On the third play of the fourth quarter, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger finds Jarvis Landry for 23 yards and a first down, paving the way for a Tiger touchdown that takes the lead from Alabama just two plays later. Later in the game, LSU had the same duo connect for 13 yards to move the chains, then three plays later, Jeremy Hill was on the receiving end of a seven-yard pass from Mettenberger to again move the chains and delay Alabama’s late heroics.
The common theme? All three of those plays happened on third down. It would only get worse against the Aggies.
On the first Aggie third down of the game, on its second possession after driving to a touchdown without facing the do-or-die down, Texas A&M running back Ben Malena beat the Tide at its own game, earning a one-yard run to move the chains. The next third down conversion, just three plays, was a 32-yard scamper from Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel that moved Texas A&M within one first down of Alabama’s redzone.
Fittingly, the Tide’s hopes of a stand would be dashed on third downs. Manziel found Thomas Johnson for eight yards and a first down to move the Aggies to the 2-yard-line, before ending the drive on third down with a one-yard run from Christine Michael.
The two teams combined to be 21-38 on third down against Alabama (55.26 percent) a large improvement from Alabama’s third down defense before those two games (31-106, 29.24 percent) and what both LSU (52-129, 40.31 percent) and Texas A&M (67-129, 51.94 percent) had done outside of their meetings with the Tide.
“You have to execute better,” linebacker Nico Johnson said. “It’s that simple. We didn’t execute at all starting in the LSU game. We haven’t been getting off the field at all.
“We’ve created good opportunities for ourselves on third down and just haven’t been getting off the field. We’ll have good opportunities like third and more than 12 and we’ll have a bust here and there and it costs us.”
The Tide could be looking to missed tackles as a potential cause for the third down struggles.
“You wouldn’t be asking me about it if it wasn’t an issue,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said to a reporter. “We’ve had more missed tackles, more yards after catch, after contact, the first missed tackle, especially on space plays. That’s one thing we’ve always been is a really good tackling team with a good tackling secondary. That is something that we need to improve on.”
Johnson added, “It’s simple. We’ve got to tackle better. We have to start during the week. We have to practice it. If we don’t practice well, it will carry over to the game. Coach loves to preach the way you practice carries over to the game, and if we practice bad, do things bad over and over in practice, it will carry over to the game.”
Although the struggles with tackling and third down defense send the fanbase in an enraged frenzy, the issues were not all that surprising to some.
“All year, teams haven’t taken advantage of those aspects of our game, but it’s catching up to us,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to motivate ourselves and do better.”
The retooling of Alabama’s motivational basin is a heavy burden Johnson takes upon himself.
“I’m going to try my best insofar as a defensive leader to re-motivate everybody, understand our purpose and what we have to do to affect everybody else,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to play better on defense. I’m going to hold everybody to that standard from here on out. We’ve got to be better.”