NCF Nation: 2011-LSU-Alabama

Video: LSU's Michael Ford

November, 4, 2011

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU running back Michael Ford about Saturday's matchup with Alabama.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Only a few feet from Les Miles’ office lies total chaos.

A colorful mess of miniature candles sits blocking anything and everything that could be important to LSU football.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLes Miles has the tough task of keeping his team focused during the bye week.
Instead of fielding calls or making sure Miles’ creature comforts are in order, his secretary, Ya’el Lofton, is relaxing at her desk, laughing with the handful of other women who work behind the scenes in LSU’s athletic department, trying to sell candles.

That’s right, on the Tuesday before Armageddon, Miles’ right-hand woman is peddling candles just in time for the holiday season.

From cotton scent to evergreen, Lofton has you covered.

Essentially, her football team’s season is on the line and she’s trying to convince people – even Miles – that this dark green candle smells more like bad men’s cologne than anything else.

Miles passes twice, each time glancing down and giving an approving smirk before vanishing into one of his many workrooms.

(Don’t worry, Miles’ wife, Kathy, has already ordered six, so he’s covered.)

But that’s just how it goes when you work for The Hat. Even during a week as big as this, with No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) looking to derail the top-ranked Tigers’ season, the stress level around Miles’ office chair is surprisingly low.

It’s not like they don’t care, but when Miles is in charge, fun is always an option and you never know what you’re gonna get.

“With Les, every day is a new day. It’s fun,” Lofton said. “Every day we laugh, we enjoy work.

“There’s never a time when at some point during the day we can’t have a good time and laugh about something and bring it back to reality.”

Lofton has worked in LSU’s football office for 25 years and has seen it all. From the days when LSU played not to lose instead of trying to win, to Nick Saban’s national championship, to now -- the game of the century.

She has two national championship rings and a lifetime of stories. But she also has a dear friend in Miles, and of everyone she’s worked for she’s never felt so comfortable. When she broke down emotionally in front of him during the first part of the two-week hell that is preparing for Alabama, he was there to calm her down. When she needs to vent, he’s there to listen.

And when he needs his bagel at 9 a.m. sharp, she’s there before he even notices.

It’s that sort of bond that keeps things as sane as they can be at a time like this. When asked if she could toss her cornucopia of candles out on her desk when Saban was around, Lofton let out a booming howl before releasing a “Oh, gosh, no.”

But with Miles, it isn’t a big deal. I guess that should be expected from a head coach who during his Monday news conference roasted himself about his own playing career, playfully blasted a reporter for dressing in the same color scheme of a jack-o-lantern and led things off by talking about how he scouted his family athletes before even thinking about recruiting.

“I like the position of my family as I do my team,” Miles said.

When you talk to players about how cool and collected Miles is during Alabama week, they aren’t surprised. This is who he is, no matter the opponent. There is no lack of intensity when it’s time to work, but there is always time for fun.

“He keeps us kind of grounded,” defensive end Barkevious Mingo said.

“He’s not that uptight guy that freaks out and panics. He’s calm and waits for things to unfold.

“If he’s calm, we’re calm.”

Added offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert: “For him to come and do something like that it’s one of the reasons why we love him so much because he’s willing to show his human side. He’s not just some robotic authority figure.”

From flamboyantly dancing in front of his players to lumbering down the field with them during kickoff drills, Miles knows how to keep things enjoyable. His players can go from playful to focused instantly, but they’re always relaxed because of their coach.

Miles admits the anxiety quietly eats at him until about 10 minutes before kickoff, but he doesn’t let that deter him. Not now. Not when the stakes are so high. It’s not time to be tense, it’s still time to let loose.

“There are times as the coach that you enjoy the enthusiasm of our team,” Miles said. “If you can’t recognize youth and happiness and want to play; if that can’t make you smile then I think … that’s a mistake for me.

“At some point in time, it’s time to play.”

Video: Alabama's Barrett Jones

November, 4, 2011

Alabama’s Barrett Jones talks with Mark Schlabach about LSU’s front four, experience in big games and the Tide’s mental focus.

Video: Alabama's William Vlachos

November, 4, 2011

Mark Schlabach talks to Alabama center William Vlachos about preparing for LSU, the Tide’s slow starts and more.

Clash of the titanic defenses

November, 4, 2011

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU linebacker Ryan Baker wasn’t holding back when he was asked about more being on the line Saturday than just a win over Alabama.

No, it didn’t have to do with the national championship or the SEC championship.

It had to do with bragging rights. More importantly, defensive bragging rights.

For most of the season, Baker and the rest of the country have heard about the comparisons between both units and the question of whose unit is better had been asked ad nauseum.

