November 03, 2011
By any measure, LSU is a running team: The Tigers keep the ball on the ground more than twice as often as throw, put it in the air less frequently than any other offense in the SEC and have churned out at least 175 yards rushing in all but one game. Along with Alabama, they've forged arguably the most balanced attack in the nation: 189 yards per game rushing, 183 passing. Which also explains why the passing game is one the nation's most efficient, and is suddenly showing more big-play spark than the Tigers' blue-chip depth chart has flashed in years.
The most obvious breakthrough is Rueben Randle, a former all-universe recruit who's making good on the hype as a downfield threat, and then some: Through two-thirds of the regular season, Randle leads the SEC in touchdown catches and yards per catch and is second in receptions covering at least 25 yards. He has four catches covering at least 40 yards in the last three games alone, three of them touchdowns, in which the Tigers have put up 124 points (41.3 per game) with only one TD by the defense or special teams. But where Randle is concerned — and where Alabama will be concerned on Saturday night — it all begins with the run, and the respect it commands from opposing defenses.
Island of no return. Against Auburn, LSU lined up for 2nd-and-7 in the first quarter in a vanilla I-formation; thinking run, Auburn added an eighth man to its 4-3 front, sophomore safety Demetruce McNeal, leaving a single free safety over the top and both corners on an island.
Theoretically, McNeal is still in position to help freshman corner Robenson Therezie if Randle runs an inside route, or if Jefferson tips pass immediately, giving McNeal time to drop into deeper coverage. Instead, the initial run action sucks in the linebackers and briefly freezes McNeal, while Randle easily blows by Therezie at the line of scrimmage:
The play is almost over before quarterback Jordan Jefferson turns around. By then, Randle is streaking past Therezie and McNeal's hesitation has left him several steps short of being able to recover...
… leaving Randle to coast into the end zone untouched:
If you thought either Auburn defender looked fairly close to making a play from the sideline angle, well, they weren't. Nor were their predecessors at Mississippi State or Florida, which were both torched by Randle for long touchdowns, as well. Not coincidentally, the Tigers averaged 187 yards rushing in those three games, on more than 4.5 per carry. In last year's 24-21 win over Alabama in Baton Rouge, they did even better.
Counterpunch. Alabama counters the deep ball in two ways. The first (and most important) is a back four that match up with any secondary in the country in terms of talent and experience: Mark Barron, Dré Kirkpatrick and Robert Lester are all upperclassmen with NFL futures, and sophomore Dee Milliner is coming up right behind them. The second is a 3-4 scheme specifically designed to stop the run with only seven men in the box.
Nick Saban is known for an endless array of zone blitzes and other pressure looks, but as Saban explains it, 'Bama's base defense is fundamentally designed around basic gap assignments against the run — that is, the defensive linemen and linebackers are all responsible for shutting down a specific lane. Against a conventional two-back, two-receiver set, that's seven men, seven gaps and two safeties unencumbered to react to a pass.
On the back end, the Crimson Tide can go to zone or man-to-man with their physical corners, but stopping the run up front is still very much a mano-a-mano proposition, one most defenses don't have the luxury of considering: To afford the extra man in the secondary, the front seven must consistently win battles at the point of attack to clog up running lanes. Which it does, of course, better than any front seven in the country: 'Bama is allowing fewer yards rushing (44.9 per game) than any defense since Michigan in 2006, on fewer yards per carry (1.7) than any defense in at least a decade. The only offense yet to top 100 yards or three yards per carry as a team is Penn State, and it didn't get there by much.
As a result, opposing are forced to either abandon the running game altogether or finds itself facing 3rd-and-death: 83 of the 121 third downs the Crimson Tide have faced this year (68.5 percent) have been 3rd-and-7 or longer. Either way, the play-action that's been LSU's bread and butter is rendered irrelevant, and that's when they go in for the kill:
Of course, Alabama can be beaten deep: Florida went long for a touchdown on the first snap of the game, burning Dré Kirkpatrick with (late) safety help from Robert Lester. Ole Miss scored on its first possession after hitting a long pass, too. But neither the Gators nor Rebels found the end zone again, and North Texas, Vanderbilt and Tennessee didn't find it at all; Penn State only got there in the final two minuets of a blowout. If LSU can't recreate at least some measure of last year's success on the ground, it could be headed for the same fate.