Part of a series previewing the big game
There's something I probably should go ahead and admit right now: I didn't watch the first LSU-Alabama game from start to finish the first time around. Sure, I watched enough of it to get the gist of what happened, but there were other things happening that divided my attention. Hey, it's not my fault that CBS decided to move the game to conflict with the most likely game to derail the Gamecocks' chances at repeating as SEC East champions. I watched during the commercial breaks in the South Carolina-Arkansas game and watched everything after that contest ended.
So this weekend, I decided to watch the game again from start to finish. (You can watch it here.) I'll get to some more observations in a minute, but I'd first like to say that I completely disagree with those who have in any way implied that this game was boring or not entertaining. In fact, this was exactly the kind of game that I would argue is an entertaining defensive struggle: Both teams moved the ball from time to time, but the defenses were able to respond to prevent any touchdowns. There weren't a ton of points scored, but points do not automatically translate to entertainment value, at least not in my book. It's not like this was a series of three and outs composed entirely of two- and three-yard runs up the gut.
All that said, I was struck by several observations as I watched the game, particularly knowing the outcome beforehand.
The overarching Alabama narrative of the game -- that Bama played better than LSU but lost because of mistakes -- is both right and wrong
I know, way to cop out on making a final call. But I think there's something to be said for both sides of the argument.
Alabama did outgain LSU 295-239, which isn't a huge amount but also isn't insignificant. And the Tide only had two more plays than LSU, so it's not like the Tigers do all that much better if you go by averages instead of totals. Alabama had the statistically better night on offense.
That plays out on a subjective level as well. I decided early on to grade the game on a turn basis; each cycle that included each team having the ball once counted as a turn. So Alabama's first drive and LSU's first drive counted for a turn, and I gave the turn to the team that won that turn. If both teams performed poorly, I didn't give the turn to either of them. If both teams performed well, I gave each of them a point for that turn. At the end of regulation, I had Alabama winning the game 4-1 by that measure.
So I agree with the notion that on a down-to-down basis, Alabama played the better game. But I also have a couple of pretty significant caveats.
First, I think LSU made more big plays. Not necessarily big in terms of yardage, but big in terms of their impact on the game. For example, Morris Claiborne made a great play on the ball at the end of the first quarter by knocking down a pass that otherwise would have been the game's only touchdown. And the more I looked at the play, the more convinced I was on the interception of Marquis Maze's pass that Eric Reid jars the ball loose and is the first and only player to establish control of it when he's down. Those were huge plays in the course of the game, as was the blocked field goal.
Meanwhile, Alabama had its chances to make some momentum changing plays -- and didn't (or managed to ruin those plays when they were about to make them). There were plenty of examples of that in regulation, but the best one might have come in overtime, when Trent Richardson was free on a wheel route and A.J. McCarron simply missed the throw. (I think Richardson still could have made the catch, but it would have been a great catch if he made it because it was not a great throw.) And in some instances, such as the second interception of Jarrett Lee on the night, Alabama got in its own way; that pick should have set up the Tide with a first-and-goal inside the LSU 5, but the return was partially called back on a block in the back.
Finally, special teams is still an important part of any football game -- and LSU was just better on special teams. The field goal issue probably makes that an easy call, but it's worth remembering that Brad Wing also had a great game punting the football. Wing got help on his 73-yard punt because Maze was hurt and clearly wasn't ready to receive the kick, but you're still having a pretty good game any time you have a 73-yard punt of any variety.
LSU had no idea how to contain Trent Richardson early
In the first half, Richardson had rushes of 18, 10 and 11 yards and caught a 22-yard pass and a 39-yard pass play to boot. In all, he rushed the ball 11 times for 53 yards (an average of 4.8 yards a carry) and caught it three times for 61 yards (an average of 20.3 yards a catch). LSU basically flat-out blew two coverages on Richardson, leading to the long passes.
That changed dramatically in the second half. Richardson ran the ball 12 times in the second half and overtime, but for just 36 yards -- an average of three yards per attempt. He caught the ball twice but for just 19 yards -- an average of 9.5 yards a completion. And there were two incompletions to Richardson in overtime.
In all, Richardson had five touches that resulted in 10 yards or more in the first half and two that resulted in 10 yards or more in the second half. And if you take away the sole rush for more than 10 yards in the second half -- a 24-yard run -- Richardson actually gained just 12 yards on his remaining 11 carries after halftime.
If LSU can carry over how it played against Richardson in the second half of the first game to the BCS National Championship Game, Alabama will have to come up with a better counterplan and make the type of adjustments they didn't feel the need to make after Richardson's early success in Tuscaloosa. But if LSU plays against Richardson as badly as it did in the first half, the Tigers are going to have a long night in New Orleans.
Les Miles probably made the right decision by sticking with Jordan Jefferson
I don't know that I would have gone to Jefferson as the main quarterback quite as early as Miles did, but after the second interception, I think pulling Lee was probably the right way to go. At that point, the main objective for both teams was not to do anything that might cost you the win. Lee might have more upside as a passer than Jefferson, but he's not as useful when the team wants to get conservative and run the ball more.
Gary Danielson is really annoying
It's even worse when you know how the game is going and you're hoping for some insight from him. My favorite Danielson quote with 20-20 hindsight came on the fan poll about which team was most likely to finish the season undefeated: "I think Boise's the sure thing here, don't you?"
It was the option that really hurt Alabama, but it wasn't just the option that hurt Alabama
LSU clearly thought that it could get to the edge on Alabama, with mixed results. This has translated on ESPN to announcers differentiating between runs off of the option and runs not off the option, but watching the game, I was more struck by LSU having better results when it tried almost any kind of outside run as opposed to when it tried an inside run. That wasn't universal, of course; LSU had some plays where they tried to find the edge that Alabama did sniff out.
But I would expect the Tigers to try to go outside early in the BCS National Championship Game and see if those runs are still there.
The coaches got pretty conservative in the fourth quarter
Not that either of them were chucking the ball all over the field before the fourth quarter, but Les Miles went into full Bo Schembechler mode in the fourth, attempting one pass and running the ball nine times. After passing it six times in the first quarter compared to five runs, he never passed the ball half as much as he ran it in any quarter of the game. He never passed the ball in overtime, instead opting for four runs and kicking the game-winning field goal on third down.
Alabama was initially more balanced, starting out with nine runs and nine passes in the first half. The Tide switched it later on, getting more run-heavy in the second quarter and more pass-happy in the third. And while Alabama passed it six times in the fourth compared to nine runs, some of the passes were screens or plays that were clearly not designed to be home runs but rather meant to keep LSU honest.
There will be more points scored the second time around
Part of this might be wishful thinking, but I honestly believe that the game will be a little higher-scoring this time. Again, I don't think the lack of points made the game any less interesting, but at least we don't have to hear griping from the Pac-12 and Big 12 types if the offenses put some points on the board.
There were clearly times in the first game when both coaches were simply trying not to lose. I think the stronger incentive in a national championship bout is to try to win. The offenses will also have a lot of game tape to review to try to decide what will work and what won't.
The defenses won the day the first time around. They will almost certainly decide the game again on Monday. But they'll be going with offenses that will hopefully be challenged by their coaches to have a more productive day in New Orleans than was the case in Tuscaloosa.