LSU wrap-up: Whether system or players, Alabama just didn’t have what it needed

 

If Saturday’s loss to LSU looked a little bit like deja vu, you wouldn’t be mistaken.

The reference point you’re looking for, though, isn’t necessarily a former game against LSU; it’s the national championship game from January of this year, against Clemson.

In both games, Alabama essentially lost the plot in the second quarter. LSU outscored Alabama 23-6 Saturday afternoon. Clemson won its second quarter against Alabama by a score of 17-3.

What losing the second quarter of Games That Mattered by a combined score of 40-9 means in the long run is a story yet to be told. From the perspective of most who witnessed LSU’s victory over the Crimson Tide on Saturday, though, the story it’s telling in the here and now is one of a team that either doesn’t have all the necessary components to win these kinds of games, or is at a schematic disadvantage somehow when its defense is on the field.

The second half of the previous sentence is the one that scares people. It suggests that there may be something amiss in Alabama’s trusted, vaunted 3-4 over/under defense. And that might just be the case.

At some point over the last two years, Nick Saban decided he wanted to stop winning games like Georgia wins games, and start winning games like Oklahoma wins them. It’s not a bad idea on its face, because Alabama has never had the combination of quarterback and wide receiver talent like it has right now, and it may never have it again. With all due respect to Joe Namath, Kenny Stabler and a half dozen others, what Tua Tagovailoa is capable of doing with this supporting cast is so off the charts, it lacks a comparison point in Tuscaloosa. The smart play is to take advantage of these weapons while he has them.

Yet, the last two times Alabama has faced an opponent of equal or greater strength, it got blown out once and nearly got blown out a second time. Say what you will about how LSU controlled this game from start to finish – and it pretty much did – the way Alabama bounced back in the second half of this game to make things respectable says a lot about the moxie and don’t-quit attitude of this team, because Ed Orgeron certainly wasn’t taking his foot off the gas at any point.

Now, Alabama has to figure out how to stop getting itself into these situations.

Was it the cumulative effect of injuries to three key interior defenders finally coming home to roost? Or was it a defensive system that has gone from impenetrable a scant two years ago to a liability at times in 2019?

The truth of the matter is Alabama’s defense still mauls bad teams, average teams and even above-average teams. It runs up impressive stats, banking on athleticism and the results of February signing days filled with blue-chip recruits.

But against the best teams, it struggles. It struggled today against LSU, to the tune of 559 yards yielded. Clemson piled up nearly 500. Even the Oklahoma semifinal last year, a game Alabama more or less dominated, ended with Oklahoma amassing 471 total yards and 34 points. Gene Stallings redux, this is not.

Perhaps the most striking picture Alabama’s defense paints is one of a lack of cohesion. Rather than functioning as a complete unit, Alabama’s defense more resembles an NBA basketball game than a college football game: 11 one-on-one matchups happening across the court (field).

If Alabama wants to flip its fortunes at any point in the future, it might have to sacrifice explosiveness for good ol’ boring fundamentals. Things like, say, tackling skills. The ability to get off the field on third down.

As of now, Alabama sits in the middle of another episode of deja vu: the 2011 season, which featured a loss at home to LSU, followed by a month of biting nails and waiting for other contenders to fall out of the playoff picture. And just like last time, a significant portion of national writers don’t want Alabama anywhere near the playoff and have already been actively campaigning for the Tide’s early elimination.

This time, though, they might get what they want. And to be honest, after watching Alabama chase LSU around Bryant-Denny Stadium for three-plus hours Saturday, it would be hard to mount a case against them.

