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Initial Impressions: Alabama beat LSU, but invites a whole lot of doubt

A win is a win? ...Right?

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama
Freshman Dallas Turner gets the lead picture tonight for his 2 sacks. Phenomenal game for the young guy.
Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

LSU entered this game as a 28-point underdog, with a coach that’s already been fired, missing almost their entire defense and their best player on offense, only to absolutely flummox the Alabama offense all game long, dominate the Tide at the line of scrimmage, and very nearly pull off the upset— which would have arguably been the worst loss of Nick Saban’s career, even including the 2007 defeat to Louisiana Monroe.

Fortunately, with everything on the line, Pete Golding’s defense stood tall in their own territory for back-to-back drives at the end of the game, allowing the Tide to escape with a win.

Early on, self inflicted mistakes (wide open drops, bad snap on a field goal, not covering a fake punt, defensive holding on a totally uncatchable ball, coverage bust ) put Alabama in a 7 point hole. After that, though, the Tide defense shored up and stopped the LSU offense on 7 straight drives (either by punt or turnover). Meanwhile, the Alabama offense put together one long touchdown drive and turned a short field into another touchdown to end the half with a rather uncomfortable 14-7 lead.

The second half opened with Bryce Young hitting Jameson Williams for a huge 58-yard bomb, and the entire Alabama fan base breathed a sigh of relief so big that many missed the fact that Will Reichard missed the extra point.

From that point on, the Alabama offense was about as useful as a hammer in a room of screws, and they proceeded to gain all of 36 yards for the rest of the half (all of which came on a drive that ended in a fumble).

The defense did give up another touchdown drive. They got gashed for a couple of short yardage conversions, and Malachi Moore busted a coverage deep downfield to get them into the redzone.

Other than that drive and the game opener, though, the defense held strong and repeatedly harassed Max Johnson all night long.

With the game on the line and LSU about to take the lead, PhiDarian Mathis got a strip sack. Except the officials decided that the QB dropping the ball from waist level is apparently an intentional incomplete pass (which, if that’s true, please explain why it didn’t count as intentional grounding?). With the Tigers getting one extra shot at the endzone, Will Anderson just blasted the QB to force an overthrow.

Unfortunately, Bryce Young was strip-sacked, giving LSU a short field again. And the defense held strong, forcing a 4-and-out, with DeMarrco Hellams nearly taking Johnson’s soul on a delayed safety blitz.

The offense, again, went three and out, but at least they burned 2 minutes of clock and forced LSU to use all of their timeouts.

With 50 seconds left, Dallas Turner, the true freshman who’s been mostly invisible in his few starts in place of Drew Sanders, absolutely bulldozed the left tackle and got a sack to kick off the drive.

LSU did manage to move the ball a little on the prevent defense, but their eventual Hail Mary to the endzone was spiked into the turf by Brian Branch, and that was that.

We’ll start with the offense:

The offensive line was an absolute dumpster fire tonight. In the running game, Brian Robinson turned 13 carries into 18 yards, and Roydell Williams got 9 on 2 attempts (the only success full-field drive Alabama had all game). Meanwhile, Bryce Young totaled -22 yards rushing (he had about 20 positive yards, and lost about 45 yards on sacks), giving Alabama 6 total rushing yards for the game.

Which I believe is the worst output of Saban’s tenure.

Center Darrian Dalcourt has had some struggles all season, but when he went out with a sprained ankle, it was clear why he has been the starter despite some occasional shaky play: Alabama’s snaps and interior blocking was utterly horrendous afterwards. It felt like Young was scrambling to corral snaps all game long, and when he wasn’t, there was immediate pressure up the middle.

On the bright side, Dameion George never caught my eye by blowing a block at right tackle when he came into the game.

And, look, while a lot of the failures today were directly on the interior of the defensive line, it was even moreso a coaching/schematic failure. LSU blitzed the house up the middle nearly every play, particularly on third downs, and Alabama just couldn’t do anything about it.

