Alabama Answers Lingering Questions
By Brett Beaird
The No. 1-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide (9-0, 6-0) had a dominant October, beating four opponents by a combined 190-20. But No. 13 LSU (7-3, 3-3) was the first of several tougher SEC challengers in November.
Could the Alabama secondary cover two future NFL wide receivers? Who would win the battle of the trenches? What role would special teams play in the game? Let’s look at several key questions the Tide answered emphatically in Alabama’s second-half domination of LSU, leading to a 38-17 final.
Questions And Answers
Could C Ryan Kelly, LG Arie Kouandjio and RG Anthony Steen block LSU DTs Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson?
Many national analysts concentrated on the matchup between LSU's wide receivers and the mix-and-match Crimson Tide secondary. But Alabama and LSU games are street fights, always won in the trenches. The team that runs the ball more effectively wins the game.
Kelly struggled against bigger nose guards earlier in the season. But since returning from a knee injury against Ole Miss, Kelly has more than held his own blocking mammoth Volunteers defensive tackle Daniel McCullers (6-foot-8, 355 pounds) and the Tigers' big, athletic Johnson and Ferguson.
The offensive line wore down the Tigers in the second half with time-consuming drives and picked up 129 of its 193 rushing yards after halftime. T.J. Yeldon finished with 133 yards on 25 carries and two second-half touchdowns. Yeldon's 6.2 yards per carry nearly match last year's mark, and his 12 rushing touchdowns already match his 2012 total.
Alabama is now 58-0 when rushing for at least 140 yards and 46-0 when winning the turnover battle since the start of the 2008 season.
Could the Tide defense stop the LSU stable of running backs?
After the first quarter, it appeared LSU's running backs, including All-SEC Jeremy Hill, Terrence Magee and Alfred Blue, were going to run for 200 yards. Hill and Magee rushed for a combined 41 yards on the Tigers' opening drive of the game. But after reserve linebacker Tana Patrick stripped 270-pound fullback J.C. Copeland at the 1-yard line and safety Landon Collins recovered the fumble, LSU gained two rushing yards the remainder of the game. Four sacks on LSU’s final drive reduced the total and helped the Tide become the top rush defense in the SEC (95.3 yards per game).
When a defense can make any team one-dimensional, it has a much better chance of winning the game. After the fake punt mid-way through the third quarter, the Tide defense limited LSU to just 15 yards and two first downs the remainder of the game.
Could Alabama win third down?
Last season in Baton Rouge, LSU converted 10 of 20 third down opportunities in the 21-17 loss to the Tide. Alabama struggled on third down, finishing 1 of 9. Coming into this game, the Tigers were second in the nation in third-down conversions, making it a priority for the Tide defense.
In this year’s game, the first half looked like a repeat of last season. LSU converted all but one of its attempts and gained an average of 13.8 yards on third down. The Tigers kept the margin within a field goal as quarterback Zach Mettenberger navigated third-and-6 three consecutive times, including a touchdown to Travin Dural less than a minute before halftime.
Meanwhile, Alabama failed to convert all three of its third-down chances in the first quarter.
The second half was a different story. The Tigers only managed to convert one third down in the second half. The Alabama pass rush intensified, putting more pressure on Mettenberger, and the secondary defended the passing routes much better. The Tide finished the game 5-of-9 on third down, which led to time-consuming drives in the second half and more than a seven-minute time of possession advantage.
Could the revamped Tide secondary contain Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.?
The Tide could not slow down the talented receiving tandem in the first half. But Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made critical halftime adjustments that resulted in Landry and Beckham only catching three passes for 32 yards in the second half.
Smart and the players put constant pressure on Mettenberger, sacking him and making him get rid of the ball fast.
Landry and Beckham combined to finish with eight catches for 132 yards in their second-least productive game of the season. It was the second time in the past 11 games in which they didn't score at least one touchdown
Mettenberger received a lot of criticism last season for making bad decisions, but first-year offensive coordinator Cam Cameron revamped the passing offense to instill more confidence in his quarterback. Mettenberger could be more successful in the NFL. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, he has prototypical size, a strong arm and he can make all the throws in tight coverage windows.
