BATON ROUGE, La. — Beating Alabama is the toughest task for any team in the country right now. But if anyone is up to the task, it’s LSU, which has the defensive personnel to keep the Crimson Tide’s powerful offense at bay.
It will still be a major upset if it happens, but if the Tigers accomplish the following five things they will have a fighting chance:
1. Protect Danny Etling
Alabama’s defense is a wrecking crew, leading the nation with an average of four sacks per game. In order to beat the Crimson Tide, LSU’s offensive line, tight ends and fullbacks will have to do a superb job of keeping quarterback Danny Etling upright.
Etling will also play a role in this. Guys are going to get to him, but he will need to escape the rush and buy himself just enough time to make throws downfield or dumped into the flat. Even when it doesn’t sack the quarterback Alabama is great at pressuring quarterbacks into poor decisions, so Etling has to stay cool no matter how crazy things get in the backfield.
2. Throw for at least 250 yards
The only way to beat Bama’s defense is aerially. Opponents are averaging 70 yards per game on the ground, and as talented as Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice might be they are going to need some help.
The only two offenses to accomplish anything against the Tide — Ole Miss and Arkansas — had 400 yards passing. That’s a big number for Etling, though he did have a career high of 485 against Indiana as a freshman at Purdue in 2013.
Realistically it might take at least 300 yards through the air to beat this team, but with the quality of LSU’s defense we’ll go conservative and guess 250 might be productive enough.
3. Win the turnover battle
When Alabama’s defense gets the ball, it scores. The Crimson Tide defense has nine touchdowns in eight games, a figure that would impress even the 1985 Chicago Bears. And if the defense doesn’t finish the job, you can basically assume the offense will do so with a short field.
Thus, it is incumbent on the Tigers to win the turnover battle. When Ed Orgeron took over, one of the first things he said was “We’ve got to flip the script.”
In this case, flipping the script might include not only having more takeaways than Alabama, but scoring a defensive touchdown.
4. Make Jalen Hurts a pocket passer
If LSU can keep Alabama’s quarterback from doing too much damage with his feet, it has a chance. Hurts is a better-than-decent passer, ranking fourth in the league in efficiency (142.7) and sixth in passing yards per game (197.2). But he is most dangerous on the run, where he averages 65 yards per game in addition to buying extra time to throw downfield.
Surprisingly, the best template to borrow in this case comes from Western Kentucky, which limited Hurts to 19 yards on 11 carries. The Tigers will just have to keep him from throwing the ball better than the Hilltoppers did — Hurts had 287 yards passing — but the Tigers have the secondary to do it.
5. Force third-and-long
This could be a key to every game, but it’s particularly true against Alabama.
When facing third-and-manageable (9 yards or shorter), Hurts completes 70 percent of his throws. When facing third-and-long (10 yards and more), he is completing 46.7 percent of his passes and has thrown two of his five interceptions.
Usually you need help getting to third-and-long in the form of penalties on the opposing offense — holding, false starts and the like. So for this fifth key to victory to come to fruition, an amped-up crowd in Death Valley causing communication issues for the Alabama offense could be a factor.