NEW ORLEANS – It took four quarters and overtime for the first battle between No. 1-ranked LSU and No. 2 Alabama to be decided. And by game’s end, it was evident that each side had taken a beating unlike any other team on the schedule had delivered.
“The hits were big,” junior center P.J. Lonergan said. “You are playing with two equally talented teams. When you have two teams that talented it is going to be a hard-hitting, physical game.”
Sophomore Michael Ford, who helped spark the run game with a 72-yard rushing effort in Tuscaloosa, filed it away as the toughest college game he has been a part of, a point he reiterated to the media on Saturday.
“I would definitely say they are the most physical team we have played,” Ford said. “It was a hard-fought game. They kept bringing it and we kept bringing it. That just shows two hard teams playing against each other.”
When LSU first-year offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa was asked whether he would be surprised if the two teams got into a scoring battle, Studrawa laughed off the notion, telling reporters not to expect a Rose Bowl performance – making reference to the 45-38 shootout win by Oregon over Wisconsin in Pasadena on Monday.
Instead, all signs point to the rematch – this time for the BCS National Championship – as another slugfest, one where the Tigers will use tough running on offense and hard hitting on defense to take away the will of the Crimson Tide.
“I don’t know that we wore them down in the end (last game), but we are going to try,” Studrawa said. “It’s what we do versus anybody. We have done it all year long. We wear people down and have big plays in the second half.
“We are going to keep coming and coming.”
Finding an identity – and sticking to it
Studrawa’s description of his offensive game plan is simple: He wants to run the football to wear the opponent down and then attack through the air in play-action sets.
Run first and pass second.
Yet, offensively, there was plenty to be desired in LSU’s 9-6 win over Alabama – beginning with the play from senior quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee.
If there was one positive to circle from either passer, it was what Jefferson was able to do with his legs in the second half – specifically running the option with Ford.
Of course, the LSU offense is hard-pressed to believe the same calls will work twice in a row against a defensive-minded coach like Nick Saban, which is why Ford is pleased with what he’s seen from the offensive game plan thus far.
“I definitely think they are going to key on (the option),” Ford said. “We have to be players, and we have to do something else. We have a balanced offense. We have great receivers and great offensive lineman. We can go option or between the tackles or throw it over their head.
“They just have to prepare for what we are going to do.”
Fortunately for a team that relies heavily on the run, the Tigers have more than just Jefferson and Ford – who combined for 115 yards rushing in the first game.
While Ford has totaled a team-high 755 yards and 7 touchdowns on 123 attempts, sophomore Spencer Ware, the starter for much of the season, has rushed for 700 yards and 8 TDs.
Sophomore Alfred Blue, the change-of-pace option for running backs coach Frank Wilson, finished up with 539 yards and 7 touchdowns on 78 carries.
“A lot of times you think that’s a problem,” Studrawa said of the crowded backfield. “But with the sacrifices and all the things these kids have been through, they just want to win.”
This time around, unlike the days of Charles Scott and Stevan Ridley, one of the most important pieces could be the freshman of the group.
Kenny Hilliard, who stepped into a larger role towards the back half of the season, has contributed 8 touchdowns – tied with Ware for most on the team – and 320 yards on 57 touches.
Though he carried the ball on only two of LSU’s 41 rushing attempts against Alabama in the last game, Studrawa stressed that the former Patterson High standout has done enough maturing over the past month to warrant a much larger role in the game plan for round two.
“There are a couple more things you could put in for him,” Studrawa said. “There is a true freshman that each week was getting better. Once they have big games and are making big plays, they sparkle a little. That’s what happened with Kenny.
“He made some big plays and his confidence level now is sky high.”
With four running backs ready – and willing – to rotate, Studrawa’s confidence headed into the final game of the season is also sky high.
Not only does Studrawa see talent, but he also sees some pep in the step of that talent.
“At the end of the season we are playing those games and I am watching them play in practice, and they are not worn down,” Studrawa said. “I used to see Charles at the end of the year be worn out. That’s not the case. These kids are all fresh.
“Frank rotates those guys, and the first thing is to keep them fresh. He decides on who starts based on how they practice and what we are doing.”
Easy going in the Big Easy
You could say that Les Miles and LSU have adopted the mentality of New Orleans, the city the Tigers consider the playground in their backyard.
It’s the Big Easy, where life is enjoyed for the simplicity of it all – from enjoying good friends to soaking up the unique environment.
Sounds a lot like Tiger football, huh?
Unlike the all-business approach by Saban and Alabama, the Tigers enter the final weekend of a perfect season with the same smiles and worry-free stance that they took into the season opener against Oregon.
“(Miles) has kept everything the same way,” junior wide receiver Rueben Randle said. “He didn’t change anything because it was the BCS. He takes a lot of pressure off us and we can relax. You go out and play fast when you aren’t under a lot of pressure.”
For fourth-year players like Lonerganand Jefferson, it’s the same song and dance, one year after the next.
Other teams often come out tight, but the Tigers always seem to come out relaxed – and stay that way no matter how the game begins.
“We don’t really focus on what the other team is doing,” Lonergan said. “We are all comfortable with how we go about it and our process. It’s just how we do things.
“I have been doing it for four years. You get into the process. Coach Miles and Coach Stud have been there, and I haven’t had to go through any coaching changes or any of that. It’s been really enjoyable. We’ve stuck with it since I have been there.”
Jefferson added: “If (Miles) was uptight and stressed, that means he doesn’t have much confidence in us. His approach just lets us know he has a lot of confidence in his team.”
Studrawa called the approach unlike any he has seen from other college coaches, then in the same breath praised Miles for being ahead of the curve in realizing how to motivate a student-athlete without putting the pressure of the world onto his shoulders.
“We have had a very strict plan of how we do things,” Studrawa said. “We work them hard to keep them fresh, and the kids believe in it. It’s been successful over and over, so the kids bought in.”
On LSU fans getting a BCS Championship game in New Orleans for the third time…
“There are thousands of fans walking around the French Quarter. You can’t even walk by without them telling you something.” – Lonergan
“It’s kind of overwhelming. You get it every day, more than I have ever gotten. They want us to beat Alabama, and they say it every day. It’s students and fans and family members. It’s exciting to know we are on this big stage to play this type of game.” – Randle
“I think it will be 70-30 (LSU fans to Alabama fans). This is our second home, definitely. It’s right up the street for us. A lot of LSU fans will be there and in the stadium.” – Jefferson
On the development of the running backs...
“Kenny has blossomed so fast. But it’s not just Kenny. We help each other. It’s a learning curve. Everyone has to learn each and every day.” - Ford
On the depth of Alabama….
“I just think from front to back they are very talented. There is no real weakness.” – Lonergan
On how quickly Texas A&M and Missouri can find success in the SEC…
“Bodies are banged up throughout the year. The tough, physical games always come down to the wire. I think it will be difficult for a team outside the conference to get used to that. SEC has some great teams, and I am going to have to stick with the SEC. I think it will take maybe a few years for them to get on a competitive level. Recruiting is going to change.” – Jefferson