NEW ORLEANS – The best defenses. By far.
And as great as LSU’s is – think two first-team All-American cornerbacks in Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu and a defensive line that pursues like jaguars and hits like tanks – Alabama’s might be even better.
The Crimson Tide ranks first in the nation in yards allowed (191.3 per game), defensive pass efficiency (89.3 rating), scoring defense (8.8 ppg), rushing defense (74.9 ypg) and pass defense (116.3). Alabama has allowed 18 fourth-quarter points all season. And in the first half through 12 games: Alabama 197, opponents 57. Might as well throw the third quarter in there, too, when Bama has outscored its opponents 130-28.
So why are LSU and Alabama, who play for the BCS national title on Monday, so much better than everyone else?
“Coaches. Staff. The people we have around us,” Alabama senior corner DeQuan Menzie said. “That’s what makes us better.”
“Big, physical and fast,” Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart said. “I mean, it’s that simple.
“You’ve got good secondary players. If you can play well at corner, then you can put more people in the box and stop the run. We both stop the run well and we’ve got pretty good corners who aren’t afraid to go challenge you. Those are the two hardest things to find in recruiting, pass rushers and corners.”
OK, so Alabama has for corners Menzie and junior Dre Kirkpatrick, both first teamers on at least one All-American squad.
But are there only four great corners in America? Why is the rest of the college-football world looking so far up at these two defenses that staged such an epic battle the last time they played, a 9-6, touchdown-less LSU victory?
|BY THE NUMBERS|
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|Red Zone Defense Rank||1||96|
“We’ve got more depth,” Smart said. “Some teams might have one (corner), but one ain’t enough. We might have two and a couple good backups. The depth you have allows you to play more guys, keep them fresh, and dominate. There’s not only four, but when you have the ones we have I think it makes it easier.”
Never was that more evident than this past season when LSU played Auburn. The week before program suspended three players, including Mathieu and sophomore corner Tharold Simon for that game for testing positive a second time for smoking synthetic marijuana. Up stepped senior backup Ron Brooks, and all he did in a rare start in LSU’s victory over Auburn was return an interception for a touchdown, cause a fumble, break up a pass play and make four tackles.
“I think a lot of times we get the cream of the crop because they’re producing,” Smart said. “LSU’s putting NFL players out and so is Alabama.”
But once they get there, they get even better.
“You have to be a great coach to recruit the best,” said Menzie, who has 37 tackles this season and has broken up 11 pass plays. “If you weren’t a good coach and you weren’t a good recruiter, I don’t think anyone would come to your schools.”
So is it the scheme?
“Oh, yeah,” Menzie agreed. “Some players might be scared of a scheme like (the complicated one Alabama uses), because coming in and learning it is so hard.”
Which brings us back to coaching. Or being coached.
“We’ve got a lot of guys out there doing their job,” Alabama senior nose guard Josh Chapman said. “We hold ourselves accountable on both sides of the ball, but defensively we hold ourselves accountable big time, because you’ve got a lot of great offensive players out there with a lot of talent and skill.”
Chapman, who has three sacks in his 22 tackles, creates havoc on defense.
“You set goals for yourself and that’s stopping the run,” Chapman said. “Both teams stop the run pretty well. And once you stop the run, you make a team one-dimensional and when you have ball-hawking safeties and great cornerbacks, well, with our guys here, their demeanor is if the ball’s in the air it’s ours. I’m glad to have a group of guys behind me who believe in the system we play in.”
Alabama’s starting safeties are junior Robert Lester (36 tackles, two interceptions) and senior Mark Barron (66 tackles, two interceptions). Both intercepted quarterback Jarrett Lee in the last LSU-Alabama game, which led to Lee being benched, basically for good, in favor of Jordan Jefferson.
And that’s not even mentioning junior All-American linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Alabama’s leading tackler (81 tackles, three sacks, one interception, eight QB hits), or senior All-American linebacker Courtney Upshaw (45 tackles, a whopping 8.5 sacks, an interception and 11 QB hits).
“This defense is definitely something you have to grow as you go,” Hightower said. “It’s not something you learn in just one year. I’ve been here four years and there are still things I don’t know about the defense. I’m learning each and every day. Every day it varies every day.” But, he said, as this game approaches, the coaches are simplifying things a bit, although you get the impression Alabama also leads the nation in check-offs at the line.
“We had more schemes than we showed (in the first game). We didn’t have to,” Smart said. “Just like they had more offensive plays than they had. But they didn’t have to. We’re going to have to find out who has to take more risks, who has to take more chances and try to do some extra things. Certainly we won’t have the same game plans. We have a broader game plan. And you hope with a broader game plan you don’t have to use it. But if you do, you’d better have it ready.”
At this point it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to point out that LSU has outscored its opponents 500-137, including 233-76 in the first half.
“Both teams will take more chances this time,” Smart said. “I don’t think both teams will play it as close to the vest. LSU was more conservative because they thought they could control the game on defense. They didn’t throw the ball much vertically against us, but you go back and look at the games since then, they’ve taken shots.”
So perhaps there will be a touchdown or more scored in this game as Alabama tries to win its second national championship in three years and LSU (2003, 2007) goes for its third in nine years.
“They do a great job and we do a great job,” Barron said, understating, of course, what we all know before what will likely be another epic defensive battle Monday night.
“It was definitely the most physical game I’ve ever played in,” Hightower said. “I wouldn’t expect anything different from LSU. It’s always been that way. Unlke a lot of other teams, they just get in formation and come right at you. There’s not a lot of tricks and gimmicks.”
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