NEW ORLEANS — Playmakers running free in the open field and quarterbacks unleashing quick-strike scoring drives defined the opening college football week of 2012, when teams lit up scoreboards with gaudy statistics in three of four Bowl Championship Series games.
Now comes something completely different.
As up-tempo, point-a-minute offenses continue to proliferate, the hallmarks of Louisiana State and Alabama, the two teams that will meet Monday for the BCS national title, are esteemed defenses so acclaimed that they seek permanent places in recent college football history.
Instead of a back-and-forth shootout, the game promises to feature at least four quarters of textbook tackling in a black-and-blue battle for every inch of field position. And because of how their regular season matchup unfolded — a 9-6 overtime LSU victory on Nov. 5 — players can’t even guarantee that there will be a single offensive touchdown.
“The games you have been watching, you are not going to get that here,” said Alabama running back Trent Richardson. “You are going to get a slugfest, a man-up game, and see who is the best man on the field come Monday.”
The game at the Superdome is unlikely to serve as a highlight reel for an offensive player like Richardson, a Heisman Trophy finalist. And there are no electrifying wide receivers like Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon or West Virginia’s Tavon Austin. If both defenses battle to a virtual stalemate, the game’s most important player could well be a 6-foot-3, 184-pound Australian named Brad Wing, LSU’s accomplished punter.
LSU running back Michael Ford said those high-scoring games do not necessarily reflect the true essence of football games because “we go through the trenches. I think people get tired of seeing all those points on the board. They want to see a hard-fought game.”
The losing team in three of four BCS games this year scored no fewer than 33 points. In contrast, the regular season LSU-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, Ala., produced no touchdowns and four missed field goals.
In West Virginia’s 70-33 victory in the Orange Bowl, Clemson allowed the Mountaineers to score nine offensive touchdowns. Alabama’s defense has allowed nine touchdowns total in 12 games.
“People, I am sure, enjoyed watching West Virginia put up 70 points in a game,” Alabama center William Vlachos said. “I know I was entertained by it. But when you look at the core of football, you look at blocking, you look at tackling, you look at rushing the ball, great defense, special teams play. That [first meeting] incorporated it all at a very high level. For a true football fan, I think they really enjoyed that game.”
The defenses have dominated like few others in recent college football history.
Alabama is allowing just 8.8 points per game, which would be the stingiest scoring defense since 1988 (Auburn). Quarterbacks completed just 48.3 percent of their passes against the Crimson Tide defense. It gives up just 3.4 yards per play. And just 23.3 percent of the 676 plays opponents have run on the defense went for more than five yards.
LSU, which led the nation in turnover margin, became the first school to possess two first-team all-American cornerbacks in Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne. Mathieu, a Heisman finalist, forced six fumbles and intercepted two passes this year. SEC coaches voted Claiborne the league’s best defensive player.
Jim McElwain, Alabama’s offensive coordinator, had one word for LSU’s cornerbacks: “Scary.”
The Tigers have faced more explosive offenses than Alabama did this season, as Coach Les Miles said he’s fine with scheduling any team other than the Green Bay Packers. LSU has contended with Oregon’s so-called blur offense and West Virginia’s fast-paced spread scheme.
Against Alabama, which Miles said clearly was the best team the Tigers faced, LSU allowed Richardson to rush for 89 yards and collect another 80 receiving yards. But as LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said, “We kept him out of the end zone, which was the biggest thing. We played well when we had to.”
Vlachos, the Alabama center, said it “makes you kind of sick sometimes to watch that film because there's so many little things out there that, as an offensive line, if we sustain our block for another half second, Trent’s going for 60 yards and not six.”
On the other hand, Alabama’s defensive challenge is containing the option element of LSU’s offense. Jordan Jefferson replaced a struggling Jarrett Lee and had success running the option.
“He is one of the reasons they changed things up and made a big play on us a couple times last game,” Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower said. “We can’t let him pitch the ball whenever he wants to. Make him pitch it when we want him to. We have to make him pitch it a little later so we have enough time to get all 11 of us over to the ball.
Miles expects “big-boy football” Monday night. Players called the first meeting the most physical game they had ever played. Richardson felt the extent of the pounding throughout his body two days afterward. He knows what is in store.
“I am not trying to say that our offense can’t score, I am not trying to say their offense can’t score,” Richardson said. “But with our two defenses and how they battle and how they hit, I don’t expect a blowout or 45 points up on the scoreboard unless we go into like five overtimes, and I highly doubt that.”