It's almost time for Saturday night in Death Valley. With the game's hype reaching its pinnacle, I caught up with Ben Love of Tiger Sports Digest to get some LSU perspective.
Laken Litman: LSU's offense seemingly lacks an identity. If and when Alabama makes the Tigers one-dimensional Saturday, how will quarterback Zach Mettenberger be able to lead the team with his arm? Is he capable of leading a successful passing attack?
Ben Love: I don't know that it's fair to say LSU's offense lacks an identity. That gives the impression the coaches are confused about the direction, schemes they want to employ. I think it's more accurate to say the Tigers haven't been able to establish the identity they want. And the primary reason for that is because the downfield passing game hasn't taken flight as they (or anybody, frankly) expected.
Les Miles, Greg Studrawa & Co. are on the same page about what they'd prefer to be on offense: run-first, run-heavy and then throw deep from base sets when teams crowd the box too much to key on the run. Zach Mettenberger just hasn't been able to scare teams out of the box, though. Part of it's on him – nobody realized before the season that pocket awareness would be such an issue with the guy. Part of it's on the receivers – they're a corps who has had way too many drops and, at times, has struggled to gain separation. And, during the first few weeks of the season, part of it was on the offensive line – they were unable to protect Mett consistently.
The offensive line has pulled together more of late with several new pieces getting their bearings. The receivers, particularly junior Kadron Boone, have begun to hold up to their end of the bargain a bit more when called upon. It's Mettenberger who hasn't quite found the rhythm yet, consistently overthrowing deep balls – to open receivers – in College Station two weeks ago. If the game falls on his shoulders entirely Saturday, it won't be pretty for LSU. But, if the Tigers can gain some traction on the ground and Mett only has to complete a couple of passes longer than 20 yards, I'm not willing to say that's an impossible task for him.
LL: The offensive line has been bitten by the injury bug several times this season. How will the youngsters—namely redshirt freshman Trai Turner and true freshman Vadal Alexander—help the front five work as a cohesive unit to be able to handle Alabama's defensive line?
BL: Funny thing is, even with a veteran in junior Josh Williford coming back this week from a concussion suffered during the Florida game, LSU feels like it's better off sticking with the youth movement. Williford may be used before the game's over, but all indications are that redshirt freshman Trai Turner will get the nod at right guard, where he's played exclusively the past two and a half games next to fellow youngster Vadal Alexander, LSU's starting right tackle post-Alex Hurst.
The staff is extremely comfortable with Alexander, who came in from Buford, Ga., during spring ball and entered the fall with a leg up on the other true freshmen. He's massive at 6-6, 350, and has a necessary mean streak about him. As for Turner, he has proven to be an upgrade from Williford in the mobility department. The coaches have enjoyed pulling him and getting him out in front on counters and screens. He has great footwork and speed for a big guy.
So, despite their age and relative inexperience, they've actually given LSU's line a shot in the arm after losing All-SEC left tackle Chris Faulk and three-year starter Alex Hurst on the right side. What'll be most interesting to me this weekend on LSU's O-Line is whether Miles will eventually turn things back over to Williford at right guard against Alabama because he's noticeably bigger (weight and height) than Turner. Seems like it might be the right play against a stout Tide front, but Turner's been playing so well. Will have to monitor.
LL: Obviously both of these defenses are two of the best in the country. The difference that gives Alabama the upper hand seems to be A.J. McCarron, who hasn't thrown an interception in 262 pass attempts and has thrown 18 touchdowns this season. What will LSU do to frustrate McCarron?
BL: Good question, and here's the interesting part. The past two seasons, when Tyrann Mathieu was in the fold, John Chavis loved to go frequently to his nickel and dime sets, where he could confuse opposing quarterbacks by sending Mathieu and other DBs into the backfield along with the likes of Sam Montgomery and KeKe Mingo. But with Mathieu gone and Alabama's offensive style dictating LSU stay more in its base 4-3, I wouldn't expect a ton of that on Saturday. Basically Chavis knows if he gets too cute with bringing in five and six DBs, ‘Bama can make the Tigers pay on the ground.
So the task of frustrating McCarron falls even more heavily on the individual efforts of Montgomery, Mingo and LSU's other two rotational ends, Lavar Edwards and Jermauria Rasco. Ditto on the inside for Freak Johnson and Josh Downs, the Tigers' best pass-rushing options at defensive tackle. I'd also look for more blitzes from LSU's freshmen outside linebackers, namely Lamar Louis and Debo Jones.
The answer to your question is pressure. It's how the Tigers accomplish that which will be different from how they've done it in years past.
LL: The Tide hasn't truly been tested yet this season. They're outscoring teams 325-65 and their starters haven't had to even really play in the fourth quarter. Do you think that's an advantage for LSU considering they have been put in tight situations this season and have had to play all 60 minutes?
BL: Without question I think it's one of LSU's biggest advantages heading into Saturday. I'm not sure how much it will count for, but it definitely means something that Miles' bunch has been punched in the mouth a few times already this season. Tasting adversity, as LSU did in a loss in Gainesville, clearly made the team hardened, hungrier. They were forced to bounce back immediately against No. 3 South Carolina, and they were able to come out with a win in front of a raucous home crowd.
Here's how I look at it in relation to this Saturday: If Alabama jumps out to a lead (familiar territory) and the LSU crowd is taken out of it to a degree, then this topic won't matter one lick. But if the inverse happens and Alabama is forced to stare its mortality in the mirror with Tiger Stadium going nuts, then, yeah, this topic will matter a whole heckuva lot.
LL: What's the attitude been like with Les Miles and the players this week? Nick Saban and Alabama are treating this game like it's any other Saturday.
BL: There's a bit of a weight or gravitas that's surrounded most of the interviews, be it with Miles or the players throughout the week. They know it's not just another game. They know how important it is to their goals this year. And, contrary to what many may think on the exterior, they want to win it because they want to play in Atlanta, not because they have to exact revenge from Jan. 9.
With all that said about their heightened awareness, there's also been undeniable confidence. It's not arrogance, but rather a feeling that after a week off to heal, tweak things offensively and study up on ‘Bama, they've got a legitimate shot in this one. I think they like their chances, but they also know this is far and away the biggest test they'll get all season. Finally, oddly enough, I get the sense they're enjoying a little bit being counted out by some, being 10-point underdogs, etc. It's a different feeling from how things were basically all of last season. It's motivated them to get respect.
CLICK HERE to see the five questions I answered for Tiger Sports Digest.