By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 6, 2016
Alabama’s 10-0 win over LSU Saturday night in Baton Rouge was a two-way trip in a time machine.
Alabama won by a score that would have been right at home in the 1960s. It also won with a quarterback who won’t leave Tuscaloosa for at least three years, one who looks like something no one has ever seen around these parts.
Since Nick Saban took over at Alabama, most of the other 13 SEC teams have, at one time or another, suffered the sensation of Saban’s boot squarely in their butt. Only one of those teams has more of less been able to keep such an occurrence (and thus, a blowout loss to the Tide) at bay – LSU, Saban’s former home.
Perhaps it’s a case of Saban’s influence continuing to linger around Baton Rouge, or maybe it’s just the LSU program knows all of Saban’s tricks. Either way, every LSU-Alabama game seems to have a cloud of uncertainty hanging around it, an outcome in jeopardy for an elongated period of time, although the Crimson Tide usually comes out in front.
This one took three quarters to shed those clouds, and they weren’t completely gone until Adam Griffith sealed the deal with a short field goal. Never before had a 10-point lead felt so comfortable.
On a Saturday dominated by blowout wins across the country, with media pundits talking about the need for “style points,” Alabama instead took its style from a blacksmith’s anvil: grimy, no frills, impossible to break. If an offense that can run up 60 points is a movie starlet with the twinkling smile and plunging neckline, Alabama’s defense is the marching mass from “Night of the Living Dead” – unrelenting, unstoppable, undefeated, unconcerned about what others think about its looks. Perhaps the defining moment of the night was watching nosetackle Da’Ron Payne getting tied up with LSU tight end Colin Jeter, ending up in the middle of the LSU bench and stoically refusing to back down or lose his composure. While Payne was flagged for not disengaging with Jeter sooner, it might have been a flag worth taking, as it gave Alabama the opportunity to answer LSU’s game-week braggadocio and deliver the message that the Tide would not be intimidated.
Offensively, the story was QB Jalen Hurts and his ability to take over games with his running ability. While Hurts was certainly the focus, both Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough made significant contributions at running back. But Hurts was front-and-center, scoring the game’s only touchdown and making two key runs to set up the game-icing field goal, and doing it all with his signature nonplussed look. Certainly there is something that gets Hurts to drop his guard and look human, but whatever that is, it must be a spectacle found away from a football field.
Alabama now gets a Mississippi State team that upset Texas A&M and suddenly looks fairly sharp on offense. LSU falls out of the SEC West race, for all practical purposes, and must now decide how Ed Orgeron fits into its future.
It was somewhat understood that if LSU had won this game, Orgeron may have lost the “interim” tag on the front of his job title. But instead of continuing to open up the offense and implore his team to play with reckless aggression, as he had done since taking over Les Miles a month prior, Orgeron went conservative, doubling down on a bet that RB Leonard Fournette could finally punch through the Alabama defense despite not doing so in either of his prior opportunities. Once again, it ended badly for Fournette, and for LSU.
Perhaps it’s unfair to expect too much from Orgeron, as LSU was afforded only 51 offensive snaps on the night (with Fournette taking a third of them), but those who paid close attention to Orgeron’s previous SEC stint at Ole Miss saw a reversion Saturday night to the same tendencies he displayed in Oxford.
The college coaching landscape is as full of great assistants who later became mediocre head coaches as a desert is full of tumbleweeds. Orgeron still has vociferous support from pockets of fans who would love to see a hometown boy make good and grab the top spot at LSU, but it probably isn’t meant to be.
LSU still has enough Saban in it to not fall completely apart, but the Tigers are drifting without a rudder. Alabama continues to move forward with the deliberate pace of a Panamax cargo ship.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-LSU:
1. After a half, Kiffin finally took what the LSU defense would allow him to have: A rookie observer to Alabama football would have likely said, after observing the offensive line in the first half, that Alabama had one of the worst lines in the country. It wouldn’t have been accurate, but it would have been said, because LSU’s defense made it look that way. Lane Kiffin’s early playcalling looked the same as it has eight other times this season: run wide, use misdirection, look for a weak, undisciplined spot to exploit. LSU had no such spots. For that matter, Alabama’s offensive line had at least one complete breakdown on every offensive snap in the first half, sometimes multiple breakdowns. Credit LSU where it’s due, because those breakdowns were coming from every angle and from every position on the field. Once Alabama ran out of scripted plays (and probably after either Kiffin realized what was happening, or Nick Saban demanded he realize it), the Crimson Tide began to attack inside with aggressive, downhill plays to take advantage of some of LSU’s depth issues at tackle, as well as some of vulnerability in rush defense of LSU’s ends. The result: Alabama possessed the ball for more than 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, improved its assignment success percentage and cut the long-developing, negative plays. Alabama’s offensive line went from liability to being the catalyst for a game-clenching field goal drive.
