What a college football game.
Before the game, LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said that Alabama might have one of the best defenses in college football history.
He isn’t wrong.
On a night when the offense struggled mightily to find points, the defense that boasts significant NFL talent at all three levels simply wouldn’t let Alabama lose the game. The Tigers offense was held to only 22 yards in the second half, a paltry 125 for the entire game, and never reached the Alabama 30 yard line. Leonard Fournette was once again rendered useless, and the pass rush had QB Danny Etling seeing ghosts after pounding him time after time, including six sacks.
There were so many notable performances on defense. First off, Jonathan Allen cemented his stock as a top 5 prospect in April. That, folks, is a grown man who is just as useful stopping the run as he is rushing the passer. For the second consecutive season, LSU C Ethan Pocic was manhandled by Da’Ron Payne, and Dalvin Tomlinson handled his side of the line as well. As we projected before the game, Alabama’s front was able to eat up all of the blocking and allow the second level to run free. Reuben Foster was seemingly everywhere again and Shaun Dion Hamilton filled and tackled capably. Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams set the edge well and got after the passer with their usual abandon. It is conceivable that all seven of those guys end up drafted in the first three rounds when they leave school, with Allen, Williams, and Foster virtual locks to go in the first.
The new secondary looked strong as well, though there were a few open receivers as the safeties focused on engaging in run support. This was a good matchup for Tony Brown to get his first action as the starter at star. He has always been a physical player and was seen throwing his hat around in the run game several times. In general, the Tide CBs did a nice job with the press man coverage that was deployed for most of the evening. Marlon Humphrey was victimized once in early action but had good position on the play as WR DJ Chark did a nice job not showing his hand in adjusting to a slightly underthrown ball at the last moment. Humphrey was beaten one other time, but fortunately the pass rush caused Etling to sail the pass just out of bounds.
Minkah Fitzpatrick got his first start at free safety and managed a key interception to set up the Tide’s second score. As great as Eddie Jackson was for Alabama, this group is probably a bit more athletic with Minkah and Brown on the field. Communication is obviously the most important factor in a secondary. We will see how that goes going forward, but it was tough to get a read on that aspect with the LSU passing game reduced to nothing. Etling and Chark hooked up for 41 yards on the aforementioned first quarter pass. The rest of the game, Etling threw for a total of 51 yards. Simply incredible.
Offensively, it was a whole different story. Give LSU DC Dave Aranda a ton of credit. With two weeks to prepare, he did an outstanding job figuring out a scheme to take away the things that Jalen Hurts is comfortable doing in the passing game. LB Arden Key was more a shot-blocker than a pass rusher, consistently getting his hands up when Jalen would try to throw the staple smoke and bubble screens. There were yards to be had over the middle as LSU forced the issue on the edges, but to date Jalen hasn’t really shown a willingness to exploit it. On several occasions he attempted to move laterally in the pocket when there was plenty of room to step up. This caused one of his two turnovers, has he ran right into traffic and had the ball stripped on his own 40. Hurts also threw one interception, unsurprisingly near the sideline.
At some point, Hurts is going to have to use the whole field in the passing game if the Tide is to win out. The running game was solid again as Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris added a combined 105 yards on 23 carries to Hurts’s 20/114, but one dimensional offenses rarely win championships. It is a shame to see the supreme athletic ability of Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, and OJ Howard go by the wayside because we can’t get them the football. Hopefully the light bulb will go on for Jalen before the end of the season. If the Tide can keep winning, there will be a nice camp-style period in December to get in sync for the playoffs.
While the passing was rough, Hurts showed again why Saban and Kiffin entrusted him with the keys to the offense. Elite runners at the QB position can be devastating to defenses, and that was the case on this night as Hurts provided the only touchdown. The offense actually did perform a bit better than the ten points on the scoreboard suggest, gaining 313 total yards that should normally net around 20 points or so. Why Mack Wilson and Bo Scarbrough weren’t in the game when LSU shut down a 4th-and-goal on the 1 is anyone’s guess.
Absent another strong performance from JK Scott, the special teams had a tough night as well. Stewart opened the game with an ill-advised decision to bring the opening kick out of the end zone, setting up the Tide with poor field position that would continue for the entire half as both defenses shut down the opposing offenses. Adam Griffith pulled another make-able field goal to the left. At this point we just have to accept that field goal kicking is going to be an adventure.
True freshman Trevon Diggs got the nod at punt returner, and had several stress-inducing moments. The first was on LSU’s first punt of the game, as the ball landed far too close to three or four Alabama players at the ten-yard line before ultimately being downed at the two. That play could have been a disaster had the ball bounced sideways. Diggs also let a couple others hit the ground and muffed one that he was fortunately able to recover. This will certainly be something to watch going forward.
Pre-snap penalties continue to be a problem as well. Cam Robinson had yet another false start at a key moment in the second half, Calvin Ridley was inexplicably called for another, and another procedure penalty was called on a pass when Gehrig Dieter covered OJ Howard on the line of scrimmage rather then being “off” as he should have been. Payne also got into a skirmish on the LSU sideline that was exacerbated by an inexcusable cheap shot from Anfernee Jennings that will not please Saban in the least. Alabama was fortunate to come away with off-setting penalties in that exchange. Granted, emotions were running high all night, but discipline is paramount in close games.
Sadly, the Tide’s streak of defensive and special teams touchdowns came to an end, but the winning streak over LSU was extended to six and the overall winning streak to 21 games. Most importantly, the Tide won its ninth consecutive game this season and sits firmly in the top spot of the playoff ranking. They seemingly emerged healthy as well. While the team can’t afford to sleep-walk next weekend, these next two should be appreciably easier before an Iron Bowl matchup that may well be for all the marbles. Survive and advance will be the mantra for the balance of the season, and that is a fabulous place to be.