Well, talking time is over, it’s time for someone to take the moniker of “the best” home.

“I’m not gonna lie and mention that I don’t want to be the best defense on the field at any time,” Baker said. “Really, it’s proving ourselves. We’ve heard a lot about their defense and we want to come out and show them that we can play defense as well.”

Both teams have been playing defense all year. Both rank fifth or better in the country in five defensive categories, and fifth or better in the SEC in nine defensive categories. Alabama and LSU are one and two in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

“Everybody’s competing for the best defense,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Everybody’s claiming we got it. They’re claiming they got it, so it’s going to be good competition.”

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Dont'a Hightower
AP Photo/Rick WilsonDont'a Hightower (30) and Alabama might have nation's best linebacking unit. But is Alabama's defense better than LSU's?
It’s going to be great competition and there could be at least 10 high defensive draft picks taking the field Saturday. Alabama might have the best linebacker corps, especially with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw flying around the field and off the edge, but LSU might have the top trio of cornerbacks around, with the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) zeroing in on the ball and Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon sticking to their men like glue.

Here are some numbers to munch on:

  • Alabama enters this game holding opponents to six points or less in six of its eight games. Alabama has also allowed seven points or less in 12 of its past 13 first halves.
  • LSU has given up 41 points in its first five conference games, the fewest since 1985 when LSU equaled that feat.
  • Alabama’s opponents have run 458 plays this season and only managed 119 -- both running and passing -- that went for more than 5 yards.
  • The Tigers have held opponents without a touchdown in 24 of 32 quarters this season and have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown.
  • Offenses have crossed the 50-yard line during a drive against the Tide 24 times and have moved past Alabama’s 40 just 16 times.
  • The longest rush against LSU this year is 29 yards, and on 96 possessions, LSU has either forced a three-and-out or a turnover 48 times.

The bottom line is that these two units are darn good and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more complete defenses out there.

Both possess that rare combination of strength and speed across the board. While Alabama has more girth -- especially within the linebackers that Mingo referred to as “monsters” -- it doesn’t lack in speed. LSU is much slimmer, but just ask Mathieu about the toughness of he and his mates.

LSU coach Les Miles passed on the discussion of which unit was better, but he didn’t shy away from complimenting his players.

“I think there’s a great deal of speed and want in our defense -- all 11 guys,” Miles said. “An advantage, at times, is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are advantages in strength and quickness, not necessarily size.”

LSU players said this week that they hadn’t paid much attention to Alabama’s defense this season, but there were peaks here and there. Baker said he watched the Florida and Penn State games, while Mingo said he’s caught glimpses along the way.

Tigers safety Brandon Taylor said he has never seen so much hype surrounding two defenses before. The only thing he could compare this matchup to was a ferocious NFL rivalry.

“The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are the only teams I’ve ever heard [receive this much defensive hype],” Taylor said.

“We want to outplay their defense. That’s going to be our motive. If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

When asked if he had seen a game with two defenses of this caliber taking the field, Miles started into a classic Miles response before failing to find the right words. It seemed like The Hat had been stumped.

He paused for a few seconds, flashed an approving smirk and returned to form to deliver his final answer.

“There have been some teams that have lined up and had quality defenses as well,” he said. “I just think both of these defense might match the best that I’ve seen.”

Us too.

Video: Alabama WR Darius Hanks

November, 3, 2011

Chris Low talks with Alabama wide receiver Darius Hanks about his young quarterback, LSU’s defense and the experience of winning a national championship.

Video: LSU LB Ryan Baker

November, 3, 2011

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU linebacker Ryan Baker about Saturday's matchup with Alabama.

Video: Alabama LB Courtney Upshaw

November, 3, 2011

Chris Low talks with Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw about this weekend’s game and which team has a better defense.

Video: LSU QB Jarrett Lee

November, 3, 2011

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee about the upcoming game with Alabama.

Video preview: LSU-Alabama

November, 3, 2011

Ivan Maisel previews No. 1 LSU at No. 2 Alabama.

Video: LSU WR Rueben Randle

November, 3, 2011

Edward Aschoff talks to LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle about the upcoming matchup with Alabama.

Running backs a driving force for LSU

November, 3, 2011
BATON ROUGE, La. -- People usually stress quality over quantity.

It’s tough to perfect that and it’s even harder to get both.

Well, that’s what LSU is working with in its backfield.

The top-ranked Tigers (8-0, 5-0) are putting a pounding on opposing front sevens with their stable of running backs.

