TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – For eight games, the LSU linebackers were an afterthought of a talented and dominant Tigers’ defense, sometimes to the point of being maligned.
The combination of facing a variety of spread offenses, the LSU defensive coaches leaning more toward a 4-2-5 scheme and inexperience leading to underwhelming results left the linebackers on the outside looking in most of the time when the media heaped praise on the Tigers’ defense.
So while there might’ve been some trepidation by some of LSU’s defenders about facing one of the top running backs in the country, the leader of the linebacker corps was jazzed about the prospect.
Ryan Baker caused a minor ripple of controversy during the week before the LSU-Alabama game when he confidently proclaimed he was looking forward to taking on Crimson Tide star running back Trent Richardson, even in one-on-one situations.
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Turns out that enthusiasm was well-founded.
Baker delivered his strongest game of the season with a team-high and season-best eight tackles to spearhead a defensive performance that was on shaky footing at times in the first half.
“This was one of those games a linebacker kind of lives for,” Baker said. “Nobody’s running away from you, there’s no misdirection. It’s just old-school football.”
And the Tigers (9-0, 6-0 SEC) found a way to outlast Alabama, old-school style, although it didn’t start out the way.
Sparked largely by Richardson’s big first half, the Tide rolled up 181 yards in the first 30 minutes, four times driving into long field-goal range and never punting.
By contrast, in a grind-it-out second half, the Tide scratched out only six first downs 114 yards and quarterback A.J. McCarron threw two costly interceptions.
On a fourth-quarter drive when Alabama was in driving into position to score the go-ahead points, LSU came up with huge back-to-back plays when Brandon Taylor dropped Richardson for a 6-yard loss on first down from the Tide 41 and Ron Brooks followed with a 4-yard loss, two plays that helped force a punt from near midfield.
Then in overtime, Sam Montgomery dumped McCarron for a 5-yard sack on third-and-15 – a play he called the biggest of his life – to force a 52-yard field goal try that never came close.
“We were on their side of the field the majority of the time of the time (in the first half), and we just had to make plays,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “(Defensive line coach Brick Haley) made an emphasis on stopping them, making plays in the backfield and getting them off the field as soon as possible.”
Baker said there some adjustments made at halftime, but the about-face was more about attitude and tenacity than anything physical.
“We went back to our roots,” he said. “In that first half, adrenalin was running and we didn’t have the mindset we should’ve had.”
Not to mention the Tide offensive line was as good as advertised and maybe even more than the Tigers expected.
Much of Alabama’s offensive success had come against defenses nowhere near the caliber of LSU’s.
Besides Penn State and Florida, the Tide hadn’t faced a team with similar defensive talent to the Tigers, so it was hard to gauge just how good Alabama’s offense might be other than Richardson.
Any doubt was wiped out early in the game when the Tide o-line consistently blew LSU off the line of scrimmage and helped produce six plays of 18 yards or longer on 31 first-half snaps.
That dried up in the second half, which is opposite of the formula Alabama had followed all season when it allowed foes to score only 22 second-half points in eight games – throwing shutouts over the final two quarters in five of those, four in a row against SEC opponents.
“That first series, I was very shocked,” said Montgomery, who had both of LSU’s sacks. “I didn’t know they were that strong. They were the most physical offensive line I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“They said they wore down a lot of teams in the second half – not LSU. We have too much pride for that to happen.”
And plenty of defense as it turned out, to outdo arguably the best defense in the country.
“Our defensive performance was the difference in the game,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “The turnovers, being stingy start to finish and playing off the mat.
“(Defensive coordinator) John Chavis got the game ball just because the defense just kept going out there and playing. In overtime we ended up playing defense first and frankly the defense just stymied them.”