By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 5, 2017
If Arkansas basketball once could brand itself as “40 minutes of hell,” Alabama and LSU ought to start branding this annual tilt as “60 minutes of D-Day reenactment.”
This game was war. It began with paratroopers jumping into Bryant-Denny Stadium to deliver the game ball. By the time the game got to the fourth quarter, Alabama was looking to dig trenches and hunker down.
For whatever else LSU has done or hasn’t done this year, just like in 2016, the Tigers played above their ability level and could have put a real scare into Alabama if the Tiger quarterback had been anyone other than Danny Etling. LSU’s only big play of the night came on a 54-yard run from reserve RB Darrel Williams out of the Wildcat, and only came because Alabama suffered a massive alignment bust before the snap. Even so, LSU controlled both lines of scrimmage, controlled the clock and had itself in position to at least compete for the win right up to the point Andy Pappanastos kicked a late field goal to stretch the lead out to 14.
Say what you will about Ed Orgeron’s antics, but in two games against Alabama, his teams have gotten up for this game and have not backed down from the challenge, either physically or in regards to attitude. It’s somewhat maddening, hilarious and perplexing all at once that this team could lose to Troy and look terrible doing it, then show up in Tuscaloosa looking like a contender. It’s a testament first and foremost to the amount of raw talent still residing in Baton Rouge, but also points to Orgeron’s ability to get his team up for at least the big games.
Had Etling been more capable, this game might have had a different outcome. But both Etling and his backup, Myles Brennan, too often panicked when pressured, folding up in the pocket when there were other alternatives. Alabama sacked the quarterback six times, but that was a bit of a misnomer; most of the sacks came late once the running game was no longer in play, and if Etling and Brennan had simply thrown the ball away – and they had plenty of time to do so – Alabama wouldn’t have been so successful at racking up the sack totals.
Indeed, for three quarters this game was a microcosm of Alabama’s bad luck on defense in 2017. The loss of Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis in the opener has killed off any non-blitz outside pass rush. Alabama’s defense still forces errors and blows up schemes, but it isn’t creating many pressure points. For three quarters, Etling often had plenty of time to assess the coverage and get rid of the ball, frequently enjoying STATs (snap-to-affect times) of three seconds or more. Better quarterbacks could have a field day with that.
And they’ll probably get their chance in future games. Alabama lost two other linebackers for at least the remainder of the regular season. Shaun Dion Hamilton and Mack Wilson both suffered significant injuries. The early thought on Hamilton is that he has lost another ACL, and his college career is over. Wilson may have a broken foot, which gives him an outside shot at returning for the College Football Playoff, if Alabama gets that far.
Getting that far is no longer a given. The injuries to Hamilton and Wilson probably drop Alabama’s defense below both Auburn’s and Georgia’s at the moment. We’ll discuss this more in the Breakdown later, but Alabama got a lot more pedestrian tonight with Hamilton’s and Wilson’s departure.
If Alabama is to win out – which at this point doesn’t just mean beating Auburn and Georgia, but defeating a potentially dangerous Mississippi State team on the road next week – it will have to improve its offensive performance. Everyone who knows football knew the offense would face greater challenges beginning with the LSU game, as the defensive ratings of LSU, Auburn and Georgia foretell greater competency than most of the defenses Alabama has faced thus far.
LSU held Alabama under 300 total yards of offense and held the ball 34 minutes compared to Alabama’s 26. No Bama running back averaged more than 3.7 yards per carry. Repeat this performance against Auburn, and Gus Malzahn will have done what is needed to save his job – because he’ll likely win the game.
If this sounds like Alabama might have lost as much as it won Saturday night, that’s because it’s probably true. It’s almost criminal that a team as good as this one might have its chance to prove itself on a national stage stolen by injuries, but it’s on the verge of happening. Ask Florida State what the feeling is like. Alabama has a tough road ahead in just getting to the SEC Championship Game without its sideline looking like the album cover for Pink Floyd’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason.”
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-LSU:
1. The Tigers won both OL-DL battles – and that’s something to be concerned about. LSU’s offensive line did a fine job of protecting its quarterbacks for the first three quarters, and the Tiger running game averaged 5.3 yards per carry once sack yardage and QB scrambles were removed from the stat line. It was only when Alabama no longer had to respect the run that the Crimson Tide managed to make a sizable dent in a Tiger offensive line that was dealing with its own injury issues.
One could make the argument that when taken as a four-quarter sample size, Alabama battled back to earn no worse than a push, but there is no such argument for the other OL-DL matchup: LSU’s defensive line against the Tide offensive line. Bama QB Jalen Hurts was harassed in the pocket, and Alabama’s running game developed no consistency.
