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Alabama's defense shines again as Crimson Tide smother LSU

It wasn't pretty, but Alabama silenced LSU behind outstanding defense and a gutty showing from freshman QB Jalen Hurts.

Less than a week after Alabama earned the No. 1 ranking in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, it needed to defend its status as the best team in the country by beating a division rival on the road. The Crimson Tide handled that test with aplomb, downing No. 13 LSU 10–0 to move to 8–0 and 5–0 in SEC play and extend its winning streak to 21. The game was scoreless heading into halftime, but Alabama struck in the fourth quarter with a 21-yard touchdown run from true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts and tacked on a field goal later in the final stanza.

The victory moves the Crimson Tide one step closer to earning the top seed in the national semifinals. After hosting Mississippi State and Chattanooga in consecutive weeks, they will host No. 9 Auburn in a game that should decide the SEC West after No. 4 Texas A&M lost to Mississippi State on Saturday. LSU falls to 5–3 and is out of the running for a playoff berth.

Here are three thoughts about what unfolded in Baton Rouge:

1. This has 'Game of The Century' written all over it

The last time LSU beat Alabama, Les Miles was the Tigers’ head coach, Tyrann Mathieu was a Heisman Trophy finalist and the Bowl Championship Series decided the national champion. Five years later, Miles is talking to reporters about his next job months after being fired, Mathieu visited Death Valley as a spectator, and now teams fight for playoff spots. A lot has changed in college football over the past half decade, in other words, but one easily could have mistaken the first half of Saturday night’s matchup between LSU and Alabama for a replay of the "Game of The Century" that the two teams staged in 2011. It started inauspiciously for the Crimson Tide, with Hurts throwing an interception on their opening series. But LSU failed to capitalize on the newbie’s mistake with good field position to put Alabama in an early hole, a clear signal that points were not going to come easy for either squad. In a throwback to the days when Nick Saban rued the prospect of no-huddle offenses taking hold across the country, the Crimson Tide and the Tigers were about to engage in a low-scoring slog.

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LSU took Hurts’ interception, exactly the sort of confidence-shattering play that Hurts needed to avoid early on, and went nowhere: Colby Delahoussaye had a 49-yard-field goal attempt blocked. The next six possessions ended in punts. Only three of them covered more than 30 yards. At the end of the first quarter, Alabama and LSU had combined for 84 yards and three first downs. For everyone save traditionalists who cling to “three yards and a cloud of dust” as the sport’s stylistic apex, this was an ugly procession of running plays, passes badly missing their marks, ineffective blocks and way, way too much action for special teams units. The high point of the first half was LSU quarterback Danny Etling’s 41-yard pass to D.J. Chark, but in a sequence representative of the first 30 minutes of this game, the Tigers followed that up by losing eight yards over their next three plays and then sending the punt team on the field. Alabama and LSU went into the break having mustered 3.5 yards per play and zero points, with the Tigers tallying only 36 yards on the ground and the Tide 27 through the air. It marked the first time since 2007, Saban’s first season in Tuscaloosa, that Alabama was shut out in the first half.

The second half didn't offer a refreshing change of pace. It was stop after stop after stop until Alabama broke through in the fourth quarter. On third-and-nine with about 13 minutes remaining, Hurts took a snap in the shotgun and faked a pass to his left, rolled to his right, saw an opening, and scampered past a cluster of LSU defenders for a touchdown. The Crimson Tide intercepted Etling on the Tigers’ next series and Adam Griffith added a field goal with under three minutes remaining to ice the game. Alabama could leave Death Valley having affirmed its world-beating defensive prowess, and Hurts should be commended for rebounding from that early pick to guide Alabama to a crucial victory. Yet the Crimson Tide’s performance on the other side of the ball wasn’t nearly as encouraging. They hadn’t been held under 30 points this season, but LSU did a good job reining in Lane Kiffin’s unit for most of the night. Alabama should have an easier time extending drives against Mississippi State and Chattanooga before facing another top-tier defense in the Iron Bowl.

