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LSU wrap-up: Don’t look this defensive gift horse in the mouth

Despite the fact Alabama’s 20-14 victory over LSU felt underwhelming, there’s a certain wisdom that comes with taking stock of results in games against what Alabama considers its traditional rivals – Auburn, Tennessee and LSU.

Specifically, you’d always almost lose than almost win.

As expected, Ed Orgeron approached this game like the swan song that it was, throwing caution to the wind and playing the role of the swashbuckling, rip-roaring cartoon character that he is. If Orgeron could bottle the kind of charisma he’s been able to invoke during his various periods as an interim head coach – without including a chaser of off-field distractions and failings of temperament – he’d probably be well into his second national championship somewhere. But instead, Orgeron is the guy you always want in your foxhole, but rarely the guy you want designing your battle plans.

We profiled this game as one in which Alabama would not likely cover. What we didn’t foresee is this being a game that Alabama’s defense won for the Crimson Tide, almost in spite of the offense.

It was an unlikely outcome for some, given how the 2021 season has unfolded. Alabama’s defense was originally expected to carry the team while a young offense (and younger quarterback) got settled in. Those expectations flip-flopped after subpar performances, first against Florida and later Texas A&M. Despite the fact the defense throttled Ole Miss – a bad pass interference call let the Rebels score a third touchdown during trash time, thereby lifting the score into the 20s – Bama’s D never got proper credit for what it accomplished that night. And that’s not even counting solid performances against Tennessee and Mississippi State.

But there was no doubting what Alabama’s defense accomplished this time out. LSU stopped Alabama’s running game cold, and the passing game ran out of gas in the fourth quarter. Three defensive stops in the final quarter in plus territory were the definitive difference between winning and losing.

So how did LSU get this close? Despite the Tigers’ struggles this season – even despite a rash of defections and injuries as the season has moved along – the one thing LSU has just as much of as Alabama is talent up and down the roster. Aside from perhaps the cornerback position, which had been bled about as dry as possible coming in, LSU was able to replace talent with talent at all the other spots. And when that’s the case, all that remained was the question of whether Orgeron could motivate his team and steel his own focus for four quarters.

Whether this game means anything more than it already has, in terms of Alabama’s season to come, won’t be known probably until Alabama travels to Auburn in three weeks. Next week’s opponent, New Mexico State, will either be the worst or second-worst team Alabama has faced this year. Arkansas, which rolls into Tuscaloosa the week before the Auburn game, is well-coached and tough enough at most positions, but lacks LSU’s speed on defense and has been unbalanced on offense. It will be Auburn that stretches Alabama’s limits, particularly if QB Bo Nix has a good game and especially because the game is in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

And if Alabama can take care of Arkansas and Auburn, there is Georgia to talk about. The Bulldogs continue to steamroll opponents with its defense, but Alabama’s offense will be the most dynamic it has faced, even given Alabama’s struggles to score against LSU. In reality, that game is simply too far into the future to worry about, especially with Alabama’s offense needing critical improvement up front so that it can finally find the consistency it seeks.

It would be unwise, however, to downplay the fact Alabama survived and advanced against LSU. There’s a reason Alabama’s students have devised alternative lyrics to “Dixieland Delight” to incorporate Auburn, LSU and Tennessee, too. Some games just mean a little bit more.

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

1. Offensive line play was disastrous, and the OL overall seems to have peaked earlier in the year and ebbed since. Darrian Dalcourt’s injury early in the game forced Chris Owens back to his natural position at center and brought Damieon George Jr. – either a redshirt freshman or a true sophomore, depending on how Alabama chooses to classify his 2020 season, in which he played in two games – into the game at right tackle. The result was not what Alabama had hoped for. There were some snap exchange issues for Owens, albeit not an egregious number, but the much larger issue is what the change did to the running game. Alabama rushed for a net 6 yards, although the Crimson Tide only gave the ball to a running back 15 times. George mostly held his own in pass protection, a small feat given how little he has played up to this point. Owens at center, though, didn’t work as well as hoped. He graded out poorly, the worst of Alabama’s linemen, and there was enough confusion present on some of the line calls that Dalcourt’s return becomes important just from that standpoint alone. Alabama yielded 4 sacks on the night and Young was officially hurried two more times, although he was forced to improvise far more often than that. The bigger issue is that Alabama’s line has simply not improved much over the course of the season. Many of the same issues that were present in the Miami opener are still here. No, the talent level isn’t what it was in 2020, but the problems run deeper than that. If Alabama can’t fix some of these issues before the Auburn game, to say nothing of a potential matchup with Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, the season won’t end with a title. We’ll probably see Owens at center again next week against New Mexico State, as anyone with even a hangnail will likely be held out of that game, but if the same problems persist, Alabama will need to try another option.

