By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 8, 2015
That Alabama defeated LSU in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night to retake the reins of its own playoff destiny wasn’t really a surprise to those who are familiar with Alabama’s recent seasons.
What’s surprising is that the Crimson Tide wasn’t really challenged at all by an LSU team that came into the game ranked second in the nation behind the running of RB Leonard Fournette and a quarterback who had yet to throw an interception.
Alabama didn’t just beat LSU Saturday night. Alabama made it look … easy.
The Crimson Tide shut down Fournette completely. Aside from an 18-yard run to the Alabama 5-yard line following a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter, Alabama held Fournette to 13 yards on his other 18 carries. This game became not just the place LSU’s national title dreams may have gone to die, it may have been the end of the road for Fournette’s Heisman Trophy campaign.
Particularly since Alabama’s Derrick Henry, who very well might have been the leading Heisman candidate from the SEC himself were it not for the presence of Fournette, rolled up 210 yards and 3 touchdowns on 38 carries.
Alabama’s defense is built to stop teams like LSU, and stop the Tigers Alabama did. Alabama held LSU to 182 total yards of offense, 77 of which came on two passes in the first half to Travin Dural. One got the Tigers out of the shadow of their own goalposts; the other resulted in a touchdown that brought the Tigers to within 3 points of the Tide. LSU’s other 43 plays totaled just 105 yards (2.4 avg.) and the Bayou Bengals looked almost inept on most of those snaps.
But the most impressive part of the shutdown was clearly Alabama’s throttling of Fournette and the LSU ground game. Fournette had spent the first two-thirds of his season rolling up highlight reel footage of quick cuts, second- and third-effort runs and devastating stiff-arms. Against Alabama, however, none of the above worked. Alabama kept Fournette bottled up without even having to bring the safeties into play, and the fact Alabama is the best tackling team LSU has faced to date did Fournette no favors.
With Fournette out of the way, LSU was forced to Plan B for the first time in 2015, and couldn’t respond. Quarterback Brandon Harris was inaccurate and ineffectual, his scrambling game snuffed out by the same relentless rush defense that was making Fournette’s night miserable. And although Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre proved to be worthy adversaries for Alabama’s Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey, the Bama pass rush kept Harris from ever properly integrating the two into the Tiger offense. Dural’s last catch was LSU’s first touchdown at the 6:12 mark of the second quarter, and that came over safety Geno Matias-Smith after Alabama sent a corner blitz.
Henry’s performance, though, will be long-remembered for its impact. LSU only recorded 3 yards of lost yardage when Henry was running the ball, and more often than not, he was seen falling 2 and 3 yards forward even when the Tigers had the right defensive call. Most often, Henry was ripping off 5 and 6 yards on first down, or converting long downs when Alabama needed it most. Around the goal line, LSU had no answer for him.
Indeed, this Alabama-LSU matchup was different thanks to its feel. Instead of a slobberknocking 10-round bout between heavyweights, this game ended up resembling the second Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight. LSU went down quickly, got up briefly at the end of the first half, then was destroyed in the second half.
For the first time in ages, this LSU team simply didn’t look able to beat Alabama. The Tiger offense was clearly inferior to Alabama’s, evident to the entire stadium by the start of the second quarter. One big play and a turnover deep in LSU territory were the only things that kept this game within three scores.
Alabama turns its attention next to Mississippi State, which plays spread ball and has a dominating quarterback – two traits Alabama hates to see in an opponent. But if Alabama comes even close to kind of performance again, particularly on defense, then neither Mississippi State nor any other team is going to come close to challenging the Crimson Tide.
