Joe Burrow, LSU sure to test Nick Saban's defensive acumen
It is little secret that the 2019 version of the LSU Tigers barely resembles anything ever seen in Baton Rouge. What with the passing and all …
Quarterback Joe Burrow not only has the Tigers ranked No. 1 in the country, but LSU has gotten there by chucking the rock around the park at levels previously unseen in Red Stick. With 2,805 passing yards and 30 touchdowns so far, Burrow has vaulted into the Heisman Trophy conversation and could end up smashing SEC passing records. He already set LSU’s single-season TD mark (and should set the program’s yards record in Week 12.)
But with all due respect to the 8 teams LSU has already dispatched in 2019, the next opponent is a different one.
A familiar one.
The toughest one.
A Nick Saban-coached Alabama Crimson Tide.
Entire books have been written about Saban’s Alabama defenses, so we won’t regurgitate them too much here. Suffice it to say, the Crimson Tide head coach might be the walking definition of pass defense in America right now. And while Pete Golding is Alabama’s defensive coordinator, there is no question who the Tide defense really runs through.
This Alabama defense is very much a work in progress, with two freshman linebackers starting the season in place of injured veterans and a secondary that has allowed 180.1 yards per game in the air.
“I think we’re trying to make progress,” Saban said last week about his team’s pass defense. “I think when we’ve had Terrell Lewis and Anfernee (Jennings) both on the field, it’s really helped the pass rush. We’ve played those two guys together a lot, especially in nickel, so we’ve been able to affect the quarterback a lot more when those two guys are playing.”
Affecting Burrow will be a different story. The 6-4, 218-pound senior has gone from a 200-to-1 longshot to win the Heisman to being a front-runner in his 2nd season as a starter. The reason?
Passing game coordinator Joe Brady.
LSU’s first-year offensive coordinator is just barely 30, and he has dug LSU from the muck of 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football that defined the Tigers for eons.
Brady transformed an archaic scheme into a pass-leaning spread that features 2 main parts: First, an RPO system Brady concocted while at Penn State under current Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead; and second the passing concepts Brady learned while working with Drew Brees, Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints.
Which part of the offense, and how much of each, all depends on what the opposing defense gives.
“Against Florida, we RPO’ed them the whole game (because) we hadn’t showed it in a couple weeks and they were so good in the secondary,” Burrow told Sports Illustrated this week. “Against Auburn, we were planning on doing the RPO stuff and they came out in a defense we hadn’t seen before. So we went back to our base stuff.”
LSU’s national ranking in passing yards per game — 114th in 2014, 105th in 2015, 101st in 2016, 84th in 2017 and 66th in 2018 — has leaped to 2nd in 2019 at 377.6 yards per game. Burrow has already smashed LSU’s single-season passing TD record (30 and counting), and Brady has meshed well with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger to deliver a passing attack better than ever seen before in Baton Rouge.
But can all those yards and touchdowns happen against Saban and Alabama? The Tide, after all, have allowed 300+ yards passing just 18 times since Saban arrived in 2007.
Again, we aren’t disrespecting the 8 teams LSU has already beaten. Outgunning then-No. 9 Texas 45-38, outlasting then-No. 7 Florida 42-28 and out-muscling then-No. 9 Auburn 23-20 were all preludes to what is about to transpire to the Tigers.
Averaging 46.8 points per game is awesome, but playing in front of 101,000-plus in Bryant-Denny Stadium and against the most brilliant pass defense mind walking a sideline is a different story. Burrow saw this first-hand last season, when the Tigers were flying high heading into the annual Alabama game … only to be spanked 29-0.
In that game, the Tide surprised Burrow by playing zone for much of the game — rushing 4 and forcing LSU to keep back its tight end and others in pass protection. And while opposing defenses all season have thrown a wrinkle at the Tigers and their new-look offense (Auburn and Texas with a 3-1-7 look, for example), Burrow sounds like the Tigers are prepared for anything.
“We’ve seen something different from every team we’ve played, and nothing has really worked so far,” Burrow said to SI. “We had over 500 yards in just about every game no matter what any team has done. We’re going in for a game plan for what (Alabama) usually does, but we also have our base stuff if we see something different.”
If anyone can do it, LSU can. The Tigers have already has taken down 3 top 10 opponents and has played a more challenging schedule than Alabama. Burrow and Crimson Tide QB Tua Tagovailoa have both have been brilliant, although Tagovailoa will be limited or possibly out after undergoing “tightrope” ankle surgery on Oct. 20.
Then again, LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since the epic overtime battle in 2011 at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Since then, Saban has won 8 consecutive games over his old employer, a stretch that began with one of the most infamous events in LSU football history: the 21–0 loss to the Crimson Tide in the 2011 BCS championship game in New Orleans.
It is the moment that marked the start of the Tide’s reign over the SEC and ended the Tigers’ magical run that began in 2001 under Saban himself.
Can history write a new chapter Saturday, with the gun-slinging Burrow and the high-flying Tigers taking their best shot at Saban and Alabama?