The primary story line of this year’s Alabama-LSU game has been the Crimson Tide run defense against the outstanding – and now healthy – Tigers tailback Leonard Fournette. That might be the case in any event, but the proposition has expanded by events dating from last year, and continuing through this season.
No. 1 ranked Alabama (8-0 overall and 5-0 in Southeastern Conference games) goes to Baton Rouge Saturday to take on 13th-ranked LSU (5-2, 3-1) in a game that will be nationally televised by CBS with a prime time kickoff at 7 p.m. CDT.
Anyone with even a casual interest in Alabama vs. LSU is aware that in last year’s game Fournette, one of the finest tailbacks in the college game, was held to 31 yards on 19 carries in Bama’s 30-16 win. This year, Fournette missed three games with an injury, but came back with a school record 284 yards on only 16 carries and scored three touchdowns in the Tigers’ last outing against Ole Miss. This year he is averaging 167.5 yards per game and 8.1 yards per rush.
Alabama, though, has been outstanding in rushing defense, leading the nation in allowing only 70.1 yards per game and allowing only two teams (Ole Miss with 101 and Texas A&M with 114) to reach the 100-yard mark.
By his own account, Alabama Coach Nick Saban has changed strategy from the big men designed to stop a “regular” power run game like LSU’s to the more prevalent spread formations the Tide sees in most games.
So is Alabama ready to face Fournette?
“I think Arkansas was a similar team in terms of how they try to run the football,” Saban said. The Razorbacks had 36 rushes for 73 yards.
But, Saban allowed, Arkansas’s offensive line is not as good as the one Bama will face in Baton Rouge. And, he said, “I don’t think anybody has as good of running backs as we’re going to see.
“So it will be a real challenge for us, a real test for us.”
In addition to Fournette, the Tigers have a second tailback in Derrius Guice who has averaged 8.0 yards per carry and 88.7 yards per game.
Saban also is impressed with Danny Etling, who has taken over quarterback duties for the Tigers. Etling has completed 47 of 89 passes (60.5 per cent) for 1,129 yards and 7 touchdowns with 3 interceptions.
“I think he is a really smart player,” Saban said. “I think he does some ‘check-wht-me’s at the line to get them in the right plays based on the defense that they are playing against. I think he plays within himself very well. They’ve made a lot more explosive plays because of his ability to pass the ball and they have very good skill players that can make big plays down the field.
“That balance with their great running game makes it very difficult on defensive teams and I think he’s the guy that makes it work for them.”
Saban, though, is most concerned with his own team.
“When you get in this part of the season you really want to be trying to play your best football as a team,” he said. “Obviously, the way you practice, the way you prepare, the way you can stay focused on not only what to do, but how to do it and knowing why it's important to do it that way, which is all about technique and fundamentals, which I think at this time of season, the way you practice, you change game plans every week, you change plays, you change defenses, you play different kinds of offenses, you play different kinds of defenses. Those things are the things that have to stay with you. They have to help you play good football at this time of year.
"It's another opportunity for our team. For a great competitor, you love games like this. We have four games where we play really good teams in our division. This is obviously one of the best teams in our league as well and will be a real challenge for us. But it will still come down to who can sustain and play with consistency, blocking, tackling, doing their job. Not give up big plays, making big plays, taking care of the ball. All those fundamental things all contribute to having success or being unsuccessful.”