2. Hurts’ fourth-quarter turnaround may have been one for the ages. Midway through the third quarter, it looked like Jalen Hurts had finally allowed a game to be bigger than him. Both turnovers came as a result of mistakes directly attributable to Hurts’ inexperience – he made a bad pass that resulted in an interception on a play LSU had defensed perfectly from the start, then lost his feel for a collapsing pocket and allowed DL Frank Herron, not known as a playmaker, to easily strip him of the ball. But perhaps Hurts’ greatest attribute as a freshman has been the ability to immediately flush bad memories. Hurts’ fourth-quarter performance included a 15-play, 90-yard touchdown drive and a 12-play, 50-yard field goal drive, both of which were liberally sprinkled with big plays from the freshman himself. Hurts doesn’t look like he’s moving very fast when he runs, but check the box score after the game and you would think he was Usain Bolt. Hurts carried 20 times for 114 yards (5.7 avg., including yards lost to sacks) and the game’s only touchdown. Hurts is not an accomplished passer – yet – but anyone who doubts he’ll be one in a year or so probably shouldn’t lay money on that opinion. There was a point in this game that Saban would have been well justified in switching to Cooper Bateman, but he stuck with Hurts and his patience was rewarded.
3. Special teams played a key role in Bama’s win. Much of the focus will again be on a missed field goal, as Adam Griffith went wide left on a 42-yard attempt in the second quarter. But excepting that play, Griffith put two kickoffs out of the end zone and made the short field goal that put the game to bed. Trayvon Diggs offered a commendable effort in his first game as Eddie Jackson’s replacement as punt returner, although he did muff a punt before falling on the ball. Another return was cut short when Aaron Robinson was flagged for a block in the back that probably wasn’t one. Ronnie Harrison blocked LSU’s single field goal attempt. The real weapon, though, was punter J.K. Scott, who hit five punts, four of them traveling more than 50 yards. In any game this close and this low-scoring, an examination of special teams play is sure to yield some fruit. Alabama made the plays it had to make and came out on top here.
4. Bo Scarbrough continues to improve and may shake up the RB rotation. Scarbrough was clearly a different animal Saturday, as this kind of football suits his game perfectly. While Damien Harris’ usual backup, Joshua Jacobs, appeared tentative at times and overwhelmed at others, Scarbrough aggressively hit holes and got downhill quickly in his opportunities. It was Scarbrough, not Harris, who Alabama went behind on the eventual field goal drive, as Scarbrough had gotten Alabama inside the LSU 5 and appeared to have a path to a touchdown on 3rd-and-goal before umpire Rodney Lawary flagged LG Ross Pierschbacher for a highly questionable illegal procedure call and knocked Bama out of rushing range of the goal line. Scarbrough tweaked a knee just before the half, but didn’t appear to be slowed for long. Scarbrough has been improving steadily over the last month and, given the level of opposition, this was his best game yet. If he continues to improve, he’ll likely supplant Jacobs and could press Harris for a greater share of the carries. Someone of his size and power is too much of an asset to sit on the bench for long.
5. Secondary didn’t skip a beat with Eddie Jackson out, and Etling had no answer. We profiled Hurts as having the edge over Danny Etling in a matchup of quarterbacks, but even this level of separation wasn’t completely expected. Etling was a horrendous 11-of-24 (45.8%) for 92 yards, 0 touchdowns and one especially crippling interception. Moreover, while Etling had hurt some teams this year with his ability to escape the pocket, he couldn’t do it tonight. Alabama ended up sacking him 5 times, and he managed to run one other time for a short gain. Alabama’s secondary, with Minkah Fitzpatrick now working at strong safety and Tony Brown in at nickel, confounded both Etling and his receivers all night long. There had been discussion in Tuscaloosa even late into the week of leaving Fitzpatrick at Star and starting Laurence Jones at safety in order to keep Fitzpatrick in his familiar position as Alabama’s chief ballhawk, but Alabama eventually went ahead with the plan of moving Fitzpatrick to strong safety and it worked to perfection. Fitzpatrick still found a way to intercept a pass in a key moment, and the Crimson Tide’s clenching field-goal drive was the ensuing result. LSU fans may be focused on who its next head coach should be, but whoever it is will need to look for an upgrade under center.