In passing for 173 yards and a touchdown on just 13 attempts in the first two quarters, Mettenberger picked on every member of the secondary at least once. He first long pass to Landry for 45 yards caught shut-down corner Deion Belue looking for safety help that never came. But the strong-armed LSU quarterback also connected on passes against Cyrus Jones, Jarrick Williams, Landon Collins and Geno Smith. Belue was targeted five times, resulting in three receptions by LSU receivers for 89 yards. Jones gave up two catches for 26 yards.
In the second half, the defensive front put tremendous pressure on Mettenberger, picking up four sacks and harassing him into three near interceptions. Saban and Smart’s defensive philosophy does not count on a large number of sacks during the season, but likes to force quarterbacks into errant throws. While the Tide has missed numerous sack opportunities this season (especially against Texas A&M and Tennessee), the Tide blitzed more against the Tigers. Jones, Adrian Hubbard, Jeoffrey Pagan and Trey DePriest picked up critical sacks in the second half. Mettenberger’s apparently gimpy knee also limited his mobility.
McCarron Breaks Bama Record, Others In Sight
When McCarron decided to return for his senior season, many thought he would have the opportunity to break several Alabama career passing records.
McCarron was his usual efficient self against LSU, completing 14 of 20 for 178 yards and three touchdowns. He overthrew two open receivers in the first half for sure touchdowns. But with a 21-yard pass to Amari Cooper in the second quarter, McCarron passed John Parker Wilson as Alabama’s career leader in passing yards.
Wilson threw for 7,826 yards from 2006-08. McCarron now has 7,938 passing yards.
McCarron is the consummate example of ball security on offense, averaging an interception every 83.5 pass attempts according to RollTide.com. Tim Tebow has the SEC record at 62.2 (2006-09), and Fresno State’s Billy Volek holds the national record at 77.8 (1997-99).
McCarron now has 34 wins as a starting quarterback, second in Alabama history behind Jay Barker (35-2-1, 1991-94).
Odds And Ends
Key Play Of The Game I: Tana Patrick was rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com out of North Jackson High School in Stevenson, Ala.
The senior has spent the majority of a once-promising career on the bench and has been a special teams starter for several years.
He earned a spot on Alabama’s goal-line unit after an impressive spring. Patrick caused the Copeland fumble on LSU’s initial drive
If Copeland doesn't fumble, the Tigers score, take a lead and deflate Alabama's raucous crowd.
On LSU’s next offensive series, Mettenberger and center Elliott Porter botched the exchange, the Tide recovered and Cade Foster made a 41-yard field goal to give Bama a 3-0 lead. Two LSU fumbles meant a 10-point swing in the game.
Key Play Of The Game II: Alabama's special teams have been the most consistent unit on the team this season. But in the LSU game, it had mixed results.
The fake punt midway through the third quarter was the turning point in the game. The timeout Alabama used before executing the fake to perfection on fourth-and-2 was called because the Tide had only 10 players on the field, not because Nick Saban wanted to draw up a C.J. Mosley handoff to Jarrick Williams. Landon Collins mistakenly had stayed on the sidelines.
According to Andrew Gribble of AL.com, Saban admitted in the post-game press conference the formation LSU presented before the timeout did not appear to be the proper formation to run a fake punt. But LSU's alignment after the timeout seemed tailor-made for a fake punt, Alabama's first since last year's SEC Championship against Georgia.
The fake punt sparked the offense and the Tide scored 21 unanswered points. The trick play extended a possession that already had run five minutes of clock and allowed Alabama to finish a nearly eight-minute drive with a Yeldon touchdown run. Along with the ensuing Alabama drive, the Tide accounted for 24 plays and 12 minutes of possession. LSU never could recover.
The kickoff return unit did have a rare off night as Beckham Jr. returned four kicks for 174 yards, including an 82-yard run early in the fourth quarter. However, the defense stiffened and held LSU on four downs inside the 20-yard line.
Up next: at Mississippi State (4-5, 1-4), 6:45 p.m. CT (ESPN)