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LSU From The Couch

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Well, lo and behold, Alabama's college football playoffs hopes weren't dead after all. In a wild finish to yet another classic Saban-Miles faceoff in Baton Rouge, Alabama climbed right up out of the grave and played a few minutes of dominant football exactly when it was needed most.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It was a doozy, 60 minutes of classic sock-in-the-mouth Southern football, with two solid and physical defenses getting the better of two offenses that didn't lack for stars but couldn't keep from shooting themselves in their own locomotive appendages.  The game ebbed and flowed for both teams, not just once but over and over.

LSU owned the first quarter.  Alabama won the second quarter a little more dominantly, and took a lead into the halftime.  Then it got weird.

Neither team dominated the line of scrimmage in the third quarter, but Alabama kept getting not quite 10 yards every three plays while LSU kept getting a little over 10 yards every three plays, frequently by way of third-down quarterback scrambles or draws, which produced four first downs on the game and three in the third quarter alone.  The result was a massive imbalance in number of plays run that didn't come close to reflecting the relatively even struggle on the field.  In the first 27 plays of the 2nd half, LSU held the ball for 24 plays and Alabama only 3.

One bizarre drive typified the strangeness that was going on.  After taking over on their own 11-yard-line with 7:58 left in the third quarter, LSU kept the ball for 7:40 without even coming close to scoring territory.  The Tigers finally punted it away from the Bama 49-yard-line with 18 seconds left in the third quarter, the closest they ever got to scoring on that 15-play drive.

You would think with those numbers, with LSU's physical, downhill running play and typical MO of wearing opponents down, in the house that is perhaps the toughest night away game venue in college football, the Tide would've been doomed.  Not so.  Alabama's deep defensive line kept stuffing the big Tiger backs in the 4th quarter, and the Bama staff finally adjusted to leave a linebacker at home in the middle, stopping the quarterback scrambles and in the process pretty much stopping what remained of the LSU offense.

But still, the Tide's offense couldn't really get on track, and the teams exchanged multiple punts in the fourth quarter.  When T.J. Yeldon coughed it up on the Bama 5, in a tie game with 1:10 left and little rational hope of being able to do anything offensively anyway, the game seemed over.

Again, not so.  The defense got one more chance, in overtime, and they took it.  Meanwhile, Blake Sims and DeAndrew White took that overtime period and that last 50 seconds of regulation to get in a little bit of that writing their names in crimson flame gig.

As to the offensive ineptitude that got us there, the Tide nation seems to be up in arms about the run/pass play balance as most of  this fine victorious morning, but it most likely happened for a reason.  The Tide's best run-blocker was probably around 75-80%, T.J. Yeldon was maybe 90%, and Yeldon's backup Derrick Henry doesn't really specialize in running in traffic on well-defended run plays.  A pass-oriented game made it more likely that Robinson and Yeldon wouldn't get hurt again.  (And oh well, at least it appears to have worked for Robinson.)

And while the passing game wasn't really clicking, that's not because the opportunities weren't there.  Between the six Sims misfires, the three tipped passes, the four dropped passes (two of which could've been for big gainers), the miscommunication between Sims and his receivers, the three third-down throws well short of the sticks, and the numerous barely-missed throws downfield, Alabama was probably more responsible for its mediocre passing stats than the LSU defense was.  The yardage was there to be taken, Bama just didn't take it.

Even with all that, you still have to wonder.  LSU's run D was its statistical weakness coming into the game, and even though it sure didn't look weak last night, we never got to see what it might look like if it got pounded awhile.

Whatever you think of the offensive game plan, there was some outright brilliant offensive coaching at the end, starting with Lane Kiffin pulling a real beaut out of the bag for that first play of OT.  Amari Cooper split out right, Cam Robinson flanked out wide but inside Cooper, and Jalston Fowler split into the slot.  LSU was massively confused and did indeed cover Robinson who ran a faux bubble-screen pattern (despite not being an eligible receiver).  With all that going on, would you really expect LSU to cover the 300-pound tight end who hadn't caught a pass in his career and was lined up across the way from all that, in his normal slot?  No you wouldn't, and guess what, they didn't.

And how about the truly beautiful execution on that TD pass in overtime?  Notre Dame, THAT's how you run a goalline pick play!

Anyway, the Tide did what it did and got 10 points in the first 59 minutes, and then did pretty much the same thing and got 10 more points in the next 3 or 4 minutes.  Sometimes this game is hard to figure, you know?

(As an editorial note, the author of this column is too busy at work to provide as detailed an analysis of individual plays as he normally does, but suspects the column might benefit from a brevity boost, anyway.)

Quarterback

Shades of AJ McCarron, same locale, 2012.  Blake Sims was crap for 59 minutes, but a hero at the end.

In regulation, Sims, who came into the game with a 65.5% completion percentage, missed open receivers no less than six times, easily his highest such number of the year.  He also threw three balls that were tipped at the line, threw well short of the sticks on multiple third-down plays, and was held relatively in check when running the football.