Most troubling was how LSU used its speed rushers to overwhelm Bama’s offensive tackles, especially Matt Womack, who struggled to block LSU’s Arden Key. This was not Ross Pierschbacher’s best career game by a far shot, either. Alabama has predicted to control both categories, yet ended up winning neither.
2. Jalen Hurts carried the offense, and ultimately the team. His stat line won’t show it, thanks to at least four big plays that evaporated when the targeted receiver dropped the throw, but Hurts was dealing for much of the game. He still has some improvement left to make – holding the ball too long negated a couple of big plays, one to Calvin Ridley near the red zone and especially one on third down to Hale Hentges, a play on which Hentges might still be running had the throw not come late and off-target.
But when LSU stacked the box with eight defenders and dared Hurts to beat them, he did. Key throws to Ridley to set up Alabama’s third touchdown of the night, and a crucial third-down conversion to Cameron Sims that was threaded between four LSU defenders were memorable in the attack.
Hurts was also Alabama’s leading rusher, despite taking four sacks. Some fans won’t be happy until they get a quarterback who throws for 300-plus yards every game, but Hurts’ performance against LSU would be good enough to beat any opponent on Alabama’s schedule.
3. How big are turnovers? Ask Danny Etling (or Ronnie Harrison). LSU may have had one lone big play holding up it’s offense’s stats, but what put the Tigers behind the 8-ball and may have ultimately caused the loss was Ronnie Harrison’s interception of Danny Etling late in the first quarter, which set up a Bo Scarbrough touchdown run.
Alabama only had to go 37 yards for a touchdown following the interception, a welcome gift to the offense considering LSU’s defensive performance for the game when taken in its entirety. The fact Harrison was fired up because of a scuffle on the preceding play made things even sweeter. LSU wasn’t all that careful about providing Alabama bulletin board material during the week, and Harrison is just the kind of guy who responds to it. It turned out to probably be the play of the game.
4. Alabama completely won the special teams game, which kept LSU’s offense pinned. J.K. Scott had a Ray Guy-type night, punting 8 times for a 51.6-yard average, pinning LSU inside its 20 on 6 of those kicks, and throwing in 3 touchbacks off kickoffs for good measure. Scott flipped the field on every one of his punts, and his hang times kept LSU from ever setting up a return. The one time the Tigers did manage to break a return, it was because a Tiger blocker was flagged for blocking Keaton Anderson in the back, and the return was nullified.
Besides Scott, Alabama also got good performances from PK Andy Pappanastos – who would easily be the story of this year’s team were it not for Levi Wallace – and punt returner Xavian Marks, who caught everything sure-handedly and had a nice return of a late punt that probably would have been downed inside Alabama’s 10 or 15 had Marks not made an aggressive move to go get the kick. All deserved praise, but Scott forcing LSU’s offense to burn clock may be at the top of that list.
5. Injuries to Wilson, Hamilton nearly cost Alabama – and probably will before the year is over. There’s no use sugar-coating this: Alabama has now lost four starting linebackers to major injuries, and the ability to continue to backfill those spots from the bench is fast coming to a close.
Shaun Dion Hamilton appeared to tear another ACL; Mack Wilson’s injury is apparently a broken foot, the degree of which is unknown. They get added to the LB scrap pile along with Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller.
What does that mean for Alabama going forward? To begin with, Rashaan Evans and Keith Holcombe are now the starting inside linebackers, which is fine at first glance, until you check the depth chart behind them.
True freshman Dylan Moses has been getting more playing time in more varied situations lately, and he’ll need to grow up quickly over the next week. Evans played a whale of a game against LSU, but was gassed toward the end, and the issue at this time is that Evans is now working without a proven backup anymore. In addition, Holcombe had played well to start the season, had then lost his place as a rotational linebacker, and then struggled a bit Saturday after getting a battlefield promotion. If anyone is going to be targeted by Mississippi State’s offensive gameplan, it will be him.
The depth chart behind Evans and Holcombe now reads Moses and a lot of question marks. Joshua McMillon has been working with the OLBs, but he’s an inside linebacker by trade. True freshman Markail Benton could lose his redshirt. Moses will have to play more. Jamey Mosley, a walk-on, originally started out at ILB. And then there is Ben Davis, who redshirted in 2016 and has yet to make an impact either inside or outside.
Of particular concern is rushing the passer, as Alabama’s outside linebackers so far have not shown an ability to do it. Evans has, though, and given that he plays OLB on passing downs and tends to do everything at 110% normal energy, Alabama will need someone to rotate with Evans so that he doesn’t burn out too quickly.
Alabama is probably one further injury away from watching its linebacker group go from being one of the team’s biggest strengths to being a liability. Injuries this numerous, but confined to one position group, are almost unheard of. But it’s happening, and because of the dropoff in speed, instincts and execution, Alabama’s defense went from being one of the best in the nation to being one that has some vulnerabilities, especially at the second level.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN