course, meant points, but it would've blunted the momentum LSU took into the locker room. The Tide eventually had to get that momentum back via a faked punt, and in my book that's a great deal riskier than trying to score at the end of the half.

Or maybe that's just my old hurt feelings re-emerging, because this one hits a little close to home, memory-wise. The very biggest bone I have to pick with Saban for his entire tenure at Tuscaloosa was not trying to score with 2 minutes left against LSU in T-Town in 2011. And that's enough said about that.

I will however, turn to another drum I've been beating. I don't have a problem with the way Fowler stuck the ball out over the goalline for the TD that put us up 38-17. Mainly that's because it was a 3rd-down play, which means we probably wouldn't have another chance for the touchdown, but also because Fowler had a clear path to clearly get the ball over the line, not near it, over it. Those are the two big prerequisites.

Neither were true of Yeldon's reach-out on the previous possession. He already had a first down on the play, so there was no reason to think we would have trouble scoring from the one, plus he had just taken a blow right on the ball and then thrust it out in a hurried fashion. Not only that, but he didn't get it to the line before his elbow hit, so the whole risky exercise was pointless. He did, as it turns out, keep good control of the ball, so I'm not as irate about it as I could be, but really I wish the coaches would make him stop doing that so often. In an inappropriate situation like that, there is little to gain and much to lose.

Quarterback

So this was the 2nd straight year McCarron played hurt against LSU? And it affected his deep passing? That sure makes sense, because AJ missed 3 times when had a guy open deep for a TD.

McCarron was particularly ineffective in the 1st quarter. 2 of those 3 deep misses were in the 1st: one where he overthrew Howard and one where he just missed badly on a throw to Christion Jones that may have been a miscommunication; AJ certainly acted as if he thought Jones cut the wrong way, although from the replay it looked as if McCarron released the ball after Jones cut, and simply didn't react in time. He also missed DeAndrew White across the middle on the first possession with what looked like good running room for #2.

But what really bugged me about AJ's first-quarter play is that Alabama's first two drives both ended the same way: after McCarron threw well short of the sticks on 3rd down to a guy with no running room. (Mettenberger didn't do that once in the whole game - his one 3rd-down throw short of the sticks was to a guy who looked like he had a decent chance of running for the first down, although Jarrick Williams made an excellent play and hauled him down short, leading to the LSU field goal.) His next 3rd-down throw, to Amari Cooper, was uncomfortably close to being short again, although that proved irrelevant when the LSU defender interfered. McCarron definitely falls into the "smart quarterback" category - except for this. He has hit guys short of the sticks on 3rd-down throws when they didn't have a good chance to run for it quite a few times this year, and that's really an unforgivable mistake when the QB isn't under heavy pressure. Doing it twice in a row at the beginning of a game against a team like LSU with a dangerous offense is a recipe for digging yourself a deep hole; absent the early LSU fumbles, a deep hole Bama would probably have been in.

OK, now that I've ragged on McCarron for 3 paragraphs, I guess I should go ahead and mention in passing that he played a heckuva ballgame after the 1st quarter. The mistakes I have mentioned may be worth mentioning, but they're virtually the only ones he made in the entire game. Pretty much every pass was on the money, and his timing was impeccable.

Each TD pass was a star-level play. Not only was the crossing pattern to Howard laid right in there, but McCarron had the presence of mind not to throw it as soon as Howard broke away from his man, but instead waited until he had run a few yards and there was no longer an LSU linebacker in the throwing lane. The TD pass to Norwood was beautifully thrown, high and outside with touch, in the perfect place to allow Norwood to get to the spot first, establish "rebounding position," and get up in the air to a spot where the LSU defender didn't have a prayer, despite his tight coverage. But the final short TD was the best. It was a fake left, bootleg right pass, but when AJ turned right there was a blitzing linebacker right in his grill and McCarron didn't even have time to get set. Instead he whipped the ball out and floated it over the linebacker's head almost instantly. The ball was right on the money, which it had to be for Fowler to be able to strike paydirt.

Running Backs

Once again Kenyan Drake had a better yards per carry average than T.J. Yeldon; once again the offense didn't get untracked until Drake came in. But make no mistake, this was Yeldon's ballgame in the 2nd-half, and the way the Tide leaned on him when the going was rough made it crystal-clear that, at least as for right now, the coaching staff does not consider Yeldon and Drake to be anything like co-equals.