[+] EnlargeSpencer Ware
AP Photo/Wade PayneSpencer Ware has been the most productive back among LSU's dangerous group of rushers.
First, there’s Spencer Ware, who is the leader of the pack and the battering ram. He runs with power and grace while continuing to get extra yardage with those fancy spin moves.

Next you have Michael Ford. He isn’t as big as Ware, but he still packs a punch. He has a little more speed and complements Ware well in the offense.

And don’t forget about Alfred Blue. Even at 6 feet 2 inches, he’s a versatile back who has as many yards for loss as touchdowns (4).

Together, these three have totaled 1,205 yards and 16 touchdowns on 264 carries this season. They are a major reason why LSU is fourth in the SEC in rushing (189 yards a game) and why the Tigers enter their showdown with No. 2 Alabama (8-0, 5-0) as the No. 1 team in the land.

“It’s nice to have a stable of running backs,” LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said.

“‘Fresh legs’ like I like to say. Guys don’t have to carry the ball 30 times a game. They can get 10 or 15 and run as hard as they can every time and you don’t have to worry about them wearing down or getting out of breathe or getting banged up.”

It’s LSU’s running backs who have done most of the roughing up this season.

Ford said he would love for he and his teammates to take the credit for a successful running game, but all of his praise was directed toward running backs coach Frank Wilson. Ford said he’s the one who comes up with the game plans and makes the decisions about who will play and when someone will play.

He keeps them fresh during games and hungry during practice.

“You might not know who it is, but Coach Frank gets us ready for anybody who goes in there during practice,” Ford said. “We just rotate, rotate, rotate.”

It’s that attitude that has this group excelling. Ware might be considered the No. 1, but all three think they’re starters.

“You never know who is going to start because practice won’t tell you,” he said. “We all have to go out there and play hard.

“It helps out a lot because when we get to the game, nobody misses a beat.”

It could get frustrating not knowing what your role will be in upcoming games, but this group doesn’t mind. Ford said any one of them could take the reins from beginning to end.

That was made pretty obvious when Ware was suspended for the Auburn game, leaving the other backs to shoulder the load. This time it was yet another running back who stepped up in during Ware’s absence. Ford gained 82 yards on 12 carries, but it was true freshman Kenny Hilliard who had a breakout game, gaining 85 yards and scoring two touchdowns.

Before the Auburn game, Hilliard had just five carries.

Having multiple backs carrying the rock during a game doesn’t mean changing offensive styles. Blackwell said that even though each back runs differently, the offense treats the running backs the same when they’re on the field and it’s all about creating holes.

“We block the same no matter who’s back there,” he said.

What can get lost in the rushing bundle is that these backs’ success helps open up the passing game. Quarterback Jarrett Lee said his job is much easier and the passing game is tougher to stop when he has the luxury of handing the ball off to a handful of running backs.

“It helps a lot. When you have a stable of backs like we do who can come in and make plays like that then it opens up the passing game,” Lee said. “It opens up the play-action passing game for us.”

Ware is back from suspension and LSU’s bye week has this group feeling better than ever. Ford said throwing multiple backs out and keeping these players vibrant can be hazardous for a defense.

“Definitely it wears them down because every time somebody goes in there, you know they’re fresh when the defense is tired,” he said.
1. No. 2 Alabama leads the FBS in all four team defensive categories – total, scoring, rushing and passing. Not that this is hard to do, but only one defense has finished the season first in all four categories since the NCAA began keeping records in 1937. The 1986 Oklahoma Sooners did so, and they, like Alabama, played in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game. In the fourth week of the season, No. 1 Oklahoma lost at No. 2 Miami 28-16.

2. I don’t know how well No. 7 Arkansas will play at home Saturday night against No. 9 South Carolina. But I know the Hogs will be happy to be there. In the six weeks since Sept. 17, Arkansas has played only once at home – and that was the 38-14 rout of Auburn. The other weeks included three road games, a neutral-site game and a bye. All of which is to say that I bet Arkansas plays like it’s happy to be home, too.

3. Earlier this week, I remarked that rumors of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier’s retirement have been lingering for several weeks. But I hear from inside his camp that Spurrier is not retiring and, in fact, has an eye on the school all-time wins record. Spurrier, with a record of 51-34 in Columbia, needs only 14 victories to surpass Rex Enright, who went 64-69-7 from 1938-42 and 1946-55. Duly noted.

Video: Alabama RB Trent Richardson

November, 2, 2011

Chris Low talks to Trent Richardson about staying healthy and preparing for LSU.

Video: Inside the program -- Alabama

November, 2, 2011

Nick Saban talks to Tom Rinaldi about Alabama's preparations for Saturday's SEC showdown with LSU.