2. Brian Robinson Jr. had his worst game, with or without the ball in his hands. Slade Bolden’s failed 4th-and-2 out of the Wildcat was a direct result of a missed block on Robinson’s part, and Robinson also failed to adequately protect QB Bryce Young on several occasions. We don’t know how much of that is tied to the OL issues above – i.e., whether Owens at center rather than Dalcourt affected communication on blitz pickup assignments – but regardless, Robinson wasn’t just a non-factor in this game, he was a negative factor. Aside from his short touchdown run out of a heavy formation, Bama may have gotten more from having the shiftier Roydell Williams in the game, but this is all water under the bridge. Robinson has had enough great games – not just good ones – this year to believe he’ll likely use this performance as motivation and rebound. It has to happen.

3. Front seven on defense bordered on masterful. We spent a lot of ink bemoaning the lack of improvement from the OL, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that the inside linebackers have improved significantly in recent weeks, and Alabama’s defensive front had a solid performance as well. We said both teams’ defensive lines would hold the edges in the OL-DL cross-matchups, but we never believed it would be by this kind of margin. Tyrion Davis-Price broke a long fourth-down run but averaged only 3.0 yards per carry over his other 22 runs. None of LSU’s other running backs did a thing. Alabama logged 5 sacks on the night and 7 QB hurries, which is a shockingly high number, especially against an OL with as much basic talent as LSU’s. And of course, Will Anderson Jr. had another signature night, getting 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 2 QB hurries and a PBU all by himself. The other name of note is DL Phidarian Mathis, who has broken out as a legitimate star after three years as a supporting player. Mathis had 9 tackles, 3 QB hurries, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a fumble recovery. He was in Max Johnson’s face all night and gave a Christian Barmore-like performance when Alabama needed it most.

4. Offensive attack plan was found … wanting. It’s understandable that Alabama would go after LSU’s secondary given the lack of available cornerbacks on the roster, but LSU proved mostly up to the task. Bryce Young finished with 302 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, and if you’re an LSU defensive back today you probably consider that one a push at worst and a win at best. Playcalling flow was erratic, and may have asked too much of an offensive line that couldn’t keep its quarterback’s jersey clean. The fourth quarter by itself was a microcosm of the issues that affected the game as a whole, and while Young was certainly a major factor in Alabama’s win, he’s still holding the ball too long, especially with this particular receiver corps compared to the one Alabama had the last couple of years. Alabama was at the same time too conservative and also asked too much of certain players at times. The entire offensive staff seemed to have put out the “gone fishin’” sign this week.

5. Kicking game issues led to this game being almost a replay of 1999. Alabama fans cringe at the mere mention of that one – a 23-17 victory with Alabama’s defense having to stop LSU going at the south end zone on the last play of the game, all because Ryan Pflugner missed a PAT and a field goal (actually two) earlier in the contest. The loss proved costly at the end, as DL Kenny Smith and LB Marvin Constant were injured on the final two plays, but Alabama stopped LSU QB Josh Booty at the 1-yard line to end it. In this one, issues on the snap-hold of a field goal attempt and a PAT almost set up the same situation, in which LSU’s Cade York could have won the game with a PAT had LSU scored at the end. Both issues appeared to be on true freshman snapper Kneeland Hibbett, although the PAT snap probably should have been saved by holder Paul Tyson. Tyson has had to save more than a few this season already, and while it’s probably too late in the year to begin auditioning anyone else to take over, this situation bears watching because Alabama’s margins are thin already and the Tide can’t take points off the board in any game other than maybe the one it will play this week.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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