Underneath the stands of Tiger Stadium one year ago, after LSU had gotten embarrassed at home and lost to Alabama once again, this time 29-0, coach Ed Orgeron said the line of scrimmage had decided the game.
He thought the Tigers needed better personnel.
"We've got to recruit better defensive linemen," Orgeron said. "I've got to get defensive linemen like them. I've got to recruit better offensive linemen. Same old thing: You've got to beat Alabama on the line of scrimmage."
LSU's offensive line had lost its one-on-one matchups, Orgeron said. The Tigers tried max protections, sliding protections and four-wide-receiver sets. They used everything it could to relieve pressure, Orgeron said. Nothing worked, and meanwhile, the defensive line failed to affect Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
Orgeron’s statement pulsed through social media. Players tweeted about it. They wished Orgeron had kept his comments in-house, but the players later recognized their coach had told the truth. Alabama had dominated them on the line of scrimmage. Until they caught up, they could not beat the Crimson Tide.
“You watched their defense against our offensive line, and it wasn't too pretty,” outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “And our defense against their offensive line — it wasn't as bad, but when you can't rotate and you're on the field all day, that's a problem.”
The Advocate's LSU beat team predicts the outcome of the Tigers' matchup with Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
Over the past year, LSU has tried to close the gap. As the No. 2 Tigers gear up for their showdown with No. 3 Alabama at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, they believe they have improved — and with more experience and depth, they feel equipped to match the Crimson Tide.
The game will include two quarterbacks competing for the Heisman Trophy, high-scoring offenses and elite wide receivers. But in LSU-Alabama, the line of scrimmage still determines the winner.
"We have gotten better on the line of scrimmage on the offensive side of the football," Orgeron said. "I do believe we have better depth on the defensive line. I think that our guys are equipped, and this is the best football team we have had going into this game."
LSU’s personnel on both sides of the line has not changed much since last year's game. The Tigers will start four of the same offensive linemen, but the group has altered its mentality. As they spent the offseason training together, they adopted the attitude of doubted underdogs.
“The mentality and the swagger we've been playing with this year, it's completely different,” center Lloyd Cushenberry said. “I feel like we've accepted the challenge of people doubting us and putting the game on our shoulders.”
After Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis watched film of LSU, he thought the Tigers showed the best offensive line the Crimson Tide will have faced this season. He complimented LSU’s guards and tackles, and he said when the Tigers run the football, their line moves downfield.
Davis also thought LSU — which allowed five sacks and 10 tackles for loss to Alabama last year — had improved its pass protection.
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“This offensive line,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said, “I can't ask for better.”
On the defensive side, LSU has more depth, allowing the Tigers to rotate players every possession. Senior Rashard Lawrence, junior Glen Logan, senior Breiden Fehoko and junior Neil Farrell Jr. have split time along the defensive line, keeping them fresh late in the fourth quarter. Chaisson feels healthy after missing last year with a torn ACL, and sophomore Tyler Shelvin has emerged at nose tackle.
Shelvin was on the team last season, but he spent the year developing and losing weight. At 346 pounds, he has made a difference in the middle of the field, helping turn LSU into one of the top run defenses in the nation.
“Last year they hurt us in the run up the middle,” Orgeron said. “I think Tyler is playing really, really well. He wasn't in shape last year, wasn't as good on his fundamentals.”
The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, is still solid on the offensive line. Alabama has allowed allowed nine sacks, the 10th-lowest total in the country. But it might help LSU that Alabama lacks the defensive game-wrecker of years past. Quinnen Williams, who recorded 2½ sacks and 3½ tackles for loss against LSU last season, now plays in the NFL. So do Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne.
Zach Von Rosenberg sat near the band the last time LSU beat Alabama. He was a 21-year-old professional baseball player, and eight years later, he will try to contain the best punt returner in the country.
Alabama has talent on defense — it ranks No. 8 in SP+, which measures efficiency, and has forced 18 turnovers — but the Crimson Tide has started six true freshmen on defense. Five of them play defensive line or linebacker.
“They still play with great technique, still hold the line of scrimmage, still good rushers,” Orgeron said. “Are they as dominant as they have been in the past? We're going to find out.”
Inside LSU’s meetings, the linemen sit in the front of the room. Despite the Tigers’ spread scheme and talent in the secondary, they understand the importance of being strong up front.
The Tigers would not have entered this game undefeated if they had not improved at the line of scrimmage.
LSU has more depth and more experience on the line of scrimmage than last year. It passed tests against Florida and Auburn. The Tigers say they think they've closed the gap with Alabama, enabling them to snap their eight-game losing streak in this series.
But they will not know for sure until they line up across from the Crimson Tide.
“I do believe we have made up the ground,” Orgeron said. “We'll find out on Saturday.”