Last night I walked into the game with absolutely no belief in AJ McCarron, the Bama wide receivers or their ability to tax the LSU secondary. I walked away with my mind changed and as impressed as I've been by a gameplan since Bama did the same thing in 2009 against the Florida Gators in the SEC Championship Game. Those were Bama's keys to the game offensively; getting LSU off balance, making a quarterback who had been neutral at best become a positive and spelling Trent Richardson with heavy doses of Eddie Lacy.
That said it also helps to acknowledge LSU's disastrous hand that was played. While Bama's gameplan entering game was to totally flip their offensive style in an effort to tax LSU it seems the Bayou Bengals decided to change their entire gameplan, focusing on "what sort of worked last game." Honestly it was one of the lazier gameplans we've seen; a sophomoric attempt at cutting corners towards a championship by refusing to actually attack Bama and stubbornly abandoning the things Jordan Jefferson and the Bayou Bengal offensive weapons do best.
To be fair here we'll rip LSU's offense first because too much blame will be placed on Jordan Jefferson and not nearly enough on the play calling. Going into this game Jefferson was a clear plus for the LSU unit and somehow, the kid who played so well dating back to the end of last year and into the 2011 season turned into mush. As fun as people seem to find ridiculing Jordan Jefferson and ultimately being validated for what they said in September the fact is last night was far from "all Jordan Jefferson's fault."
Did Jefferson aid the cause? Not really. The interception he threw to CJ Mosley was born of awful decision making. The missed TD pass to Odell Beckham was pure laziness in his throwing. The fumbled snap was clear jitters on a play that could have settled LSU into a rhythm early. The cadence issues that created false starts were not helped by Jefferson.
I get it. He screwed up time and again in this ball game. He was the neutral at times and negative in other spots that we did not expect.
But the blame for this game must go to this pathetic gameplan designed by Steve Kragthorpe and Greg Studrawa. For as beautiful a plan as we'll discuss when we get to Alabama this was the polar opposite in ugly. It was lazy, like the Tigers watched their own game against Bama and the Georgia Southern game and decided, "well this is what we'll be doing." There was no attacking of Alabama, a minimal effort was made to stretch the field, even fewer adjustments were made through out the game and a misguided reliance on side to side movement.
We'll start with the option because, as folks eviscerate Jordan Jefferson they routinely ignore one point, HE IS NOT AN OPTION QUARTERBACK! Yes, folks he can run the option and has with success. But Jefferson is not an option quarterback, he's a quarterback that can run the option. Sometimes. In spots. Not all game. Yet Strudrawa and Kragthorpe noticed some effectiveness out of the option against the Tide in November, saw Jefferson get big plays through it against other opponents and decided a healthy diet of option was the way to go.
This was the single biggest mistake in the ball game. First of all the option, for LSU, has been a supplement. By turning it into the staple of the diet LSU basically took what was chocolate for their offense, explosive and exceptional in small doses, especially when unexpected, and made it the main course. This is something a child thinks is a good idea, hence me calling the gameplan sophomoric earlier, it was like something a juvenile would come up with.
To add to the sad mess was the insistence upon throwing the football side to side with the use of ridiculous screens to the wide receiver. Not just screens themselves but two man screens. Two man bubbles aren't really even bubbles at all because at best there are two defenders on the edge driving on the ball. These work best as smoke routes where a quarterback rises and fires on a run down or unexpectedly when the defense is in off coverage. NOT AGAINST COVER TWO! All these are against cover two are a recipe for a minimal gain or a receiver to get tackled for a loss.
Which brings us to another point in the LSU gameplan that sucked outloud; failure to recognize that Bama was playing cover two like it was their job. So much cover two. All cover two everything.
Why does that matter?
Because cover two means you have 22 eyeballs on the backfield at the snap. It means you have 18 eyeballs with force run support on any given play. The Bama front seven was active in the run but so too were the cornerbacks. When you have nine guys spreading the field sideline to sideline you cannot run side to side plays. It doesn't work that way. Not only did Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris do a solid job tracking down the ball carriers to the sideline but DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick also were the true "edge" of the defense. All the way out by the numbers. Jefferson and Michael Ford were running to the cornerback and there was truly nowhere to go when they got there.
