“There is nothing to be comfortable about when you are playing LSU,” Dave Rader said. “They have the best defense we have played. I hadn’t been home very long Saturday night (after Alabama defeated Mississippi State) until I was up again. I was in the office by 5 a.m. If we were playing someone else I might feel somewhat comfortable about the progress we are making on offense, but this is not a week for comfort.”
Much of the attention is on Alabama’s defense because the Crimson Tide is ranked first in the nation in total defense, pass defense, and pass efficiency defense.
But LSU, which has played top ten teams Auburn and Georgia, as well as a Florida team that was ranked at the time and an Oregon State team that was very tough against number one ranked Southern Cal, has a highly-ranked defense, too.
The Bengal Tigers return seven starters from the defense of last year’s national championship team. And one of them is Marcus Spears (6-4, 298), considered by some to be the best defensive end in the nation.
LSU has a blend of excellent athletes who are very well coached in a variety of schemes. Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula said, “They have volume and variety.” Shula noted that LSU Coach Nick Saban spent some time in the NFL and brought some of that defensive philosophy to LSU.
LSU ranks right behind Alabama in the Southeastern Conference in total defense and is fourth in the nation, allowing only 256.5 yards per game. The Tigers are second in the league in both rushing defense and passing defense.
Rader said, “We expect a lot of blitzes. They were very effective with that last year and they have been effective with it this year.” Asked if there was one particular defender to watch on the blitz, Rader joked, “They’ve narrowed it down to about 10 guys who blitz at any given time.”
Dead seriously, he said, “LSU’s defense is very impressive. They are good against anything you throw at them. We haven’t seen anyone run the wishbone, but they have been good against everything else. And the primary reason is because they are so fast. They recover and close gaps. And they tackle well. Their guys in the secondary tackle well. The speed they hit with the blitzes makes them the toughest defense we have had to prepare for. They are impressive.”
Rader said that Alabama could not give up on what it does best, which is run the football. “But we will have to try to do some things for LSU to try to keep them off balance. They cause you to look at a lot of things. You have to figure out a way to counteract their defense.”
Rader noted there is not enough practice time to prepare for everything that might come from the LSU defense. “Especially,” he added, “since they have had two weeks to prepare for us.”
LSU, 6-2 this season, had an open date last Saturday. In fact, in the last four weeks the Tigers have had two open dates and games against relative lightweights Troy and Vanderbilt.
Rader said, “We want to make sure we are solid. If we add some things,. we’ve got to be able to do them well. Our guys have to have the best week of concentration they have had this year. We have to be precise in our execution.”
Rader said that quarterback Spencer Pennington will be challenged by LSU. Against Mississippi State, Pennington completed nine of 15 passes for 119 yards and one touchdown, but suffered two interceptions. Rader said, “It was his best game. And if he improves as much between Mississippi State and LSU as he did between Tennessee and Mississippi State, this will be his best game.”
Rader said that Pennington has a “good demeanor. He has confidence, but more than that he is hungry. He wants to be better. That’s the most important attribute. Complacency would kill us.”
Rader said Pennington’s “progress didn’t ‘just happen.’ He’s worked hard. He understands better because he’s been the first team quarterback for a month. He has studied more. And he has become more comfortable with his receivers.”
The coach said that Pennington is doing things better. And not just the little things. “Big things,” Rader said. “He had been close before and didn’t close the deal. He’s still got a lot of room for improvement, but he’s making more plays.”
This week, Rader said, Pennington will have to see the play–when the defense blitzes, an offensive man will come open–and then make the play.
Rader said that Alabama’s running success–the Tide leads the SEC in rushing offense–is attributable in great part to the attitude and work ethic of the players. “They know what losses we have had and they have worked hard to overcome them. The players also have a respect for every opponent. They don’t fear the opponent, but have respect. And that is motivation to prepare. We have been aggressive and we have been unselfish.”
Rader said he “had a hunch in the spring and was confident after fall camp that we would be a good running team.”
He noted that LéRon McClain at fullback “takes a lot of pride in his blocking. On Tyrone’s touchdown, LéRon knocked one guy down and pushed another defender out of the way. The players congratulated LéRon for his part in that play.”
That play was wide receiver Tyrone Prothro going under center, taking the snap, and running a quarterback keeper around right end for a 21-yard touchdown that gave Alabama the lead for good against Mississippi State.
Rader said, “Each week we try to get the ball into the hands of a the play-makers. We worked on it during the open week, and then Tyrone made the play in the game.”