That Blake Sims apparently snuck into the locker room after the Yeldon fumble - or maybe into a phone booth, to change.  Whichever Blake Sims was on the field during the final, Bama-dominant phase of the game was entirely magnificent.  Not only was every pass the right pass, and right on the money both in terms of location and timing, but Sims got the only third-down conversation necessary during that period on his own with a brilliant scramble.

Clearly, Sims' three worst performances of the year came on the road.  I'm fine with it if that's not a coincidence, because he ain't gonna be on no road no more.

Running Back

As I noted above, Yeldon looked to be about 90%, not the full Yeldon package but still healthier than he has been in some games this year and healthy enough to run well and with some success against a stout run D.

It just doesn't feel right to blame Yeldon for the injury-induced fumble that looked like it would end Bama's championship hopes, but I can't help feeling it a little anyway even if I feel guilty about it.  By now, T.J. has had enough key fumbles that even the good excuses don't quite go full force.  At any rate, it's not so hard to blame him for the dropped pass in the second quarter after he had beaten the coverage off the line and had an easy touchdown in front of him, although the Tide scored a few plays later anyway.

As for Derrick Henry, it seems clearer and clearer that he is one of those tall oak trees that can be chopped down by a midget with a hatchet, and that running in tough traffic is not his strong suit.  Nevertheless, Henry made a couple of big late runs.  All his successful runs were around the end of the line, giving him a chance to build up speed.  #27 is a load when he gets going.

I was a little surprised that Tyren Jones was not seen.  If Yeldon doesn't play next week or isn't effective, and Henry has trouble getting on track, the Tide is going to need somebody else to help out.  The candidates are probably Jones, Altee Tenpenny and Jalston Fowler, and Jones has been the guy who has looked best.

Receivers

Amari Cooper probably wasn't quite 100% either, but he was close enough to it to show his elite short-burst acceleration on the 23-yard second quarter TD grab, turning on the jets in traffic after spinning away from the first tackler.  But I'm not sure any injury can explain away his three drops of very catchable balls, including two third-down drops on balls that would have moved the sticks, one of which looked like a big gainer.  He also missed an opportunity to turn upfield for a big first down on a third-down play just before the end of the first half, and caused Bama's only sack taken of the day with a damaging miscommunication with the quarterback.

DeAndrew White looked healthier than he has looked since the first game of the season, and got to play hero at the end with the game-winning TD grab as well as the 16-yard snag that set up the field goal that sent the game into OT.  White did little in the first 59 minutes, but you have to hand it to him for his timing.

The biggest catch on the field goal drive was a nifty diving, cradling 22-yarder Christion Jones hauled in the play before the 16-yarder to White.  But Jones and White might not have had those chances but for the heady play of young O.J. Howard.  On the first play of the field goal drive, with 45 second left and no timeouts, Howard caught a six-yard pass well away from the sideline, but instead of trying to fight upfield for the first down, he sprinted to the sideline and stopped the clock.  He did the same thing again four plays later, although the second one was easier, as Sims led him toward the sideline.  Time was much more important than a few yards on those plays.  If he had stayed in bounds either time, Baton Rouge would be partying right now.

And how about Mr. Brandon Greene?  Not just catching that bad boy, not just rumbling down to the one, but the way he had his priorities straight.  Once he drew contact, he was a lot less concerned with being the hero who crossed the goalline with the game-winner than with being the guy who locked. that. damn. ball. Bear in mind that this was a guy not used to toting the rock in a real game, and this wasn't just real, this was desperate LSU in Death Valley at night real, so the danger was acute. Thank you for wrapping both your big ole arms around that very important package, sir.

Offensive Line

With 3.7 yards per carry and only 4.2 yards per play, each number significantly below Bama's season marks, it would be hard to say this was one of the OL's best showings.  But with the Tide's best lineman visibly limited and multiple guys on the line playing through earlier injuries, it wasn't that bad under the circumstances.

Pass protection was nevertheless notably strong (another possible rationale behind the puzzling game plan).  Although Sims threw 45 times, he was rarely hurried and the Tide only gave up one sack.  Even that sack wasn't on the OL at all, but entirely the result of a frustrating miscommunication.  On an early 2nd and 1, following a four-and-out and a three-and-out, Bama called an extremely safe Sims short drop and quick out pass to Amari Cooper, the only receiver on that side of the field.  But Cooper was run-blocking on the play with his back to Sims and #6 couldn't even throw it away toward him, because that would've been offensive pass interference on the blocking Cooper.  Meanwhile, LSU was blitzing on that side, and although Jalston Fowler delayed Kwon Alexander, Alexander escaped and was all over Sims before Blake could find another throwaway option or escape.  The sack led to yet another three-and-out.

Those work-related time pressures I alluded to above kept me from doing a lot of the multiple replays that are necessary to say much of anything smart about the OL, so I'll just leave it there.