Yeldon doesn't explode out of the backfield and through holes the way Drake does, but he does pick his holes with care. He is a significantly larger man with an excellent ability to change directions, and I don't just mean for a guy his size. He finds holes, makes it very difficult for defenders to square up on him, and laughs at arm tackles.

I've complained about the blitz pickup from both of these backs, but Yeldon made the nicest blitz pickup I've seen from him this year. He also got a key block on the fake punt.

Drake didn't get the opportunities Yeldon did, but he looked just fine when he did get opportunities. And while I blame the listless first-quarter office on #10, not on #4, I'll note again that the O did get rolling when #17 came in.

Receivers

Everybody saw big #88 go whoosh, bye-bye when he got a chance to race some LSU DBs to the goalline, but the man did some blocking, too. He now lines up tight on the line a lot more frequently than he did earlier in the year, and he was lined up on the right side tight next to Shepherd quite a few times when Bama was running in that direction in the 2nd half, and carrying his weight, too. Granted, Vogler still got that slot more often, and generally did a good job with it, although it was Vogler's missed block that allowed LSU to blow up an early bubble screen to White for a loss.

Amari Cooper looked completely healthy, but was not AJ's near-constant target as he was early in the season. I like it that way; the Tide has enough stellar receivers to spread the love, and both Cooper and everybody else will be more effective when the defense is given a lot to think about. Cooper had 3 key catches for 46 yards, and also drew the key pass interference penalty early in the game that finally got the Tide offense untracked.

It's a pleasure watching a healthy Kevin Norwood play, and with his quarterback's trust. His positioning, leap and sure-handed grab on the TD pass were beautiful to watch. But I hope Norwood is still healthy next week because he took a heckuva beating, being slammed brutally to the turf on the TD catch and later being the recipient of "not targeting" by LSU safety Craig Loston.

After having been pretty much our go-to receiver during the early mid-season, White has become something of a forgotten man, with only 5 catches for 54 yards over the last 3 games. But I don't think it's anything DeAndrew has done; it's just that Norwood is playing so well, Cooper is healthy again, and for very obvious reasons you gotta get Howard the ball. Perhaps it is selfish of me to be pleased by how well this bodes for the chances White will return to Tuscaloosa for the 2014 season, but I'm a selfish guy.

Offensive Line

LSU is 51st in the nation in rushing defense, so it wasn't as if Bama did something truly extraordinary against them, but 213 yards on the ground was 66 more than the Tigers were giving up on the average coming in. More importantly, the bulk of the yards came when they were needed, and the Tide consistently got big enough chunks in the 2nd half to keep the chains moving. Almost every running play gained yards, and one of the two running plays that lost yardage came from a defensive back blitzing around the end - in other words, from somebody who wasn't expected to be blocked by a lineman.

As his been the case all year, we got the running snowball started with runs between Steen and Shepherd, or between Shephard and Vogler or Howard, but after the first few successful running plays we began to mix it up, running left, right, and straight up the middle in a fairly even ratio. The short TD run, however, and also two short first down runs came behind the Kouandjios.

Pass blocking continues to be absolutely superb, the best pass blocking in Tuscaloosa in a long, long time. The only sack came from a guy who wasn't blocked by design, because the scheme was for him to take himself out of the play by following the play action; obviously, he didn't, and AJ didn't have a chance. One of these days I'll do the work and figure out how many times one of our offensive linemen has actually been beaten off a block to cause a sack, but the number has to be mighty low. I've venture to guess no more than twice, if that.

Defensive Line

This was the DL's best game yet in 2013. I have said something previously about expecting our DL to maybe be the best DL we've had under Saban by the end of this season, based on the idea that Robinson and Allen would be stepping up and playing like non-freshmen by the end of the season.

But that's not what happened Saturday, as it was veterans Brandon Ivory and Jeoffrey Pagan who really stepped up their play. Ivory gets a lot of credit for the ineffectiveness of a Bengal run game that was averaging over 200 yards a game coming in but was held to 43. He was impossible to block, clogged the middle, and got off his blocks to get in on 3 tackles, a good number for a nose.

It was striking the difference in the LSU line push on the plays where Robinson spelled Ivory. Robinson got pushed, Ivory didn't. Again I'll worry-wart about a possible injury to a guy who didn't have his usual stats (note for posterity: I was obviously wrong when I worry-warted about Mosley after the UT game); Robinson did not get in on a tackle, and while he was credited with a hurry when he came free to the QB on an early LSU pass play, he didn't look particularly mobile on the play.

