Can LSU get past Alabama's dominant defense?
Alabama has been steamrolling their schedule this year, with their defense dominant from front to back while their offense, and in particular the passing game, has been better than expected. That being said, the Tide have arguably their biggest challenge of the season so far on Saturday night, heading on the road to take on a red-hot LSU team that will look for Leonard Fournette to power them to a big win. So what are the key matchups to look for when both teams have the ball? Let’s take a look.
When Alabama has the ball
The Alabama offense has been better than expected this year, and true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has looked comfortable at the helm of a national championship contender. Hurts has excelled when the Alabama offensive line has kept him clean, completing 75.0 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and one interception. However, he has struggled when pressure has got there, with his completion percentage dropping to just 21.7 percent on those plays. Such a big swing makes it clear which matchup is key on this side of the ball, and that’s LSU pass-rushing supremo Arden Key going up against Alabama offensive tackles Cam Robinson and Jonah Williams.
Key has been devastating as a pass-rusher this season, racking up 43 total pressures on 189 pass rushing snaps, including eight sacks and 11 hits. That adds up to a pass rushing productivity rating of 18.1, second-best in the nation among 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends. Robinson hasn’t quite filled his potential at left tackle, but has been solid in pass protection this year. With one sack, one hit and six hurries from 275 pass blocking snaps, giving him a pass blocking efficiency rating of 97.7, which ranks 27th out of the 172 offensive tackles to play at least 227 pass blocking snaps this year. Williams has been a revelation as a freshman, allowing just two sacks, a hit and two hurries from 268 pass blocking snaps, good for a pass blocking efficiency rating of 98.4, good for ninth in the nation.
When LSU has the ball
LSU was a team in crisis early in the year and their offense, despite having the best pure runner in all of college football last year in Leonard Fournette, completely lacked an identity. That’s changed now though, and they put on a dominant performance on the ground in the big win over Ole Miss. In that game, Fournette ran for 284 yards, but only 90 of those yards came after contact, such was the strength of the LSU offensive line. They created holes to let Fournette get into the open field, and when that happens you get a ridiculous stat line like we saw in this game. The prospect of Fournette getting to the second level against your linebackers and defensive backs is a prospect that must terrify opposing defensive coordinators. Here’s the thing though — Alabama has two players who can stuff the run at the line of scrimmage and stop that from happening.
It was last season against Alabama that Fournette’s Heisman Trophy campaign really stalled, but while he was held to just 31 yards on 19 carries, it’s worth noting that 30 of those yards came after contact. Simply put, the Alabama defensive line completely suffocated the LSU rushing attack. This season, they might be even better. It starts with Jonathan Allen, who has made a strong case for the Heisman Trophy himself this year, wrecking offensive gameplans with his ability to make things happen both as a pass-rusher and against the run. Against the run he’s made a tackle resulting in a defensive stop on 12.1 percent of his snaps against the run, the second-best mark at the position in the nation. It’s not just about Allen though, and one player who has been severely underrated this year is Dalvin Tomlinson. Tomlinson has made a tackle resulting in a defensive stop on 9.0 percent of his snaps against the run, but beyond that has been a force when it comes to standing up offensive linemen at the point of attack. The strength of Allen and Tomlinson, with player grades of 92.9 and 88.2 respectively, ranking as our highest- and fifth-highest graded players on the defensive interior, means that the LSU interior offensive line will face its toughest test of the year.
Center Ethan Pocic (83.1), and guards Will Clapp (75.8) and Josh Boutte (84.7) have formed one of the best interior offensive lines in the nation this year, and Boutte and Pocic in particular have stood out as run blockers. This is far and away the toughest test they will face all year though. Allen is arguably the best player in all of college football, and Tomlinson isn’t that far behind. Most worrying for LSU is that even if they can block them well on some player, linebacker Reuben Foster (92.4) will be waiting at the second level, and Foster has missed a tackle just once for every 20.5 attempted so far this year.
There is no doubt that LSU has the playmakers on both offense and defense to beat Alabama, but they probably have to play the perfect game in order to do so. Arden Key will need to beat Robinson and Williams and force Hurts into some mistakes, and the offensive line needs to give Leonard Fournette the space to get to the second level where he can be so dominant. Ultimately, as tough a test as this will be for them, I can’t see beyond Alabama this week. Their front seven is too dominant and the offense is improved as the year has gone on, so this will be where the LSU resurgence is stalled.