Alabama's offense proves to be its best defense in victory over LSU
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- AJ McCarron knew Alabama was well on its way to a victory over LSU on Saturday night when his offensive linemen raised both the level of their performance and their volume in the second half.
"Any time those big boys start screaming and getting hyped up when they come back to the huddle, you know they're up to something good," said Alabama's fifth-year senior quarterback. "You could tell we had momentum."
Coach Nick Saban's Crimson Tide teams are generally known for their stingy defenses, but in 2013, Alabama's best defense may be its offense. Saturday's matchup with the Tigers began as a back-and-forth affair, with the teams tied 17-17 midway through the third quarter. The Tide soon pulled away, however, methodically grinding out three straight 70-plus yard touchdown drives to bleed the life out of their SEC West rivals and win by a final margin of 38-17.
"What we need for our offense is to control the tempo of the game," said Saban, "and they did that in the second half."
Alabama (9-0) had not been seriously tested since its 49-42 shootout win over Texas A&M in Week 3. In allowing a combined 26 points in six subsequent games against overmatched foes, it showed no reason to doubt that it had shored up early-season deficiencies in its secondary. But LSU's aerial attack, which features future NFL players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger and receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, posed a substantially tougher challenge. For more than two quarters, 'Bama's defensive backs struggled mightily to contain it.
In the first half, Mettenberger completed 10-of-13 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. That included a 45-yard completion to Landry, who burned cornerback Deion Belue, and a 28-yard strike to Kadron Boone (also against Belue). Alabama linebacker Tana Patrick's goal-line strip of LSU fullback J.C. Copeland saved one touchdown, but the Tigers still trailed just 17-14 at halftime. Saban, suffice it to say, was not pleased.
"I told [the defensive backs] at halftime, look, you've got to cover them," said Saban.
On the first play of the third quarter, Mettenberger completed a 22-yard pass that deflected off Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and into the hands of LSU tight end Dillon Gordon. That set up a game-tying field goal. It would be Mettenberger's last significant downfield completion of the night, in part because the Tide tightened their coverage, but more so because he wouldn't get many more opportunities.
Stud Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon made sure of that.
After LSU tied the game at 17, the Tide's offense took the field at their own 21-yard line. Over the course of a 14-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that spanned nearly eight minutes, McCarron handed the ball to Yeldon eight times for 50 yards. McCarron attempted just one pass, a 13-yard completion to wide receiver Amari Cooper to convert a third-and-four. Upon getting the ball back with 15 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Alabama drove another 71 yards to the end zone, with Yeldon accounting for 48 of them on six carries and one reception.
Yeldon would finish the night with 25 carries for 133 yards and two touchdowns. It was his most productive game since ... 'Bama's win at Texas A&M on Sept. 14.
"That dude is awesome and I love blocking for him," said Alabama tackle Austin Shepherd. "He makes us look good."
After forcing LSU to go three and out, the Tide took over at their own 22-yard line with 9:10 left. This time, they drained five minutes on an eight-play scoring drive. McCarron's three-yard touchdown pass to Jalston Fowler put the game away, 38-17.
"We didn't play great in the first half, but [showed] a lot of character in the second half to control the line of scrimmage the way we did on offense," said Saban, who called the performance "our best half of football" this season.
With Alabama's offense controlling the clock, the defense limited Mettenberger -- who was so hot early -- to just four passing attempts in the fourth quarter. After Alabama went up 31-17, Beckham Jr., who Saban made a point of seeking out after the game to compliment, returned the subsequent kickoff 82 yards to the Tide 18. But the Tigers came away with no points. Mosley and Landon Collins stuffed Jeremy Hill for a three-yard loss on first down. Collins broke up a pass on second down. Mosley deflected a pass on third down, and Mettenberger's fourth-and-13 heave fell harmlessly incomplete.
Alabama also ratcheted up the pressure in the second half, sacking Mettenberger three times, because Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart felt better about their defensive backs' adjustments.
"The way they play, you're out on an island against [their receivers]," said Belue. "[Saban] put us in man-to-man, it was all on us. We had to be our best in the second half."
Folks in Tallahassee surely took notice in the first half when Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham Jr. were carving up Alabama's defense. Following Oregon's 26-20 loss to Stanford on Thursday, BCS No. 2 Florida State now controls its own destiny as it seeks a possible national title game collision with the Tide -- and the 'Noles happen to have star quarterback Jameis Winston and a trio of fabulous receivers. Who's to say Florida State, not Alabama, isn't the best team in the country?
Still, it seems a stretch to nitpick the sport's reigning juggernaut following a 21-point win over the No. 10 team in the AP Poll. Alabama's defense is not at the same level of its 2009, '11 or '12 BCS title teams, but the Tide's offense is unquestionably the most potent of any squad in Saban's tenure. It starts with its two-time champion quarterback, who was an efficient 14-of-20 for 179 yards with three touchdowns. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake (10 carries, 65 yards) form 'Bama's latest enviable tailback tandem. And McCarron's cadre of receiving targets seems to grow by the game. On Saturday, 6-foot-6, 237-pound freshman tight end O.J. Howard showed off blazing speed on a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the second quarter.
"Any time you have balance, it helps dictate what you want to do," said McCarron. "It helps put their defense in a bind."
If Alabama can help out its own defense in the process, that's all the better.