LSU defense seeks to make a stand at Alabama

Craig Loston dove.

T.J. Yeldon shifted.

Alabama won.

The play is tattooed in Loston’s mind. The LSU safety overpursued in a tackle attempt on the Alabama running back.

At the 15-yard line, Loston slid to the turf with nothing but Tiger Stadium grass in his hands.

In the end zone, Yeldon celebrated with jubilant teammates.

“The Screen” — that’s what they call the game-winning play in Alabama’s comeback over LSU last season, a 28-yard screen pass from AJ McCarron to Yeldon with 50 seconds left.

In a broad spectrum, “The Screen” determined the national champion and the SEC title winner last season. In a more narrow focus, the play is the biggest whiff of them all in LSU’s late-game strikes over the last two years.

They’re beginning to pile up: Alabama and Clemson last season, and Ole Miss and Georgia this year.

“We certainly have looked at it and work on the opportunity to maintain the ball,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think there’s some different strategy pieces, and I think there’s some different personnel in effect.”

When No. 10 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) meets No. 1 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the Tigers defense is the problem child.

It’s on the clock. It’s on the block.

A struggling unit all season long, the group is lacking its usual turnover-forcing ways (it has forced 12, ranking 10th in the league). It’s in the bottom of half of the SEC in third-down defense (38 percent) and opponents have scored 85 percent of the time after crossing into the Tigers’ red zone.

Toss those ugly stats aside, though. The late-game collapses are the daggers in the side, the ones that have LSU fans stomping their feet and coaches scratching their heads.

Players? They’re frustrated too.

“It’s simple,” linebacker Lamar Louis said trying to explain the late woes. “When you look at the guys before us, the other guys that closed out big games, and you look at us … it’s simple, we haven’t done that. We have the players. We have the coaches. We have the schemes. It’s just that want, that attitude.”

In each of LSU’s last four losses, the Tigers have allowed an opponent to score the game-winner on their last meaningful possession.

Alabama last season — and Loston’s diving miss — is only the most egregious offense because of the circumstances.

LSU allowed late-game scores in a loss to Clemson in last year’s Chick-fil-A Bowl and in road losses at Ole Miss and Georgia earlier this year.

In three of those games, the Tigers had the lead before the last-minute drive. Against Ole Miss, the game was tied.

Those four teams compiled 276 yards on 34 plays on their late game-winning drives. Each took over possession with less than 4 minutes, 30 second left.

They completed 17 of 21 passes and ran 11 times for 57 yards.

They shredded the Tigers.

Is LSU’s unit becoming known as a collapsing crew?

“I don’t think so,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “It’s just us holding (on to) our composure at times. We know the type of team we are. I think everybody else does, too.”

The secondary isn’t all to blame. There was lack of a pass rush in those games. The term “prevent” defense is hurled around by angry fans.

What’s the explanation here? Why the late-game meltdowns?

“There’s not an explanation,” Loston said. “We’ve got to learn how to finish as a team. I’m not going to point fingers and things like that. We’ve got to be able to finish and to wrap it up as a team.”

Loston’s mind wonders back to that last drive against Alabama. Tiger Stadium was rocking. LSU, an 8.5-point underdog, was up 17-14. Alabama had to move 72 yards for the win.

The Tide did it on four McCarron passes.

Mills and Collens were beat on an 18-yard pass on the first play. Micah Eugene lost his man on an 15-yarder, and then Collins failed to cover an 11-yard out route completion that set up the winning play.

Mills, who takes full blame for “The Screen,” blitzed from the right. He ran by Yeldon and into the face of McCarron.

Too late. McCarron had released the ball, and Yeldon had a clear path to the end zone until the 15-yard line.

At that point, LSU’s defense whiffed again.

“I think I was in a rush to get over there too fast,” said Loston, downtrodden still when discussing the play. “He cut back, and I missed the tackle and they ended up winning.”