With most of the focus on the LSU-Alabama showdown focused on the two teams’ running game and how two talented defenses will concoct ways to stop each other from running, the notion of how the offenses will find some success is a bit of an afterthought.
Common sense tells you that if the Tigers and Crimson Tide can’t grind out yards, first downs and long drives on the ground, there will have to be some passing involved.
How does that mesh with what the LSU offense has done and wants to do against Alabama’s suffocating defense?
LSU will have to throw the ball to beat the Crimson Tide and that doesn’t faze Lee and his receivers in the least bit.
Yes, the Alabama secondary is stacked – Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick are two of the best DBs in the country. And the Tide is allowing an SEC-low 135.6 passing yards per game and has given up a league-low four touchdowns passes.
LSU’s 183.1 passing yards a game is only eighth in the SEC, but the Tigers have thrown a league-low 176 passes. Despite the fewest attempts, Lee has tossed 13 touchdown passes and Jefferson three, a combined total that is second in the SEC. And only one of those has been picked off.
It’s helped that LSU is throwing the ball when it wants to and not because the Tigers have had to. But the bottom line has created a lot of confidence for a team that was near the bottom of nearly every offensive category in the SEC – and a handful nationally – in 2010.
At the heart of the revitalized passing attack is a Lee-and-Randle chemistry that has generated most of the receiver’s 33 catches for 638 yards and seven TDs, all of which rank in the top five in the league.
With Randle stretching the field, Beckham Jr. has blossomed quickly and Shepard has been integrated quickly since his return from an NCAA suspension. Tight end DeAngelo Peterson has been up-and-down, but remains a viable weapon against any defense LSU faces because he’s a matchup nightmare.
Combined, those four players have snared 81 passes for 1,225 yards and 12 TDs.
Now all of that will be put to a serious test by an Alabama secondary that thrives on one-on-one matchups and being physical with receivers all over the field.
“It’s going to be a very physical matchup,” Randle said. “They’re big guys and we’re going have to use our speed and techniques we’ve learned to find a way to get open.
“They play a lot of zone, too, so we have to do a good job working against their safeties and corners.”
Randle is a major key if Alabama sticks to the man-to-man scheme. Last season his 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown early in the third quarter gave LSU a 10-7 lead and triggered a back-and-forth second-half battle.
With his 6-foot-4, 208-pound frame, Randle has blossomed as a route-runner and has a knack for springing wide open – especially on play-action calls when Lee is at QB.
The ripple effect if the Tide defense shifts gears should lead to more one-on-one looks for Beckham, Shepard and Peterson.
However and whenever the Tigers pass-catchers find a window, brief as those might be, the onus will be on Lee and Jefferson to deliver passes quickly and accurately.
Last season the two teamed up to throw for 208 yards, both connecting with Randle on deep throws.
Alabama’s secondary quartet of Barron, Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Robert Lester has combined for 24 pass breakups and three of the Tide’s nine interceptions. Barron is Bama’s second-leading tackler with 40.
Lee said the Tide secondary is rarely out of position and although there isn’t as much blitzing from there as some of coach Nick Saban’s previous teams, there is plenty of pre-snap shifting and disguising aimed at confusing the quarterback.
“They’re going to do those kind of things,” Lee said. “Pre-snap you could see something that could totally changes by the time the ball is snapped. You have to be aware of those things.”
That Lee is preparing to start a game against Alabama is the latest chapter in his rise-from-the-ashes tale.
As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Lee was picked off a career-worst four times in a 27-21 overtime loss against the top-ranked Crimson Tide – one pick was returned for a touchdown and the last came in the end zone in OT to squash the Tigers’ bid to score.
The next season Lee had to take over when Jefferson was hurt and threw another pick in the final minutes that thwarted any chance of a comeback in a 24-15 loss.
By contrast, his 47-yard hookup with Randle on third-and-13 in the fourth quarter last season helped the Tigers gobble up nearly 3 minutes late in the game and nurse a 24-21 lead.
“I’ve had some ups and downs against them over my career but I’ve just tried to overcome all that,” Lee said of his experience against Alabama. “It’s a new year and I’m a much more mature player than I was two or three years ago.
“I feel like I have a good understanding of them. … They’re a very talented football team so it’s going to take every day to kind of understand them.”
LSU quarterbacks/receivers vs. Alabama secondary
QB Jarrett Lee (6-2, 206, Sr.)
Jordan Jefferson (6-5, 225, Sr.)
WR Rueben Randle (6-4, 208, Jr.)
WR Odell Beckham Jr. (5-11, 183, Fr.)
WR Russell Shepard (6-1, 185, Jr.)
TE Deangelo Peterson (6-4, 235, Sr.)
Chase Clement (6-5, 251, Jr.)
CB DeQuan Menzie (6-0, 198, Sr.)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick (6-3, 192, Jr.)
SS Robert Lester (6-2, 210, Jr.)
FS Mark Barron (6-2, 218, Sr.)
Lee and Randle
vs. Kirkpatrick and Menzie
A big reason LSU’s passing game has clicked this season is the chemistry between Lee and Randle, who has emerged as the best deep-ball threat with 11 catches for 24 yards or longer and seven touchdown grabs. With a long stride and good strength coming off the line of scrimmage, Randle is able to get open quickly and leaving cornerbacks a step behind – eliminating much of the risk of downfield throws that stung Lee in 2008. So if Alabama tries to go man-up with either corner, the importance of how well and how often Randle can find open space will impact the fortunes of both teams.