At first, the Tide was still attempting straight drop backs with deep routes, and that never had a chance to succeed. Eventually they adapted and started trying to have hot routes and screens ready, but Young was hesitant just a few too many times, and it derailed the offense.

Bill O’Brien deserves a LOT of heat for this game for the offense’s overall ineptness and a couple of baffling situational playcalls (the third down wildcat read option with Slade Bolden), but he also made a lot of adjustments that SHOULD have worked if Bryce had been able to get the ball out accurately. Of course, O’Brien is also the QB coach, so that ultimately falls on him as well.

As does the constant barrage of pre-snap penalties that plagued the Tide tonight.

Make no mistake, this was absolutely the worst coaching job of the season for Bill O’Brien and Doug Marrone.

Defensively, there was a actually a lot to like in this performance. Basically the only successful drives for the Tigers came on mistakes from Malachi Moore (blown coverage, dropped pick, holding on a 3rd down stop), and other than that they totally shut down the LSU offense.

Ty Davis-Price did start to break through for some yardage in the 4th quarter, but it was overall not enough to really do major damage. They held Max Johnson to 50% completion rate, racked up 5 sacks, forced two turnovers (really three, but the refs stole it back), and got two turnovers on downs.

Will Anderson continues make his case for being the best defensive players (best overall player???) in the nation, willing his defense to victory with 12 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, a pass breakup, and 1.5 sacks. And right beside him is PhiDarian Mathis, who notched 9 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack, and 3 QB hurries. Oh, and freshman Dallas Turner got two sacks of his own.

In the past few seasons, the safeties have consistently been Alabama’s leading tacklers. When I look at a box score and end edge rusher, defensive tackle, and a linebacker are the top 3 in tackles, you know the defense is dictating the game, not playing catch up.

One other note was that cornerback Josh Jobe was supposed to sit out this game due to turf toe, and freshman Kool-Aid McKinstry stepped up and played admirably. He was only targeted once and didn’t allow a catch.

Pete Golding has some work to do still at figuring out the star and second safety positions, but his front 7 and outside corners are playing admirably, even with a couple of true freshmen being thrust into important roles.

Special teams for the Tide was quite special again. Will Reichard missed a field goal and an extra point, both of which were very, very nearly very costly. The TV broadcast mentioned that both were bad snaps, but I wasn’t able to see for sure. If it was, then it sucks that Alabama’s nearly perfect decade of long-snapping is finally seeing issues.

James Burnip was okay punting the ball. He averaged 40 yards per punt, and three of them were inside the 20. His worst punt of the night, though, was a 31-yarder to give LSU the ball on the final drive, and that could have been disastrous.

What does this mean for Alabama?

It was great to see the defense, particularly the front seven, playing with a whole lot of heart and generally causing a whole bunch of havoc against an undermanned LSU offense. They gave up a couple of drives with some dumb penalty assistance, and the Star blew a couple of coverages, but aside from that, they dominated. And even more, the held firm with the game on the line.

The offense, though? Man. The offensive line was in shambles, Bryce Young looked like a freshman every time LSU blitzed, the wide receivers were plagued by drops, and they just were generally unorganized before snaps. The best run of the day was a 7-yard scamper by Roydell Williams... That’s unacceptable. And when you consider LSU was playing with almost entirely a second string defense... Whew.

The entire offensive unit looked poorly coached, poorly prepared, overwhelmed, and, honestly, scared.

They will absolutely lose to Auburn’s much, much more talented defense if they don’t quickly figure out how to deal with blitz-happy defensive front, and that will be the end of the season.

Technically, Alabama is still easily in the playoff hunt. Pretty much everyone else at the top outside of Georgia struggled today as well. But right now, Alabama has to beat an Arkansas team and an Auburn team that are both better than this LSU squad before they even have the leeway to start thinking about post-season.

They have a LOT to fix in the next two weeks, and, unfortunately, the offense seems to be trending backwards as other teams figure out their weaknesses.

On the bright side, the defense is continuing to improve week to week, but will that be enough in a modern era that requires a top-tier offense to win?