The most distinctive element of the BCS Championship game in January was the Alabama defense’s dominance of the LSU offense in its 21-0 victory.
The Tigers had 92 yards and five first downs, and 39 of their 44 plays were run between their 18- and 49-yard lines.
They didn’t enter Crimson Tide territory until midway through the fourth quarter. When they finally reached the Tide 32 on quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s 18-yard run, they looked like a team uncomfortable to be there.
Michael Ford was stopped for a 5-yard loss, and tackle Chris Faulk false-started. Jefferson threw two incompletions, and on fourth down he was sacked for a 10-yard loss and fumbled, returning the ball to Alabama at midfield.
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The offensive futility stood out so much that two days later, when the LSU men’s basketball team played at Bama, the Tide students cheered sarcastically when the Tigers crossed midcourt the first time.
Now, Bama is back, bringing the No. 1 defense in the country into Tiger Stadium to face an LSU offense that hasn’t demonstrated it has any more firepower than last season’s.
In the buildup to this game, a hot topic has been the Tigers’ ongoing offensive issues — issues whose genesis came two months earlier as the Tigers were grinding out a 9-6 overtime victory against Bama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It was the third possession of the second half in a game that was tied at 3-3, and LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee threw his second interception of the game, setting up a field goal that gave Bama the lead.
Tigers coach Les Miles, who had been playing Jordan Jefferson for a few series each game as a complement to Lee, decided to go with Jefferson the rest of the game.
“I think the ramifications of Jarrett Lee’s second interception in that game are still being felt even to this day,” said Gary Danielson, who was the color analyst on CBS’ broadcast of that game and will be again Saturday night. “The coaching staff and the team lost confidence in how they throw the ball.”
Jefferson’s ability to run the ball was an important factor in the Tigers winning that game, and he was the starter the rest of the season with Lee only getting a few mop-up snaps in a couple of games and never entering the BCS title game.
A year later, it’s Zach Mettenberger who’s being asked to manage LSU’s run-oriented offense much the way Lee did as the Tigers won four games while Jefferson was suspended to begin last season and three more before the changing of the guard in Tuscaloosa.
LSU has run the ball well this year as it did last year, but opposing defenses have become increasingly more disdainful of the Tigers passing game, crowding around the line of scrimmage to contain the run. LSU has rarely made anyone pay by hitting big plays in the passing game.
In its last game against Texas A&M two weeks ago, the Tigers had a season-low 97 passing yards, and Mettenberger tied his season low with 11 completions even though he threw a season-high 29 passes.
So, one of the biggest questions for the Tigers is how in the world are they going to make any more than a cameo appearance on Bama’s side of the field this time?
“Well, I don’t have a panacea,” said Brian Griese, who was the color analyst on ESPN’s broadcast of the LSU-Texas A&M game. “At some point, you’re going to have to trust your guys. Can they block those guys and feel confident enough to put three or four guys in the route?”
Griese said LSU’s consistent use of maximum protection, often using two running backs and/or a tight end to block and leaving just two or three players to run pass routes, limited Mettenberger’s ability to make completions. The Tigers threw several deep passes but didn’t connect on any.
“They had some receivers open down the field, and two or three times Zach threw the ball over the receiver’s head,” Griese said. “I think he was trying to throw the perfect ball there. Sometimes, you have to throw the ball short and give the receiver the opportunity to come back and make a play.”
Miles has said repeatedly that LSU will throw the ball more, throw it more efficiently, throw it farther down the field and ultimately find offensive balance. But even when the Tigers have thrown more, they have been unable to throw it better.
The Tigers were unable to throw the ball effectively in either game against Alabama last season. Most of the limited success they had in the overtime victory came when Jefferson ran the option.
But Mettenberger is strictly a pocket passer, so LSU doesn’t have the option as an option, unless Miles is ready to unveil a new wrinkle with someone other than Mettenberger at quarterback.
Somehow, some way, LSU has to find a way to be balanced on offense.
“You have to mix it up,” Danielson said. “I don’t see any other path to winning.
“Being balanced on offense doesn’t mean you have to be 50-50 in running and passing. It means the defense has to believe you can run or pass on any down.”
Danielson said the Tigers have to trust Mettenberger, a first-year starter, and the passing game enough to attack the Bama defense through the air.
He noted how Alabama limited AJ McCarron’s responsibility in the overtime game last season, then gave him a more prominent role in the title game. McCarron responded by being the Offensive MVP in the title game and he has been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation in an expanded role this season.
“The hardest thing for a quarterback to do is earn the confidence of the coaching staff,” Danielson said. “It’s easier to earn the confidence of the fans. It’s easier to earn the confidence of your teammates. But the last piece is earning the confidence of the coaching staff.”
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