11 November 2009
While I was there, I went to a football game. Let's chat about it, shall we?
This was the first game I actually attended since the Kentucky game in 2004. I have a pretty good excuse, living in California, but the truth is that wherever I live I generally prefer watching the games on TV because I can see more of what's going on.
But it sure was fun to be there this time. I did my fan part, too, since I hadn't forgotten in the five-year interval how to scream like a banshee whenever the LSU offense approached the ball. And when Julio burst into the open on the long TD play, I got more air than I would've thought I could get. A few times, in fact.
Why It Was Close So Long
LSU took advantage of their opportunities, and we did not. Simple as that.
LSU had 150 yards of offense on their two touchdown drives. Take away those two drives and they had only 103 yards in the rest of the game, and 69 of the 103 came on two plays! When they got deep into Bama territory, they scored touchdowns.
By the way, LSU's practice of punching in TDs when it got a chance is not something that has been a consistent problem for the Tide. The Tide D has been excellent in minimizing the damage from opponents' offensive successes as of late, as I have noted in the last two From The Couch articles.
What has been a consistent problem for the Tide is maximizing its own opportunities. As has become all too familiar, Bama did nothing but kick field goals in the red zone, as the two TDs came from outside the red zone. Whether through Greg McElroy missing TD strikes to a wide-open Marquis Maze in the first quarter and an even wider-open Julio Jones in the second quarter, Jones' illegal participation penalty, or Colin Peek's failure to bail his QB out on an underthrown pass, the Tide passed up golden scoring opportunities time and again.
It's been a pattern, and really the only thing that concerns me about the team right now. Otherwise, you've got to like outgaining LSU 452-253, especially when you consider how good the talented Tigers had looked in their last couple of games.
Leigh Tiffin is quietly having a great year since the two missed extra points against North Texas - a fine game in which to miss two extra points, by the way - but it doesn't make me happy that we have kicked 23 field goals and our opponents have only kicked 7.
The Game Plan
Bama came out throwing, putting the ball in the air on its first seven plays from scrimmage. In fact, if you don't count the botched wildcat snap (Ingram's fault this time, not Vlachos' fault as our several other botched snaps this season have mostly been), the Tide's first running play came on the 11th scrimmage play.
In the second half, Bama came out running. On the first drive alone, which ended in the LSU end zone, Ingram carried four times for 47 yards. Still, it was a 22-yard strike from McElroy to Darius Hanks that racked up the six.
Whatever we did worked . . . at least til we got in the red zone. But it was mistakes in execution that held us to 24 points, not the game plan. We had the LSU D on its heels most of the game.
For most of the game, McElroy was on target and in his comfort zone. He threw numerous strikes and found an open man on a check-down more than once. He did not allow himself to be distracted by the LSU pass rush or by the pounding he often took after releasing the ball.
However, he did allow himself to be distracted by his own mistake. After missing Julio for a TD in the second quarter - and subsequently clutching his helmet with both hands in kneeling anguish - most of Greg's next few passes were well off target and he also made a mental error when he tried a hopeless run on a third-down play near the red zone.
Greg's worst error, though, came later, the mental error late in the game that led to the infamous Peterson-interception faux controversy. Regardless of the controversy, McElroy had no business trying to throw on the dead run, to a covered guy, in that particular spot. It was a terrible mistake from a guy who is too smart to make a move that seems to show unawareness of the situation.
It was one more instance in a pattern: most of McElroy's worst mistakes result from his unwillingness to accept a play's failure. I wrote about this in South Carolina From The Couch: all four of the turnovers that Greg made (or participated in) in that game came from his overly-aggressive attempts to make something out of nothing. And that's what nearly happened here.
The safety? Same deal. Although here, at least, the ref gets at least partial credit, because the grounding call was not a good one. #22 and #89 were each in the general vicinity of where that ball was going. The fact that it hit a lineman on the way does not make it a grounding call. McElroy was on his way down and perfect accuracy is not expected - not even by refs - in that situation.
Maze and Jones
Maze was big for us in the first half. It appears as if the SEC game is slowing down for him; he is seeing his openings and going for them, just like Arenas on punt returns.
But he's still catching the ball with his arms on a fairly consistent basis. Yes, it's #8 with the six drops on the season, but I've still got #4 as being the most likely starting wideout to drop any particular pass thrown to him.
It's easy to see the path to improvement for both those guys. Marquis: catch with your hands. Julio: attack the ball in the air.
