Nola Keys: Taking the title off the kicker’s foot

Matt Hinton

Breaking down the mythical championship game. Previously: When LSU has the ballWhen Alabama has the ball. Today: Special teams, turnovers and other vagaries.

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LSU's not that great on offense. How does it score so much?
No team in America enjoys a wider gap between how effective it is at moving the ball and how effective it is in putting points on the board: The Tigers come into tonight ranked just 73rd nationally in total offense (375 yards per game) but 12th in scoring (38.5 points per game), the best number in the SEC. They were the only team in the country that averaged less than 10 yards of total offense per point scored.

In other words: They've outsourced the scoring. The defense and special teams have been extraordinarily good at creating opportunities, and the otherwise pedestrian offense has been extraordinarily good at cashing in on them.

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That's been true from opening night, when LSU scored a special teams touchdown and scored 24 points on drives beginning in Oregon territory in a 40-27 win over the Ducks, and the modus operandi has never changed: The Tigers have converted turnovers and/or big plays in the return game into points in every game this year except one — a 19-6 win over Mississippi State, not coincidentally the only team other than Alabama to hold LSU below 35 points — most notably on game-changing return touchdowns that instantly turned white-knuckle situations against West Virginia, Arkansas and Georgia into lopsided blowouts:

In Morgantown, West Virginia scored two consecutive touchdowns in the third quarter to pull within one score, 27-21, before Morris Claiborne stopped the rally dead in its tracks on a 99-yard kickoff return. The Tigers added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter to go out on a 20-0 run.

Against the Razorbacks, LSU trailed 14-7 just before the half when Mathieu housed a punt from 92 yards out to tie the game, the second score in a 41-3 run over the final three quarters.

A week later, with LSU trailing 10-0 in the second quarter and the offense going nowhere fast in the SEC Championship Game, Mathieu woke up the Georgia Dome with a 62-yard punt return, the opening salvo in a 42-0 run.

The return game was not a factor against Alabama the first time around, but the Tigers still managed to flip the field when Claiborne picked off A.J. McCarron late in the third quarter, setting up an easy field goal to tie the game at six early in the fourth. One way or another, LSU has consistently generated big plays that make life easy for the offense, and occasionally replace the offense altogether.


Has Alabama found a kicker yet?
Yes and no. From close range, the answer has always been automatic junior Jeremy Shelley, who's knocked home 16 of 18 field goals from 40 yards or less. In the first go-round against LSU, though, the Crimson Tide were forced to choose power over consistency: Five of their six field goal attempts in the first meeting were from 44 yards or longer, the exclusive domain of sophomore Cade Foster, whose big leg has only been worth two successful kicks in nine tries this year.

Three of Foster's long-distance misses came against LSU, including a 52-yarder in overtime that supplied the dagger in a 9-6 loss. (Shelley also missed in the first meeting, on a 49-yard try he sent directly into a wall of Tiger defenders early in the second quarter.) That was the only significant difference between these two teams on Nov. 5 and still looks like the only significant difference on paper. The only ways Alabama can neutralize it is by a) Setting up more manageable kicks for Shelley, or b) Putting the ball in the end zone in the first place.


Are we going to be confronted with the phrase 'punting is winning' ?
The flip side of LSU's extreme opportunism on the scoreboard is that it offers no such opportunities to opposing offenses: The Tigers lead the nation in both net punting and turnover margin, which equals an overwhelming advantage in terms of field position. Of the dozen touchdown drives by opposing offenses this year, only one — a 44-yard march by Georgia in the SEC title game — began on LSU's side of the field. Only one other touchdown (a 47-yard fumble return by Arkansas) has come via an opposing defense or return team. Whatever you get against this team, you earn the hard way.

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On that note, one of the not-so-unsung heroes of the first game was LSU's freshman punter, Brad Wing, who dropped five of his six punts on Nov. 5 inside the Alabama 20-yard line — including a 73-yard bomb out of his own end zone in the fourth quarter, which may or may not have hit the guide wires for an overheard camera but definitely did flip the field at a crucial moment in a tie game. For the year, almost half of Wing's punts (23 of 50) landed inside the opponent's 20, and only 17 were returned, for a grand total of six yards. Aside from Marquis Maze's zig-zagging sprint against Arkansas, Alabama's return game has been ordinary, to say the least.


So I should be bracing myself to have another field goal time?
Well, I still think there will be a few touchdowns. But compared to the up-tempo outbursts of points in the Fiesta, Orange and Rose Bowls, it's still going to look like World War I. The cost of a mistake is too high.

One of the surprises in the first meeting was two giveaways apiece (all via interceptions) by two offenses that almost never give the ball away: LSU had fewer turnovers than any team in the nation, and Alabama was right there with them after coughing up five turnovers in the season opener against Kent State. It should go without saying that the team that wins that battle in another defensively oriented trench campaign has some pretty significant high ground, and the unwillingness to yield it will mean another round of conservative offenses probing for weakness without risking a killer mistake. With points at a premium and both sides obviously willing to let everything ride on their defenses, there is very little incentive to let anything hang out.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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