Breaking down the mythical championship game. Today: When LSU has the ball.
Sure you don't want to skip straight to the part on the kickers? True, watching the 9-6 field goal fest these two teams put on back on Nov. 5 was like watching a pair of finely tuned boxers toss the gloves and slowly strangle each other to death, with LSU being declared the winner by virtue of a faint pulse in the eleventh round. It's easy to forget opposite the best two defenses in the nation that these were also two of the highest-scoring offenses in the SEC: The Tigers scored more offensive touchdowns than any other attack in the league, overall and in conference games. The only other team that held the Tigers below 35 points was Mississippi State in a 19-6 LSU win in September.
Contrary to its reputation, LSU can also put points on the board in a hurry. Down 13-9 against Oregon in the season opener, the Tigers rolled up 24 straight points en route to a 40-27 win that can be accurately described as a rout. When West Virginia scored back-to-back touchdown on Sept. 24 to pull within 27-21 in the third quarter, LSU ran the ensuing kickoff back and finished on a 21-0 run. Down 10-0 to Georgia in the first half of the SEC Championship Game, it ripped off 42 points in a row. At various points, the Tigers have scored 24 straight against Florida, 24 straight against Tennessee and 38 straight against Auburn. So no, I think this is an offense with legitimate weapons worth talking about.
So what happened the first time, then? As usual, the Alabama defense was (and is) a black hole from which no light escapes. The Crimson Tide lead the nation in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense and third down defense. At 8.8 points per game, the Tide are the least scored-upon team in Division I in more than a decade. Other than the scoreboard in overtime, Nov. 5 was probably its finest hour — LSU left Tuscaloosa with season lows for rushing yards, total yards and pass efficiency. (And points, of course.) The Tiger offense went 0-for-6 on third down conversions with at least seven yards to go and crossed the Alabama 40-yard line just once.
Specifically, Alabama is the only defense LSU has seen with enough muscle against the run to force the issue on quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, who have otherwise had their way against defenses focused on stopping thundering tailbacks Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Kenny Hilliard in the power running game. The result was two interceptions on consecutive throws off Lee — who was only picked once in his other 165 attempts for the year — a total lack of consistency and a shift to Jefferson as the full-time starter over the last four games.
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What can LSU do Monday that it couldn't do in November? Not giving away multiple turnovers would be a good start. The Tigers are the least turnover-prone team in the nation, at one point going 20 consecutive quarters without a single giveaway. The two picks off Lee in Tuscaloosa were uncharacteristic on both sides — the Crimson Tide were actually well below average in creating turnovers for the season, the only statistical category the defense didn't dominate — and could have been game-changers if the 'Bama offense had exploited the subsequent opportunities in LSU territory. (The interceptions ultimately led to a pair of field goal attempts, one missed, one made.) If Alabama gets the same opportunities Monday, the Tigers may not be so fortunate again.
Is there anything at all the Tiger offense does better than the Alabama defense? No. Sorry, there just isn't.
If anything is going LSU's way going into the game, it's potential injuries in the Crimson Tide secondary: Cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have both been battling hamstring issues since the end of the regular season. At their best, the Tigers have been able to force defenses to commit eight men in the box against the run and strike for big plays against man coverage — usually to Rueben Randle, who finished second in the SEC in yards per catch and hauled in at least one pass covering at least 30 yards in eight different games.
Of course, Randle was an invisible man the first time around (2 catches for 19 yards), but if LSU can force 'Bama's safeties to respect the play action, he — or Odell Beckhmam Jr., or Russell Shepard, who had the longest reception (34 yards) of the first meeting — should have a few opportunities to get behind the coverage.
So are they actually going to score a touchdown this time or what? I am confident that, yes, LSU will score an offensive touchdown — give the No. 1 team in the nation eight quarters and an overtime, and lightning has to strike at least once —
although it may need some help from the defense or special teams to get there. That's nothing new: The Tiger offense has played the field position game and taken advantage of the opportunities created by the other phases this year as well as any team in recent memory. It's what they do, and it's perfectly suited to the old-school battles of attrition both of these teams are built for.
But if it's going to take more than six points in regulation to win this one, the offense's first priority is still to hold on to the ball like grim death to avoid putting the defense on the spot. If they can manage that with a big play or two mixed in, we know the rest can take care of itself.
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