Pretty impressive considering he was a DE just a few months ago. The future is bright for him and for Bama's tight end position.
LSU Running Game
LSU ran the ball a good bit better than I had expected them to. Cody did his normal job of clogging up the middle, but LSU generally put enough people on him to keep him from getting to ball-carriers who didn't come straight at him.
But starters Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington combined for only three tackles. Marcell Dareus, too, is more accomplished as a pass-rusher than as a run-stopper. On one play during LSU's 91-yard second-quarter TD drive, Charles Scott got a big second-effort third-down conversion while Dareus, standing right next to him, listlessly played patty-cakes with an offensive lineman.
Brandon Fanney's ability to collapse the outside blocking is missed as well. Eryk Anders is a far more accomplished pass rusher than Fanney, but lacks his physicality against the run.
One thing that's going right for our run defense is Javier Arenas. Javy now leads the SEC in tackles for loss per game, and most of it is coming off of run blitzes.
Bama schemes to limit scrambling QBs. Generally speaking, Jefferson's successful scrambles were not a result of scheme breakdowns. Bama's pass rushers kept their lanes, as Saban's pass-rushers tend to do, but there's not much you can do about it when a hole comes open in the middle of the line and an athletic QB spots it. That's what mostly happened on Jefferson's runs.
Coming into the game, Alabama's opponents were averaging a paltry 30.1 yards net per punt. Not only did Josh Jasper and Derek Helton kick ‘em long, but they consistently boomed high kicks that were either non-returnable or barely returnable. LSU's net punting average was an outstanding 45.2, and no less than two punts were downed inside Bama's one-yard-line.
Along with LSU's ability to cash in its offensive opportunities, this is what kept the game close until late.
Going For It
OK, I usually put a few hours of work into writing these columns. That's not your problem, of course, but from my perspective it gives me license to mount up on my little soapbox and preach to the unconverted about the wisdom and goodness of going for it on fourth down more often than most coaches do.
I was more than a little surprised when Nick Saban waved off a successful punt downed at the LSU 7- or 8-yard-line with about 6 minutes left in order to go for it on 4th and inches at the LSU 43. I would not have pegged that as Coach Saban's style.
Whatever. I loved it. It was aggressive. It showed a killer instinct that this team has done without too often during this decade. And it led directly to a field goal that locked the game right up. To my mind's eye, since it was about 5-1 we'd make it - in fact, my biggest concern was that Vlachos and/or Ingram would botch the wildcat snap, and not that Ingram would get stopped short of the first down by the Tiger defense - the odds were all on the side of going for it.
But don't start thinking I'm not going to complain about the time we didn't go for it: 4th and 2 on the LSU 40, about 6:00 to go in the 1st quarter. Now, I'd go for it on 4th and 2 at the opponent's 40 just about every time, but what made it imperative IMO on this occasion was that we had already run 15 plays to LSU's 6 plays, despite the fact they had received on the opening kickoff.
Make that first down and we've got a decent shot at grinding their D down in the first half and then getting the ball to start the second half against a semi-spent LSU D. When they're on the ropes, go for the head. It's rarely too early for killer instinct.
On a related note, the inexplicable quarterback sneak we ran on first down just before the safety is a good illustration of the perils of conservative play. A regular running play would've at least stood a decent chance of getting us out to the 4-yard-line, a crucial spot because you need to be at the 4 to allow the punter to drop back to his full normal depth.
The quarterback sneak was very unlikely to get that much yardage. Assuming it would get the average one yard - as it did - you'd still have to hand off in the end zone for a tailback run, so really nothing of significance was gained. Sure, the safety resulted more from Julio's second-down drop than from the wasted down - but you never have downs to waste, and even less so when you're pinned deep and need to get out to the 4.
Am I a bad person? Hey, I'm always anti-injury for our guys, their guys, or neutral guys. But I like it when my team goes a-knockin', and I have to confess it was difficult not to get a perverse thrill when so many LSU players kept getting up slowly play after play. Yeah, it's a bad thing, and OK, I'm just a bad person, but on the other hand most of the injuries were not severe.
In fact, and totally separate from the issue of the depths of my evil, what happened will likely go some length toward getting inside those purple-and-gold helmets. Because we're gonna play these guys again next year, and they'll be just as talented and not quite as young.
It was a big win, and a more dominant one than the scoreboard indicated. What looked like the Tide's biggest worry not long ago, the passing game, has gradually crept back into the "solid" category. Nobody ever doubted Bama's running game or the D.