So spare me the "Jefferson didn't make the player commit to the quarterback on the option" rhetoric. The fact is Bama slow played the option like a team getting ready to play Georgia Tech. Soft on the quarterback fill in all the cut up run alleys and make him pitch the ball with nowhere to go on the sideline. That's one of two ways to stop the option. The other way is to attack the mesh point but that always leaves holes for gashing as we've seen the Jackets capitalize on time and again.
Against cover two you have to attack the gaping voids in the defense. The deep middle of the field. The gap between the safety and the corner at the edge. The area behind the linebackers in front of the safeties. Yet LSU did that exactly twice with any fervor. Two passes to Odell Beckham. Both were open and Jefferson was 1 of 2 with those. The one he missed was a touchdown because Robert Lester took a bad angle.
Which brings us to the last point on the LSU offensive gameplan; why did they abandon everything they knew and loved all season? This offense has been explosive during the year in both the run and the pass game. They stretched the field, attacked the weakness and benefited from getting the ball in the hands of their play makers at the receiver position.
Where was their most dynamic player, Russell Shepard, last night? Not targeted once. Not never. Why was Rueben Randle being used like he was some tiny little slot jitterbug? Why did Jordan Jefferson not get rolled out, given more run pass options and the ability to actually dictate to Alabama, instead of allowing the Tide to pull the strings on them like a yo-yo.
Most importantly; what happened to their run game? It took 52 game minutes, yes, just eight minutes left in the game, for LSU to run their bread and butter play; the toss lead. The freaking play that has broken down defenses, been the staple of your playbook and allowed your guys Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard to pound on defenses didn't make an appearance until eight minutes to go in the game? That's just ridiculous.
By not running that play they eliminated everything else they do off of it. No Michael Ford quick tosses to the edge. No Kenny Hilliard traps to take advantage of teams loading the box to stop the lead. No success in the option as teams load up on interior, allowing you to hit the edge.
All in all; stupid, stupid, stupid.
Now we get to the not stupid. We get to why Nick Saban and his team proved that being a great Sunday to Friday coach was better than being the Les Miles wildcard. This Bama team clearly self scouted. While LSU was busy designing a gameplan that was dumber than using their original November 5th gameplan over again, the Crimson Tide was actually working.
The Tide came out, knowing that LSU did not respect their passing game, and forced the Bayou Bengals to respect AJ McCarron's arm and the ability of their wide receivers. Jim McElwain dialed up numbers that have not been called much this year at all. Guys like Michael Williams and Brad Smelley from the tight end position. Kevin Norwood the 6'2" sophomore made a grand appearance and Darius Hanks proved he was on that roster for a reason.
While their run game was clearly LSU's focus and the Tigers stopped the Tide's rushing attack early it was Bama that benefited from great gameplanning. They used multiple looks; formations that LSU had never seen on film. They used multiple groupings, personnel packages that the traditional Bama offense either did not use OR used to run. They used great route combinations, something that Bobby Petrino would have been proud of as they schemed mismatches out of their formations and then capitalized on the openings with great passes out of AJ McCarron.
One could see early on that targeting Tyrann Mathieu in coverage was going to be the name of the game. Hanks got some work done against the Honey Badger. This wasn't new and if you didn't realize that for all of his greatness the Honey Badger is just an average corner then you didn't watch Da'Rick Rogers have his way with him during the season.
The Tide did a great job; they stayed away from Morris Claiborne, they made linebackers play coverage against tight ends doing things they haven't done all season and they kept Eric Reid out of the box by occupying the sophomore safety with coverage responsibilities.
It was, simply put, the best preperation and gameplan effort that we've seen since, well since the last time Alabama did it to Florida in 2009. Even as the Tide got off their script and were forced into playing they stuck to the attacking gameplan. The sticktuitiveness of their efforts was rewarded handsomely. Not with touchdowns but with enough field position and field goals to build a lead that would be insurmountable.
In the end hats off to the Crimson Tide, they were absolutely poetic in their execution. All credit to AJ McCarron, Jim McElwain, Nick Saban and those guys for going to the mattresses and coming out with a plan for success. The Tide defense did what they have been doing all year, snuffing out whoever got placed in front of them and the way they were aided by LSU's utterly ridiculous plan just made things that much easier.
Roll Tide folks! Roll Tide.