Defensive Line

Salute the heroes of this victory.  LSU ran downhill at them with 82 plays total and 56 on the ground, and they never gave in.  In fact, they got stronger as the game went along, as LSU's running backs had six gains of five yards or more in the first quarter but only four more in the rest of the game in 28 carries.  Considering how LSU dominated time of possession and considering that their avowed goal is to wear teams down as the game goes on, holding their running backs to only four five-yard gains in 28 attempts over the last three quarters strikes me as a truly amazing stat.

As has been the case much of the year, Bama's opponents got their best running from the quarterback.  Brandon Jennings alone had six more of those runs of five or more, all in the second and third quarters--but once the Tide started leaving a spy on him, that stopped.

Jarran Reed was in on 15 tackles, and it is indicative of the Tide's swarming inside-run defense that only two of those 15 were solo tackles, to go along with 13 assists.  I cannot recall ever seeing an Alabama defensive lineman with 15 tackles in a game; the 8 tackles turned in by Brandon Ivory and A'Shawn Robinson's 7 tackles are also very high figures for linemen.

Notably, if you combine Reed's, Ivory's and Robinson's stats, you get 4 solo tackles and 26 assists.  And that's the way it was all night.  When LSU's big backs plowed into the line, they didn't just meet one 300-pounder.  They met a crew.

Of course, when the other team runs 82 plays, you do get high numbers of tackles, which is a reason Bama's tackle numbers were a bit out of line with the normal.  Coming into the game, the Tide's foes were only averaging 62.3 plays per game.

The pass rush was strong too.  Jonathan Allen got a big 3rd-down sack in the 2nd quarter and Xzavier Dickson and D.J. Pettway split a coverage sack in the fourth, after Bama had taken away Jennings' easy up-the-middle runaway zone.  Reed and Robinson each hurried earlier passes, and Denzell Devall hurried two.

Linebackers

Enjoy watching Reggie Ragland play while you can.  He had another sensational game, with 15 tackles, most of them somewhere around the line of scrimmage.  Ragland is another reason that the LSU running game never got on track.

Trey Depriest also had nine sure tackles.  LSU brings some large-scale running backs, but both Ragland and Depriest were man enough to bring them down one-on-one.

Defensive Backs

As Gary Danielson noted, Cyrus Jones was picked on the entire game, and it really didn't work.  Cyrus did give up one touchdown on a perfect throw but that wasn't the only perfect throw against him in the game, just the only one that went for anything significant.

Jones is by far Bama's stickiest defensive back, and probably the way he plays now is the way he's going to play the rest of the year, but you would hope that by next year he finds a way to work a little earlier turning around to track the ball into his game and work a little bumping and grabbing out.

Eddie Jackson had probably his finest game of the season.  His interception was on the lucky side, resulting from a receiver slipdown, but Jackson reeled it in and turned upfield.  Later he made an excellent tip-away that he appeared to aim toward his teammate Landon Collins - although Collins closed on the receiver so quickly that the tip went over his head.  Jackson did give up a pair of first-downs on underneath completions.  He was in on 5 tackles.

Landon Collins had 7 tackles and I did not notice him being targeted through the air.  However, he overran Jenkins on a third-quarter blitz, allowing the LSU quarterback to escape for one of what seemed to be his countless scrambling first downs.

Nick Perry was in on 8 tackles and continues to display a physical style of play that completely eluded him the first three years of his Tide eligibility.  He also made a lovely third-down pass breakup on an accurate throw in overtime that was probably the biggest play of his career.  So far.

Special Teams

Adam Griffith got a bad break on the 2nd-quarter chip shot that hit the upright and bounced back onto the field - but from that range, you've got to hit it poorly to even bring good and bad breaks into the equation.  But Griffith, who is battling an injury that his head coach mentioned this week but did not describe, came back to hit a 39-yarder before the half and the huge 27-yarder that sent the game into overtime.

This was one of J.K. Scott's worst games, but he was still J.K. Scott.  A bad game from J.K. Scott is significantly better than an average game from an average college punter.  Although Scott punted a couple of returnable balls, which he ordinarily does not do - LSU's 28 yards of punt return yardage more than doubled the total punt return yardage the Tide had given up in its 8 previous games - he still averaged 48.6 on his punts and 43.2 net.

Even in a bad game, Scott was one of the Tide's heroes.  As the Bama offense spluttered and sputtered for the first 29 minutes of the second half, Scott kept bombing away, with 4 punts for a 50.3 average in the second half alone.  Poor punting during that stretch would likely have been fatal, but the Tide got excellent punting and kept breathing.

Rueben Foster's nuclear destruction of Leonard Fournette on the kickoff return at the end of regulation set the tone for overtime and is watchable over and over. But Reuben?  Keep your head up, son.

Props to Christion Jones for fair-catching some punts without fumbling.