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-LSU:

1. DL got no push or production. Alabama was previewed to have the advantage on both line-of-scrimmage cross-matchups this week, but things didn’t play out that way at all. Both offensive lines controlled the opposing defensive line with relative ease. In Alabama’s case, it’s a bit more troubling because Alabama can’t get consistent pressure from its big men the way LSU can with Neil Farrell (although Alabama controlled Farrell fairly well Saturday). Against LSU, all of Alabama’s down linemen, combined, recorded 8 tackles, only 3 of them solo. Predictably, the only real push inside Alabama got was from Christian Barmore, who had the line’s only QB hurry and shared a sack with Raekwon Davis. No down lineman made a tackle for loss against an LSU running back. It’s hard to include Anfernee Jennings or Terrell Lewis in this analysis in their roles as rush ends, because Jennings and especially Lewis spent more time as stand-up linebackers in this game than usual. For those who want to split hairs, go ahead, but the point is Alabama’s defensive line did more slap-fighting than disrupting the LSU offense. Nosetackle in particular has become a source of frustration, as neither D.J. Dale nor Tevita Musika were able to do much. Barmore’s effectiveness is limited by the risk of losing him to a targeting foul if he’s overexposed. Alabama’s defensive line came into this game roughly tied with LSU’s DL in both sacks and tackles for loss, but that wasn’t a compliment at the time, and still isn’t. Their numbers were mediocre, and still are.

2. Inside linebacker play was a weak spot. The best of the bunch was Markail Benton, but playing Benton as much as he did Saturday is a bit like an American League baseball team losing its shortstop to injury and choosing to move its designated hitter into the field to fill the hole. Benton did his best – he finished with 8 tackles, although none were for loss and he did not record any stats against the pass – but he also had at least one critical bust, perhaps two (it would take us knowing who had responsibility on the second play to say, one way or another). Anfernee Jennings’ effectiveness was curtailed by a minor leg injury suffered during the game, but he still had 8 tackles, 2 sacks and a QB hurry. This was the first game in 2019 when it became clear Dylan Moses’ injury had fortune-changing ramifications. His loss had been felt before, but not to this degree. Fortunately, Alabama isn’t due to see another passer like LSU’s Joe Burrow down the stretch, at least not until the postseason starts.

3. It’s hard to say exactly how Tua contributed to the loss. The injury didn’t affect his throwing power, although it did seem to affect his timing and the time off may have led to some rust. The opening-drive fumble is one of those plays you wish you could have back, just to see what effect it might have on the outcome. It was probably a 14-point swing and if so, there’s a legitimate argument the game was lost right there. If not there, then certainly on a backbreaking interception right before the end of the first half that led to another score. On the other hand, once he got out of the doldrums in the second half, LSU couldn’t stop him. The pinpoint, back-shoulder touchdown throw to Najee Harris is a perfect example of what Tua can do that few other quarterbacks, collegiate or otherwise, can do. Alabama doesn’t make the comeback it made without Tua leading it. If we’re going to recall January’s game against Clemson, remember that Tua was playing as hard at the end as he was the beginning of that game, one of the few Alabama players to do so. It’s going to be a small tragedy if he only gets one championship ring in Tuscaloosa, and never one as a starter.

4. This was not Steve Sarkisian’s finest hour. Alabama laid eggs on multiple key third-down calls, and the Crimson Tide’s penultimate touchdown drive wasted a good 2-3 minutes of game time by not getting the calls into the huddle in a timely fashion. It’s hard to look at a stat sheet that shows 541 yards of total offense and call it a bad performance, so we won’t. We will, however, say that it could have been a lot better, and needed to have been a lot better in critical moments. Furthermore, LSU should get credit for blowing up Alabama’s slant-passing game, and Sarkisian didn’t seem to ever find an answer for how to put the pieces back together. A lot of Alabama’s first-half struggles was due to the offense getting discombobulated following Tua’s early fumble, and again, it took too long to dig out.

5. The ugly truth about the defense is that it doesn’t intimidate – or confuse – people anymore. Nick Saban has publicly addressed the amount of assistant coach turnover Alabama has suffered over the last 2-3 years, making the point that he’d like to keep a staff together for awhile. Now, the question is, does he have the right pieces in place, both on the field and under the headsets? LSU seemed to know exactly where to go against Alabama’s defense on most snaps. Execution errors by the outside linebackers on some pass-rush opportunities led to Joe Burrow escaping for big gains. Lack of execution by the defensive line was a killer all night. The question always arises, when execution is an issue, whether the fault lies with the players, or with the adults who have taught them the technique. Moreover, where is the innovation that once made this system the benchmark by which all other defenses were judged? Nick Saban said in the postgame press conference that he didn’t want to “waste a failure.” That should go for the coaches as well as the players.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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