At this point, it’s all about the execution. Everyone can clearly see what kind of weapons Nick Saban’s team possesses.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-LSU:
1. Adam Griffith’s 55-yard field goal was a kidney shot to LSU. Alabama had jumped out 10-0 but then allowed LSU to tie the game with 2:22 left in the first half. After Cameron Gamble’s ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving Alabama quality field position at the 35, the Crimson Tide decided to stand on the gas rather than play for a halftime tie. Whether LSU or Les Miles expected the following drive or not, it’s a good bet no one on the Tiger sideline expected Alabama to attempt a 55-yard field goal when the drive eventually stalled. When Adam Griffith hit the kick, the wind visibly left LSU’s sails. Not only was Alabama aggressive with its offense late in the half, Griffith’s kick served notice that this would not be a day decided by multiple missed field goals – plus, it served notice to LSU that the Tigers didn’t have a monopoly over the placekicking position. Special teams overall, for that matter, heavily favored Alabama; Michael Nysewander and Tony Brown delivered kill shots on kickoffs, the Crimson Tide out-punted LSU and Griffith’s three field goals were crippling to the Tigers’ hopes.
2. Tide OL, fullback get it together at a most opportune time. Everything Alabama wanted to do in the run-blocking game worked. The right side of Alabama’s line played its best game of the year, a significant feat even before one considers that RT Dominick Jackson almost didn’t play at all in the game. Alabama’s tight end rotation of Brandon Greene, O.J. Howard and Hale Hentges consistently sealed the edge, but FB Michael Nysewander deserves special kudos for making the most of his limited opportunities. Nysewander sprung Derrick Henry’s final touchdown and he was frequently the difference between a play getting stuffed versus a play making positive yardage – sometimes large chunks of it. Not bad for a former walk-on who had to be talked into returning for his fifth year. His presence gives Lane Kiffin enormous flexibility when it comes to using multiple offensive sets.
3. Pressure from Bama’s DEs stifled the Tiger passing game; entire defense is clicking now. Alabama has made tremendous use of its “rabbit” package, which almost always includes DE Tim Williams, usually includes LB Rashaan Evans and sometimes uses DE Da’Shawn Hand as a speed rusher. Alabama got its STAT (snap-to-affect time) into the high 1s at times Saturday and Brandon Harris suffered mightily for it. This package – and the ability to quickly substitute into it against teams running tempo – is what was missing most from the 2014 defense and it’s been a boon to the 2015 edition. Williams in particular is hard to handle; he’s as fast as a linebacker or safety coming off the corner, but he was able to add bulk over the offseason without hurting his speed or quickness. Alabama recorded 5 QB hurries, 2 sacks and picked off Harris once by deftly dropping LB Dillon Lee into coverage. Lee is another player, like Nysewander, who is enjoying a spectacular senior year at the Capstone. Couple the ability to crash the passer from multiple angles with the ability to shut down prime-time running backs using only 6 or 7 players up front, and you have a defense that can do just about anything the coordinator asks.
4. Ridley has fully emerged as a star at wide receiver. The consistency hasn’t come yet, but it will. For now, Calvin Ridley is already the top receiver on a team with several candidates, and he’s a player that can make truly heroic plays with the ball in his hands. Ridley had multiple third-down receptions in this game, getting a conversion when all appeared lost at first. He’s not the biggest receiver out there, but he comes up big. Ridley caught 7 passes for 51 yards Saturday night, but it seemed at the time that every catch yielded a significant impact to the game’s bottom line. With ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard both starting to come around and Richard Mullaney settling into the role of Mr. Automatic Conversion, suddenly the wide receiver position doesn’t look like such a potential weakness for the Tide.
5. Kenyan Drake’s performance is evidence of what could have been happening this whole time. Drake amassed 163 total yards on 16 touches. But the best part about watching him do it was … well, watching him finally do it. Drake has been mired in a slump for nearly the entire 2015 season, the result of pushing too hard, too fast to recover from an ugly broken leg suffered last year against Ole Miss. Drake has been 100 percent physically for some time now; it’s been clear to everyone that his problem was simply one of managing the mental flow of the game. Things slowed down for him against LSU and the performance he put up was reflective of that fact. Alabama has needed a viable second option to Derrick Henry for some time, and with tough games against Mississippi State and Auburn on the horizon, Alabama needs Drake to continue to develop his skills. When he’s firing on all cylinders, he’s a rare mix of speed and physical running ability in this conference.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN