11/06/2013 03:22 PM
LSU may be favored to lose by as many as 12 points at Alabama on Saturday night, but a closer look reveals at least one possible advantage for the Tigers.
LSU’s pass offense against Alabama’s pass defense could be the key to victory for Les Miles’ No. 10 Tigers (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) against the No. 1 Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0 SEC) in Bryant-Denny Stadium (CBS, 7 p.m.).
On the surface, statistics show Alabama to once again be superior against the pass. The Tide is No. 1 in the SEC and No. 8 nationally in pass defense with just 179 yards allowed a game. It is No. 2 in the SEC and No. 8 nationally in pass efficiency defense with a 104 rating based partly on eight interceptions against six touchdowns allowed.
“They’re not invincible,” said LSU wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who is second in the SEC with 6.4 catches a game and fourth in receiving yards with 98 a game on 58 catches for 882 yards and eight touchdowns. “No defense is invincible.”
Especially when one considers that Alabama’s list of opponent offenses has been suspect since it held on to win at Texas A&M, 49-42, on Sept. 14 despite allowing a Tide record 628 yards to the Aggies. A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel threw for 464 that day as he feasted on a revolving door of Alabama cornerbacks for 28-of-38 passing and four touchdowns, including a 95 yarder to Mike Evans off cornerback John Fulton.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has been switching cornerbacks — opposite dependable senior Deion Belue — like sweaters ever since. Fulton has not started since A&M. True freshman Eddie Jackson started the three games after A&M, but did not start the last three. Sophomore Cyrus Jones, a wide receiver last season, started the last game. Sophomore Bradley Sylve started the two games before the last one. He is expected to start Saturday, but he has been bothered by a high ankle sprain. True freshman Maurice Smith has not started, but he has played a lot.
Injuries have been partly involved in the switching around, but mainly Saban has been looking for the right combinations. Not since his first season at Alabama in 2007 has he experimented more at cornerback. He has been letting each week’s practices decide the starter.
“None of these guys understand what it takes from an intensity standpoint, a mental focus standpoint, week in and week out to prepare for a game and be able to go out and execute in a game,” Saban said on his radio show last week about the younger cornerbacks. “I call it casual. They’re so casual about how they go about things because they don’t know any better. It’s not because they want to be or intend to be, but they’ve just never done it any other way.”
In addition to the issues at cornerback, Alabama has been without junior safety Vinnie Sunseri since the Arkansas game on Oct. 19 when he tore knee ligaments and is out for the season. Sunseri was one of Alabama’s best playmakers in run support and blitzes, and he returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season with four pass breakups and a quarterback hurry.
“Vinnie was very active and made a lot of plays,” Mettenberger said.
Sunseri’s replacement, though, may be as good or better, particularly in coverage. That would be sophomore Landon Collins of Dutchtown High in Geismar — 20 minutes from Tiger Stadium. Collins, the No. 2 safety in the nation out of high school, is second on the team in unassisted tackles with 28 and has five pass breakups along with two quarterback hurries and an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tennessee in Alabama’s last game.
Since that game against Manziel, who is fifth in the nation with 2,867 passing yards and is fourth in efficiency with a 185 rating, Alabama has been able to pad most of its passing defense statistics. Five of its six opponents since A&M are below 49th in the nation in passing. The last three — Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee — are No. 95, 117 and 108 in the nation in passing with below 200 yards passing a game. A&M is sixth with 372 a game.
LSU will enter Saturday’s game No. 28 in the nation in pass offense with 279 yards a game. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, meanwhile, will be the first quarterback Alabama sees since Manziel that is in the top 50 in passing efficiency. Mettenberger, who has completed 151 of 231 passes for 2,492 yards and 19 touchdowns with seven interceptions, has struggled in his last two games with five interceptions, but he remains second in the SEC and sixth nationally in efficiency with a 177.2 rating.
“We’re confident, really confident,” Landry said. “Mettenberger has really been good at checking us into the right plays and having the confidence to throw it to us even if we look like we’re covered.”
If Belue is on Landry, one of the “casual” cornerbacks will be on wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who is second in the SEC and 12th in the nation with 112.1 receiving yards a game on 48 catches for 1,009 yards and eight touchdowns.
“It’s tough to cover No. 80 (Landry) and No. 3 (Beckham). So not only will we have our work cut out for us, they’re going to have their work cut out for them,” said Mettenberger, who had the best game of his first season as a starter in the 21-17 loss to Alabama last year as he hit 24 of 35 passes for 298 yards and a touchdown.
Landry caught eight passes for 76 yards and a 14-yard touchdown that put the Tigers up 17-14 early in the fourth quarter of that game, while Beckham caught four passes for 73 yards.
“We just want to make them feel our presence,” Beckham said. “It’s exciting to be on the same team with Jarvis. We can do a lot of things with Zach. But they’ve got a great defense led by a great defensive coach. It’s going to be about sticking to our technique against their cornerbacks. It’s not going to be nothing we haven’t seen. It’s just a matter of using your technique and beating their technique.”
LSU studied Alabama’s strong technique in recent games as well as its questionable technique against A&M.
“It’s a fun game to watch,” Mettenberger said. “But we don’t use the same formations and plays as Texas A&M. Obviously, they did show you can put points on the defense.”
And Manziel moves much better than Mettenberger, who tends to stand still. Mettenberger has not been sacked an alarming number of times, however. LSU is sixth in the SEC with 14 sacks allowed and will be healthier Saturday as left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter return after nursing injuries in the last game.
What could also help LSU is the fact that Alabama has not been pressuring quarterbacks as well as it has in the recent past. The Tide is 12th of 14 SEC teams with 11 sacks on the season and has not gotten typically great nose guard play from junior Brandon Ivory. Alabama has gotten more of a push in recent weeks from true freshmen A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen on the line.
And to top it off, new LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron — a major reason why LSU has its best passing attack since the 2007 national championship season — will match wits with Saban for the first time in a college game since 1998. Cameron, an NFL offensive coordinator for 10 of the previous 11 seasons, was Indiana’s head coach in ‘98 while Saban was Michigan State’s head coach. Saban won that one 38-31 in double overtime to go to 2-0 against Cameron. He and the Spartans won the previous season by 38-6.
Miles was asked about what advantage Landry and Beckham may have against Alabama’s revolving cornerback position.
“We like the match-up,” he said. “We think that we kind of give them some challenges on the perimeter. We’ve got a quarterback, first of all, that can make the throws, and several receivers can get open in space. They are a very good team, but we think there is a match-up there that benefits us. ”