Thursday, November 5, 2009

Alabama Game Preview

LSU goes into Tuscaloosa with the SEC West Championship on the line.  If Alabama wins, they clinch the West.  If LSU wins, the tone of the season suddenly changes and they have the opportunity to accomplish some huge wins.  On the field, these teams mirror each other in many ways.  Both have stingy defenses, and both have offenses that have struggled at times but also looked good at times.  The difference is that LSU's offense seems to be improving of late while Alabama has regressed.  Something has to give. 

When LSU Has The Ball:

LSU's offense looked left for dead after their abysmal performance on the big stage against Florida.  But the coaching staff opened things up and the Tigers looked like most expected they would with a big performance against Auburn.  While Auburn's defense is a far cry from that of Florida or Alabama, it was the aggressive play calling that has people excited.  LSU successfully got the ball into the hands of their play makers, and they kept calling plays that worked.  They followed that up by having their most productive game of the year against Tulane which was expected. 

Even during the good performance against Auburn, LSU still struggled to run the ball consistently.  Their most consistent runner that night was Jordan Jefferson, and then they got one big play from Russell Shepard.  As much as LSU would love to control the clock by pounding Charles Scott between the tackles, it will be awfully difficult to do against Alabama.  Bama leads the SEC in rushing defense allowing just 64 yards per game and 2.2 yards per rush. 

Alabama's defense focuses on stopping the run on first and second down and then kicking the quarterback's ass on third and long.  Alabama's defense wants opponents to run it on first down.  They want opponents to do what they're supposed to do based on down and distance.  Therefore, it's imperative that LSU keep Alabama off balance if they want to move the ball.  LSU needs to get the ball to Brandon Lafell and Terrance Toliver on first down.  They need to utilize Jordan Jefferson in the running game.  They need to bring Russell Shepard into the game, and then get the ball to someone else from time to time.  Nick Saban loves to let his cornerbacks play man coverage, and LSU needs to take advantage of that with their two star receivers. 

Alabama's defensive front poses a problem for LSU.  Center T-Bob Hebert has struggled at times this year, and he'll have his hands full on Saturday trying to block Bama nose tackle Terrance Cody.  T-Bob gives up nearly 100 pounds to Cody, and LSU will probably solicit the help of one of the guards to help get him blocked.  When LSU passes, they need to get rid of the ball quickly or else Jefferson will face a lot of pressure. 

We saw some new faces in LSU's backfield last week against Tulane in tailback Stevan Ridley and offensive lineman turned fullback Thomas Parsons.  Both guys played extremely well.  When LSU uses a fullback, I expect that Parsons will get some looks along with James Stampley.  But in a game of this magnitude, I expect Les Miles to go with the veteran Charles Scott as his running back. 

It will be interesting to see whether LSU comes out firing with a creative game plan or whether they try the conservative approach with the primary focus on not turning the ball over.  The latter approach was successful at keeping things close against Florida, but it didn't really give the Tigers a chance to win the game.  Based on what the Tigers have done since then, I think we'll see some interesting things on Saturday. 

When Alabama Has The Ball:

Alabama's offense has been struggling lately, and those struggles begin with quarterback Greg McElroy.  Earlier in the season, Bama was able to run the ball effectively, mix in some play-action and methodically move the ball down the field.  They also hit some big plays going over the top.  But in Alabama's last three games against Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Tennessee, they've averaged just 18 points per game and scored a total of two offensive touchdowns.  

The focus of Bama's offense is running back Mark Ingram.  With a struggling passing game, teams have been able to key on Ingram but they still haven't been able to stop him.  He's leading the SEC in rushing with 125 rushing yards per game and a 6.6 yards per carry average.   They also use Ingram in the passing game and love to get him the ball on screens.  He has 19 receptions on the season. 

Bama's running game has been working, but the passing game simply can't get going. Greg McElroy has zero touchdowns and two interceptions over Bama's last three games.  It's a bit concerning to Alabama fans that they haven't been able to get the ball to Julio Jones, who was a star as a freshman a year ago.  Jones has just 20 receptions on the season.  As a comparison, Brandon Lafell has 38 and Terrance Toliver has 37.   Everyone keeps waiting for Jones to break out, but he's drawing a lot of double teams.  McElroy seems content to check the ball down to his tight-end and running backs.  Earlier in the season, Bama was able to hit some big plays over the top to speedy receiver Marquis Maze but those plays haven't been there lately. 

Concerning McElroy's check downs, starting tight-end Colin Peek is injured and it's unclear whether he's going to be able to play.  If he does, will he be at full speed?  This will be something to watch.  Peek has 19 receptions on the season. 

In the second half of Alabama's last game against Tennessee, the coaching staff completely lost confidence in McElroy's ability to move the football.  Instead they took the ball out of McElroy's hands and used Mark Ingram in a Wildcat formation almost exclusively.  LSU can expect to see a good bit of Wildcat on Saturday.  The way Bama's offense is going right now, if Mark Ingram doesn't make a big play then they're not going to get one. 

So how does LSU defend Bama?  It seems obvious that LSU can use Patrick Peterson to guard Julio Jones and ensure that his breakout performance doesn't take place Saturday.  The Tigers can then probably afford to dedicate one of their safeties to stopping the run.  The Tigers' defense just needs to keep doing what they've been doing, and I believe they can really give Alabama's offense some problems.  LSU's linebackers have been in the right place all year, and they've been tackling well.  They will need to do a good job of wrapping up and tackling Ingram when the opportunity is there.

Nobody is picking LSU to win this game.  I mean nobody.  Nationally, all anyone talks about is the SEC Championship Game between Florida and Alabama.  This does two things for LSU.  First, it pisses them off and that can't hurt.  But it also means that LSU really has nothing to lose.  Everyone thinks you're going to lose anyway, so you might as well pin your ears back and get after it.  Play loose.  Take a risk or two.  What the hell, right?  Les Miles excels in games like this, and I think he'll get his team in the right frame of mind on Saturday especially after learning from the mistakes made against Florida. 

Like everyone else, I expect a low scoring game where big plays and mistakes will be magnified.  Neither offense makes many mistakes and both defenses force turnovers.  However, I think LSU's offense has a much higher chance to make a big play than does Alabama's.  LSU also has a mobile quarterback which could help them pick up a few extra first downs.  But in the end, I think Alabama's defense will be a bit too much for Jordan Jefferson and LSU.   The Tigers' defense will play their tails off, but it won't quite be enough. 

Alabama 16  LSU 13


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