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2. Leonard Fournette is great, but …

Fournette sent a loud message to every defense remaining on LSU’s schedule when he returned to action against Ole Miss late last month following a three-game absence because of an ankle injury. In rushing for 284 yards and three touchdowns, at an astonishing 17.8 YPC clip, LSU’s star running back let it be known he wasn’t going to end his college career with a whimper. The combination of LSU losing two of its first four games and Fournette sitting out one of those games gave his campaign a distinct feel of Jadeveon Clowney's junior year at South Carolina; many argued that Fournette should consider throwing in the towel and start preparing for the NFL draft. Fournette’s obliteration of Ole Miss’s defense amounted to a sharp rebuke of that line of thinking. Not only was Fournette not going to call it quits halfway through the season, he had recaptured the form that elevated him to the front of the Heisman race heading into the Alabama game last season. The Crimson Tide crushed his campaign, limiting Fournette to only 31 yards on 19 carries. Saturday night offered him a chance to prove that staggeringly low total was an aberration rather than proof that not even the next incarnation of Herschel Walker could cut it against Alabama’s D.

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The verdict was unmistakable. In a striking resemblance to last season’s clash in Tuscaloosa, Fournette just could not get going. The Tigers’ blockers had a hard time moving Alabama defenders to create space at the point of attack, and when Fournette did manage to elude a tackle or find a sliver of open space, Crimson Tide tacklers swarmed to the ball. Alabama has made life miserable for opposing runners all season long; it entered Saturday yielding a nation-low 2.18 yards per play. Yet the contrast between Fournette galloping past Rebels defenders for huge chunks of yards and trudging forward just to get back to the line of scrimmage on Saturday was jarring. He finished with just 35 yards on 17 carries. It would be unfair to lay this poor showing at Fournette’s feet and invoke the popular notion that Alabama is Fournette’s “kryptonite.” The Crimson Tide’s consistency in stuffing him was no less the fault of LSU’s offensive line and playcalling than the man carrying the ball. Still, anyone who thought that Fournette, in contrast with every back who preceded him in 2016, could put a dent in Alabama’s seemingly impregnable front came away from this game disappointed. When confronted with a defense this good, apparently no runner is superhuman.

3. What does this mean for Ed Orgeron?

The stakes for Orgeron entering this game were plain. A win over Alabama would serve as the strongest indication that he deserved to have the interim label removed from his coaching title. A loss would make it more difficult for LSU to have confidence that he would be an upgrade over Miles long-term. Miles’ biggest problem, of course, was that he couldn’t figure out how to beat the Crimson Tide toward the end of his tenure. Another failure in that regard would reflect poorly on Orgeron, irrespective of the mounting body of evidence suggesting this is one of Saban’s best teams. The early returns had been promising for Orgeron. He’d imbued the Tigers with the sort of energy they lacked during a 2–2 start, restoring the widespread belief this preseason that LSU was capable of competing for a national championship. Yet a 3–0 run in conference play didn’t offer confirmation one way or another, in large part because the Tigers had feasted on relatively weak competition: Missouri, Southern Mississippi and Ole Miss. The Alabama game, then, would serve as a barometer for how much LSU had really progressed under Orgeron, how much better they’d gotten after being sparked by the former D-line coach with a Cajun lilt chasing his dream job.

Orgeron had his team ready to play, but it ultimately couldn’t pull out what would have been the best win any team has notched this season. That LSU came up short, however, doesn’t obscure what Orgeron has accomplished since taking over for Miles. The reality is that Orgeron was never going to earn or lose the LSU job on Saturday night. The decision to appoint Miles’s successor almost certainly won’t be made solely because of the result of one game, no matter how important to the Tigers’ season. Our Pete Thamel reported this week that the matchup with the Crimson Tide would be a “referendum” for Orgeron, but a victory or defeat will be weighed against an inconclusive set of credentials: A ghastly three-year run at Ole Miss, a promising stint as an interim coach with a talented USC roster, a reputation as an elite recruiter. All of those things will be taken into account, yet the evaluation won’t stop there. As Thamel noted, it’s not obvious where LSU would turn if Houston’s Tom Herman and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher aren’t available, whether because they take other jobs or decide to stay put at Houston and Florida State, respectively. So when you step back, assess the range of factors both related and unconnected to Orgeron, it’s clear the premise that he was coaching for a promotion against Alabama was at best incomplete and at worst misleading.

That said, it certainly would have helped Orgeron quite a bit had he been able to slay the Crimson Tide demon that has loomed over Baton Rouge for the last five years. LSU’s done as a national championship contender, but Orgeron can help his chances by leading the Tigers to a strong finish with wins over Arkansas (Nov. 12), No. 11 Florida (Nov. 19) and No. 4 Texas A&M (Nov. 24).