Aspirations of beating Alabama have been exceedingly prominent for LSU for a long time, never more strongly than the last six years, which coincide with an unseemly losing streak the SEC’s longtime standard bearer.
To accomplish that lofty goal requires that the Tigers play their best game of the season, and the idea of some wrinkles and ingenuity mixed in certainly doesn’t hurt.
On Saturday night, LSU split the difference in those accounts and that wasn’t nearly enough.
The Tigers’ defense turned in the best game it has played so far, but Alabama extended its winning streak over LSU to six games, each one frustrating in its own way. The latest dose of ‘what might’ve been’ was mingled with ‘what the hell happened.’
As in, why has the Tigers’ offense, which soared to new heights in the first three games under the watch of a revamped coaching staff suddenly revert to stale, ineffective ways?
From the day Ed Orgeron took over for Les Miles and installed Steve Ensminger as the offensive coordinator, there has been a promise – often spoken and certainly implied – that the Tigers were going to open the throttle on offense. Spread things out and distribute the ball to an impressive crew of playmakers with chances to make plays.
Three games in, records were falling, points piled up and LSU was just fun to watch again. All that offensive talent was unwrapped at the same time for the first time in a while, in large part because the coaches moved away from an overemphasis on power running and relying too heavily on the wonderful talents of Leonard Fournette.
The Tigers diversified and kept defenses on their heels because so many weapons were locked and loaded.
Then Saturday came and LSU reverted and three weeks of success came crumbling down.
The numbers are ugly: 125 total yards, only 33 rushing, six first downs. The second half was particularly excruciating to watch as the Tigers managed only 25 yards on 18 snaps.
To be fair and realistic, Alabama’s defense had as much to do with LSU’s struggles as anything else. After getting peppered at times in previous SEC games, the Crimson Tide was clamp-down nasty on Saturday.
And for some reason, LSU again stubbornly played right into Alabama’s hands by removing all the sugar, spice and anything nice from the offensive scheme.
Nothing worked for the Tigers, but then very little was attempted. No misdirection, only an occasional reliance on short passing plays, no tempo – nothing too far removed from a very vanilla game plan that was based on Fournette setting the tone and helping establish the play-action game.
Only that never happened. For the second year in a row, Alabama all but removed Fournette from the game. He managed only 35 yards on 17 carries and never broke free for anything longer than 9 yards.
So if the power back is bottled up that badly, you shift gears with the change-of-pace guy, right? Give Derrius Guice a shot to attack on the edges. Makes perfect sense.
Nope. Guice got the ball twice for 8 yards. That’s only two times more than you or I carried the ball.
With Fournette slowed and Guice never breaking a sweat, quarterback Danny Etling was thrust into a role to carry more of the load and that didn’t work.
The junior transfer, so solid in four of the previous five games, connected on only 11-of-24 passes for 92 yards and never looked comfortable against Alabama’s intense pressure.
Pinning the offense’s worst performance since a 17-0 loss at Arkansas two years ago on the skill-position players wouldn’t be fair or accurate. In fact, the LSU offensive line’s inability to gain any traction against the Tide front seven was more problematic than anything else.
Which makes it even harder to understand why there weren’t some different wrinkles incorporated into the game plan or at least installed at halftime to relieve the pressure on the o-line and Etling.
Football seasons are long journeys with plenty of peaks and valleys. After three weeks of steady climbing, the Tigers slipped down the hill Saturday.
And a big reason why was an unimaginative, all-too-familiar offensive game plan that never gave the Tigers much of a chance.