Last Modified: Thursday, November 01, 2012 11:06 AM
If LSU really is intent on making amends for last year’s Bowl Championship Subdivision title game debacle against Alabama, the first thing on the to-do list Saturday night would be to cross midfield.
The Tigers didn’t crack the code on that one until midway through the fourth quarter in the Superdome last January, and ran only four plays in Tide territory the entire game.
But if the No. 5 Tigers (7-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) are really serious about upsetting the top-ranked Crimson Tide (8-0, 5-0), they’ll have to solve the riddle that has been the red zone for them this season.
For all the struggles of LSU’s offense, it has really gotten ugly and disjointed once the Tigers get inside the 20-yard line.
That might sound odd for a team that likes to rely on a power running game.
In fact, the running game has held up pretty well until LSU takes another step or two and crosses the 10-yard line and gets into a whatever-and-goal situation.
Then its often Bermuda Triangle stuff.
Strange things have happened, but the bottom line is that the Tigers have scored on 27 of 34 trips inside the red zone (79.4 percent) and have gotten touchdowns on 16 of them (59.2 percent).
“Execution,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said of the problems. “It’s not like we don’t want to score, but we screw up somewhere. You can’t have that happen this week. When we get in the red zone, we’re going to have to have seven (points) on the board.”
That would be a turnaround.
It would also be quite an achievement against an Alabama defense that is the stingiest in the nation on the rare opportunities teams venture inside its 20.
The Tide have allowed a mere 15 trips there, with only eight scores (53 percent) and six touchdowns (40 percent). The Tide have forced five turnovers in the red zone.
That has been part of LSU’s problems, as the Tigers have turned it over four times in close, and placekicker Drew Alleman, who missed one field goal from that range last year, has missed three this year.
It might be one of the biggest differences between LSU and Alabama this year, as the Tide’s offense is also the nation’s best in the red zone, getting scores on 34 of 35 trips (97 percent), including 26 touchdowns (76 percent).
And it might also be the biggest difference in this year’s LSU offense and last year’s.
A year ago the Tigers led the SEC in converting 57 of 61 trips in the red zone (93 percent), getting 44 touchdowns (77 percent).
“The thing we did a year ago, we ran the ball so well down there,” head coach Les Miles said. “I think that’s still very much in play, but we haven’t been as successful there running the ball.”
LSU has also seemed reluctant to pass close to the goal line since Mettenberger threw two interceptions from inside the 10-yard line in the Tigers’ first three games.
Mettenberger also lost a fumble at the 1-yard line against Auburn and the Tigers lost another fumble inside the 20 against Towson.
That could contribute to the stacked defenses in already tight quarters, but Miles warned he wasn’t hesitate to pull the trigger with passes.
“We still have the ability to make some of those throws that we have greased up down there,” Miles said.
One complication has been that the Tigers’ first-and-goal situations always seem to start at the 9- or 10-yard line.
The Tigers’ offense has almost as many touchdowns from the 20 or beyond (13) as from inside it (15). Their last game against Texas A&M was a good example. LSU’s lone trip inside the 20 set up first-and-goal at the 9-yard line.
The Tigers risked a relatively safe pass on first down, but it lost 3 yards. LSU went to the wildcat formation and Michael Ford got two of the yards back, but a third-down keeper by Spencer Ware was blown up from the start and lost another yard. LSU had to settle for a chip-shot field goal to end the 12-play drive.
The Tigers did manage three touchdowns in that game — a 20-yard run by Ford, a 29-yard pass from Mettenberger to Kadron Boone and a 47-yard run by Jeremy Hill.
A week earlier against South Carolina, LSU also had a pair of 16-play, time-consuming drives that stalled inside the 10-yard line for field goals. The Tigers finally put the game away on Hill’s 50-yard run.
“We’d like to progress down there on the ground more,” Miles said. “It’s something we can do.”