Photos: Alabama defeats LSU in OT _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU running back Terrence Magee (18) skirts through the hole opened up by LSU offensive tackle La'El Collins (70) and LSU offensive lineman Ethan Pocic (77) to pick up good yardage during the first half Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014 in Baton Rouge.

Have you seen the one where Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen grabs a Texas A&M offensive lineman by the shoulder pads and tosses him to the ground like a rag doll?

Have you watched the one in which Da’Shawn Hand, another Bama defensive lineman, uses one hand to shove a 300-plus-pound offensive lineman so hard that the blocker ends up tumbling onto his keister?

Have you heard about the best one of them all? Allen surges off the line of scrimmage, shoves past the guard trying to block him and then does the unimaginable for a 6-foot-3, 290-pounder: He leaps over Texas A&M’s running back and slams into Trevor Knight like a quarterback-seeking missile, driving him to the turf.

K.J. Malone has seen it. So has Ethan Pocic. And, more than likely, so has the rest of LSU’s offensive line.

“I was like, ‘Whoa,’ ” said Malone, the Tigers' starter at left tackle. “That was impressive.”

“I was just watching (No.) 93 jump over the running back,” Pocic said during an interview session earlier this week that followed a film session. “Real explosive play.”

This is Alabama’s strength: speedy, athletic and powerful players on one of the best defensive fronts in the game, the standard bearers of a defense that LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron called one of the best in college football history.

Of all the interesting storylines, all the key matchups, all the critical issues surrounding No. 15 LSU’s meeting Saturday night with top-ranked Alabama in Tiger Stadium, this rises above all. It’s the storyline.

It’s all on the line — LSU’s offensive line.

Players know it, too. Linemen point to themselves when asked about the key to this game. They shoulder the load, just like they took the blame for last year’s carnage in Tuscaloosa, when then-Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette mustered just 31 rushing yards in a 30-16 loss.

A Bama defender contacted Fournette at or behind the line of scrimmage on 13 of his 19 carries in that game. Only once did he reach the second level — the linebackers — without having been touched.

“It’s bad,” Malone said. “It’s on us.”

 

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It’s tough to believe things will be different this time. LSU lost its two starting tackles from last year, a pair of drafted players, and each of the Tigers' linemen is nursing or has nursed an injury at some point this season — a knee, a shoulder, an ankle.

Sure, last week's open date helped in healing, but offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ group is still nicked and scraped, the price of playing in the trenches in the nation’s most physical conference.

Three starting members of Bama’s front seven are projected by CBSSports.com as selections in the top 16 of the 2017 NFL draft: Allen; Baton Rouge native Tim Williams, a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker; and linebacker Reuben Foster. Two more — Hand and linebacker Ryan Anderson — are projected to be picked in the first five rounds.

Allen is the highest ranked of the group, an athletic force whom CBSSports.com ranks as the third-best player in next year’s draft. Allen’s season so far includes six sacks, a blocked field goal, two fumbles returned for touchdowns and 35 tackles. 

“They’re very strong up front, and it starts with that great technique they have,” said Orgeron, a former defensive line coach himself. “All of those guys are really good players. It’s going to be a challenge.”

Orgeron and players this week have referred to Saturday’s game in a number of ways: a fistfight, a war, a battle. It’s clear where the game will be won — the place the Crimson Tide has dominated in five straight meetings.

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LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes calls a play against Auburn, Saturday, September 24, 2016 at Auburn University's Jordan-Hare Stadium, Pat Dye Field in Auburn, Al.

Just look to the statistics of those past five games in the series. Alabama has 15 sacks to LSU’s eight, and the Tide is averaging 173 rushing yards to LSU’s 91.

The Tigers aren’t the only ones struggling against the unbeaten Tide. Alabama leads the nation in sacks (four per game) and allows just 70 rushing yards per game, 20 fewer than the next-best team.

Bama's dominant run — four of the past seven national championship trophies reside in Tuscaloosa — can be easily explained, said Booger McFarland, the former LSU defensive tackle and current SEC Network analyst: Alabama has the best players, and they’re coached by the best coach.

There’s more to it than that, though, when talking about this salty defensive front. LSU players saw it on film when watching Alabama games last season and those from this year. The defense's first and second levels are different than any other in college football.

Sure, they’re big and strong and fast, and they have solid technique. But they’re also “football smart,” LSU players said. They play what Pocic referred to as a “stagnant” front, holding their positions at the line and, because of their power and size, occupying two gaps.

“Their D-line tries to hold their gap more than other team,” Malone said. “Other teams try to beat you to the point of attack. Their D-line is more holding their gap and try to make a play.”

The recipe for stopping this is getting “low and driving them off the ball,” Malone said. This is about the “one-on-one” battles, quarterback Danny Etling said. The Tigers must win them on the front line, something they failed to do a season ago.

On one rushing play of last year’s game, LSU’s interior offensive line — center Pocic and guards Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema — get pushed back 3 to 4 yards from their original alignment within the play's first 2 seconds. They were shoved into the backfield so hard that they bumped into the ball carrier.

“They just beat us,” Pocic said. “We got beat.”

Orgeron called protecting Etling the "whole key of the game" and a “first” on the to-do list when it comes to hanging with the Tide. Multiple offensive linemen said this week that they’re more prepared this time around. Clapp even said this year’s game provides a “little better matchup” with the Tide.

“I think our offensive line is hungry after last year,” tight end Colin Jeter said. “Everybody is just ready to go. We’re going to be prepared. We’re hungry.”

 

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The Tide’s depth on the defensive line is another part of this tale. Coach Nick Saban rotates as many as eight players on his front four. That’s not necessarily the problem, Clapp said; the capability of the backups is the problem.  

“The thing that makes them great is there’s not a drop-off when they rotate,” Clapp said. “When these guys rotate in, these guys are just as good as the starters. That’s what makes them a very good team.”

Bama rotates between playing a 3-4 front and a 4-3 front. Its scheme is contingent on the offensive formation, Pocic said.

"They do it all well,” he said.

Of course they do.

LSU's offensive linemen are well aware of that, and so is anyone else who watches the clips of Bama’s defensive linemen shredding blockers. Count Orgeron in the group of people who have seen the play where Allen leaps over A&M tailback Trayveon Williams.

“I have a vision,” Orgeron said, “of him jumping over that tailback, hitting the quarterback.”

Behind the line

Alabama defenders contacted Leonard Fournette before he fully crossed the line of scrimmage on 13 of his 19 carries during last year’s game in Tuscaloosa. Here’s where defenders first made contact with the Tigers star on those carries:

  • Behind line: 6 times
  • At line: 7 times
  • 1 yard: 3 times
  • 2 yards: 2 times
  • 3 or more: 1 time

At the line

Alabama has controlled the line of scrimmage during its five-game winning streak over LSU:

 Team

 Rushing

 Sacks

 Alabama

 173 ypg

 15

 LSU

 91 ypg

 8

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.