LSU’s aerial attack takes aim at Bama again

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (8) tries to fit a throw in past Furman defenders. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (8) tries to fit a throw in past Furman defenders.

A spiral to Jarvis Landry’s back shoulder last season was the first hint of booming production from LSU’s passing game this season.

The LSU receiver jumped over Alabama cornerback Deion Belue on a perfect fade pattern from quarterback Zach Mettenberger in the south end zone of Tiger Stadium last November to start a string of seven consecutive games with a scoring grab.

Landry, now a junior with 573 receiving yards and five touchdowns, thought maybe the Tide would be subdued that day.

“It was that thought in my mind,” he said.

The rest is known: a poor four-minute drill, kicker Drew Alleman’s 45-yarder missing its mark and Alabama marching for a 21-17 victory, blotting out the breakthrough performance for the men carrying its now-efficient passing game.

A year later, the productivity of Mettenberger, Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. for No. 11 LSU (7-2, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) doesn’t induce the same sense of surprise as the Tigers prep for top-ranked Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0), which boasts a defense that, outside of an early strafing at Texas A&M, hasn’t faced an aerial attack rated better than No. 35 nationally.

Might it stand to reason that a Cam Cameron-orchestrated attack, one putting up 278.7 yards per game, might test Bama vertically?

Nope. LSU coach Les Miles pulled out his familiar talking point.

“What you’ll see is a very competitive run and pass,” he said. “The ability to throw it deep, as well as intermediate and short, and the ability to run the football. That’s the best way to work against a very quality defense.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban, in his own understated and subdued manner, lauded Mettenberger and the receiving duo responsible for 1,891 yards and 16 touchdowns on 106 catches.

“He’s probably playing as well as any quarterback in our league,” Saban said Wednesday. “They’ve got really good skill players outside. Zach does a really good job of executing their offense. He’s got a good arm. He’s a good thrower. He’s a very accurate passer, and he throws the ball to the right place.”

It’s a far cry from 12 months ago, when LSU entered its open week before facing Alabama reeling after throwing for a paltry 96 yards in a victory at Texas A&M. The widely held assumption was LSU would till up the Tiger Stadium turf. Instead, Mettenberger rolled up 296 yards on 25-of-36 passing.

Seven days before his first and only start at Bryant-Denny Stadium, that might qualify as an average outing for the senior, even if he has only completed 59.4 percent of his passes and thrown five interceptions — three coming against Ole Miss and a pick six against Furman — in the past three weeks.

Still, Mettenberger has 104 completions of 10-plus yards this season, which ranked sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and he has sought Beckham on deep outs and down the seam. But Mettenberger also has moved the chains on third down, racking up 435 yards and six touchdowns with a 73.5 completion percentage when LSU needs more than 4 yards by relying on Landry.

Broaching the notion that Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart won’t present a confusing array of alignments, fronts and coverages is foolhardy enough. But even if Saban used an extra week to devise a series of baffling tweaks, Mettenberger said LSU can’t devise a counterattack for a plan whose details are unknown.

“We’re not going to make up stuff,” Mettenberger said when asked what LSU plans to do in that event. “We’re going to go off the film of what they’ve run so far this year. ... They’re not going to get too far away from what they’ve done.”

Which bring us back to last season against the Tide. The Tigers’ ability to tax Bama’s secondary was the big reveal after 14 days of planning. If any other plans are in the works, Mettenberger is using the extra time to find them.

“It gives you more time to check every play they’ve run this year,” Mettenberger said. “It’s more time to overprepare.”