As for Pagan, he got to know the smell of Mr. Mettenberger's armpits, as we saw quite a bit of "8 on 8 action," as the announcers put it. It was a tough game for the LSU signal-caller from a physical perspective, and Pagan had a lot to do with that.

Linebackers

C.J. Mosley for Heisman, anyone? You can sell me on it, brother. #32 had his best game of the season on the biggest stage: 12 tackles, several of them of the quite physical variety, 1.5 tackles for loss, and if he only had Kevin Norwood's hands, 3 picks. He actually wound up with zero picks, but he did get credited with two pass breakups, losing one because the ball bounced straight from his hands into an LSU receiver's. Granted, two of the potential picks would've required great catches, but he shoulda had the other one.

Trey Depriest also had a big game, and has seemingly stepped up his game since mid-season. Depriest was second on the squad with five tackles, and had a key early sack and a heads-up fumble recovery on LSU's botched snap. Depriest also had an important block on the fake punt, as did Dillon Lee.

Of course, the feel-good linebacker story of the night was Tana Patrick's strip on LSU's first possession. Just when lots of people, like Zach Mettenberger, thought LSU would be sending the extra-point team out on the field, #11 reached in and poked the ball out of big J.C. Copeland's mighty paw. Patrick - who also got a big block on the fake punt - is a 5th-year senior who has never lived up to his blue-chip billing out of high school. Be that as it may, the big guy writ his name in crimson flame with that one. Long may his play be remembered.

Defensive Backs

After all the apprehension, misgivings, perplexity and distress over who Bama's second cornerback might be, it turns out that it was the first cornerback that got torched by LSU. Deion Belue was picked on to the tune of 4 big completions for something in the neighborhood of 100 yards, and probably should've been called for pass interference in the end zone in the 2nd quarter (although LSU scored anyway). Obviously #13 did not have his best day - but it wasn't really that terrible, either. It was more a matter of an opposing passing game functioning at a high level, and Belue never being quite where he needed to be. Only on one of those plays, where Belue gave Odell Beckham too big a cushion, did he make it easy for LSU to get a completion. Never fear, Belue is still a good cornerback.

Landon Collins continued to showcase his athleticism with some truly robust run support, including 3 plays where he was solely responsible for holding Jeremy Hill - undoubtedly one of the toughest men in the SEC to bring down - to either zero or negative yards. Collins was beaten over the middle for a 6-yard TD strike by Travin Dural, but not badly. Collins left a brief window open, and Mettenberger floated a beautiful touch pass into the back of the end zone with perfect timing. After Odell Beckham's long kickoff return, Collins played a key role in shutting the door on any talk of an LSU comeback, making the key play on a run stop behind the line on first down, then breaking up the pass on second down.

I already mentioned the fine play Jarrick Williams made on Jarvis Landry to deny a first down on a 3rd-down throw across the middle on LSU's first possession of the second half, a key play. Williams will be best remembered, though, for a certain 6-yard run that was clearly the turning point in the game.

Cyrus Jones was beaten badly on one inside slant, but otherwise had a solid game, with 5 solo tackles. giving up only one more short completion that required (and got) a perfect, hard-thrown ball. He's not a big guy, but he's physical. Jones showed nifty acceleration and timing on a blitz to get a late sack; it was in that last series when sacks were a dime a dozen, but still, he looked good.

Special Teams

After showing signs of being mortal against Tennessee, kickoff return coverage became an adventure against LSU. Odell Beckham brought the first kickoff out to the 39, thanks to a deep missed tackle by Jai Miller, brought the next one he returned out to the 25, stopped there only thanks to an excellent play by Cyrus Jones acting as a safety, and brought another out to the 30. None of that was good, but in addition to those he broke one for 82 yards, badly beating Christion Jones, Cade Foster and Cyrus Jones with a single cut toward the middle, with only Cyrus' excellent recovery and determination preventing Beckham from housing it.

On the other side of the coin, Christion Jones (twice) and Deandrew White (once) combined for 3 kickoff returns brought out of the end zone, and didn't make it to the 25-yard-line touchback spot a single time. Alabama is still averaging 26.0 yards per kickoff return to 21.7 for its opponents, but that's because the Tide has been consistently spanking its opponents in that regard before this week; the margin dropped considerably in game 9.

At least there was nothing the matter with Alabama's kicking. The consistent Cody Mandell averaged 43.5 on two punts, only one of which was returned and for just 8 yards, and Cade Foster had 3 touchbacks and a 41-yard field goal. However, Mandell probably won't be kicking off much more after hitting a low line drive straight at Beckham on his sole attempt.

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