During LSU’s loss to Alabama, as he battled some of the nation’s best defensive tackles, fought to block the country’s best linebackers and attempted to protect his quarterback from the league’s fastest defensive ends, Will Clapp felt like many LSU fans watching on television.
He was, somewhat, stunned. Alabama’s front dominated a Tigers offensive line that had dominated so many others this season.
“It definitely did catch me off guard,” said Clapp, the Tigers’ starting right guard. “It was a different game for us. I don’t know what we finished with on offensive stats, but it definitely felt like a different type of game.”
The stats from Alabama’s 30-16 win over LSU aren’t pretty – 54 rushing yards and two sacks – but those don’t even illustrate the extent of the blowout battle on the line of scrimmage.
LSU running back Leonard Fournette, entering averaging 193 yards a game, ran for 31. According to a replay of the game, Alabama first contacted Fournette behind the line of scrimmage or at the line of scrimmage in 13 of his 19 carries.
On just one carry Saturday did Fournette make it three yards past the line of scrimmage without being touched. That came on an 18-yard run in the fourth quarter, his longest carry of the night by a whopping 14 yards.
“As an O-line, we’ve got to play better as a group,” center Ethan Pocic said. “I feel like, me included, we’d have a good play and maybe one person, (there would be) one weak link, in the run and pass.
“They were a great front,” Pocic said. “They played their (butt) off, shut down our run game. They played a great game.”
LSU players were scheduled to watch a replay of the Alabama loss on Monday night, before pushing aside the game for a home match against Arkansas (5-4, 3-2) on Saturday. The Tigers (7-1, 4-1) still have the potential to play in the Sugar Bowl, advance to the SEC championship game and, even, qualify for the College Football Playoff.
The loss to the Crimson Tide has only made those goals much more difficult to achieve. For instance, LSU must win its remaining games and have Alabama lose at Mississippi State this Saturday or at Auburn on Nov. 28 to advance to the SEC title game.
Players are well aware of this fact.
“I’d be lying if (I said) we didn’t know, but we’re focusing on our jobs first,” receiver Malachi Dupre said. “If we have a slip up, all of that doesn’t even matter. We’re definitely going to be rooting for certain teams this week.”
The Tigers can’t afford to lose again, though, during this torrid November stretch. The duel with Bama is followed by games against Arkansas, at Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
The loss exposed a weakness and might have provided a blue print for stopping Fournette, still the nation’s rushing leader but no longer the clear Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
“For Leonard Fournette, it certainly wasn’t his fault in any way,” Miles said Monday. “We didn’t get him loose. Safeties were making tackles, and they were making them very close to the line of scrimmage.”
Alabama seemed to do three things to stop Fournette and LSU’s rushing game: their defenders won man-on-man blocking battles; they crept a safety near the line as an extra defender; and they gang tackled Fournette.
Several players suggested Alabama loaded the box, the area stretching from the line of scrimmage 8 yards out in the middle of the field. Even Fournette said Monday afternoon that “they had eight in the box every time.”
Alabama had the same amount of defenders in the box as LSU had blockers on 11 of Fournette’s 17 runs. Two goal-line runs were excluded, as there’s always a crowded line of scrimmage.
On six Fournette carries, Bama brought one extra defender. Many times, that guy was Tide safety Eddie Jackson, who crept toward the line just before the snap.
“Every time we ran the ball, I could see out of my peripheral (vision) the safety’s coming down,” Fournette said. “Their game plan was to stop our running game. And I think they did a pretty good job.”
That extra safety on one-third of Fournette’s carries doesn’t explain Bama’s front forcibly pushing LSU’s linemen deep into the backfield on a consistent basis. No one has a real answer for that.
Clapp said the Tide’s execution was “pretty good” and that they flashed a variety of fronts using different personnel. In the end, though, “they weren’t doing anything much that we didn’t prepare for,” he said.
Was it talent and experience then? Maybe.
There is some disparity between LSU’s starters in its run-heavy I-formation, one-tight end set and Bama’s starters in its run package defense.
All seven of Bama’s starting defenders in that group were ranked in the top 10 at their position out of high school. Four of the seven were in the top 5.
LSU’s five offensive linemen and starting tight end Colin Jeter and fullback Bry’Kiethon Mouton pale in comparison. Just three of those seven were ranked in the top 10 at their position out of high school.
That’s on the way to changing, though, said Shea Dixon, who covers LSU recruiting for 247Sports. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes signed five linemen last season, three of those in the top 6 nationally at their position.
So, that surprising domination Saturday will be a thing of the past? Maybe.
“We’ve never seen the depth at offensive line that LSU has now with (Maea) Teuhema and (Toby) Weathersby and Clapp,” Dixon said. “Grimes is the running game coordinator, the kids love him and he’s a good coach. Not a lot of people talk about him, but I think LSU’s offensive line is about to be in the best hands it’s been in in a long time.”
Nowhere to run
First contact made on LSU RB Leonard Fournette in 19 attempts against Alabama.
- Behind the line: 6 times
- At the line: 7 times
- 1 yard: 3 times
- 2 yards: 2 times
- 3 yards or more: 1 time*
*An 18-yard run in the fourth quarter, which was 14 more yards than his next-longest run
Alabama’s defensive front seemed to dominate LSU’s offensive line and run-blockers (tight end and fullback). Are the Tide defenders really that much better and more veteran than the Tigers trying to block them? At least out of high school, yes they were.
Alabama’s front 7 run defenders
Pos. Name: Stars, National position rank, Current classification
DE A’Shawn Robinson: 5 stars, No. 2, junior
NG Daron Payne: 5, No. 7, freshman
DE Jerran Reed: 4 stars, No. 2#, senior
DE/LB Denzell Devall: 4 stars, No. 6, senior
SLB Dillon Lee: 4 stars, No. 9, senior
MLB Reggie Ragland: 4 stars, No. 1, senior
WLB Shaun Hamilton: 4 stars, No. 9, sophomore
LSU’s I-formation’s 7 blockers
LT Jerald Hawkins: 3 stars, No. 38, redshirt junior
LG Maea Teuhema: 4 stars, No. 2, freshman
C Ethan Pocic: 4 stars, No. 5, junior
RG Will Clapp: 4 stars, No. 15, redshirt freshman
RT Vadal Alexander: 4 stars, No. 9, senior
TE Colin Jeter: no stars, not ranked, junior#
FB Bry’Kiethon Mouton: 3 stars, No. 24, freshman
*247Sports’ composite ranings used
#junior college transfer in 2014
Stacking them up
Team: Star average, Average national position ranking, Years of experience*
Alabama: 4.2 stars, No. 5, 20
LSU: 3.1 stars, No. 15.5**, 17
*counting this season
**average for 6 of the 7 players (Jeter drew no national ranking)
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.