It’s no secret that if LSU is going to beat Alabama in Death Valley this Saturday, the Tigers have to run the football.
LSU’s record at home under Les Miles (since 2005) is 62-8. In the Tigers’ wins they have averaged 210.9 yards rushing, and in their eight losses they’ve averaged only 127.8. Since Alabama emerged as a national power in 2008 in Nick Saban’s second season, they have amassed a 79-10 record. In their wins, the Tide allowed an average of only 78.6 rush yards per game, which becomes 136.4 in losses.
Even greater reason for the Tigers’ reliance on running the ball is they’ve been unable to find a consistent pass game all season. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has been forced to all but abandon the thought of throwing it — only nine FBS teams have fewer than LSU’s 192 pass attempts in 2014. Anthony Jennings leads the Tigers with 144 attempts, but he’s completed only 50 percent of them for eight touchdowns with five interceptions. In his last outing, Jennings went 8-of-16 with one touchdown and two interceptions against Ole Miss.
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No pass? No problem.
The Tigers’ run game is good — so good they may be the scariest one-dimensional team in the nation. Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and true freshman Leonard Fournette are as talented as any running back group in the nation. LSU’s massive and mauling offensive line and its stable of backs have picked up some serious steam in their last three games against Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss, rushing for an average of 254 yards per contest compared to the 117.7 yards per game through its first three games against Power 5 teams (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn).
A big part of the pick up in production has been the emergence of Fournette. If a theme song were made about LSU’s offensive development the past three games it would have been titled, “Feeding Fournette.” He has 65 carries in those games, just one shy of his total in the first six games combined. In addition to making quicker reads and cuts in the run game against Ole Miss, the young Tiger showed how dynamic he can be as a receiver by reeling in a difficult over-the-shoulder pass up the gut of the defense that went for 40 yards.
The Tigers have 831 total yards gained on the ground in their last three games, but they face a big challenge in the Tide on Saturday night, who rank fifth in the country at 2.71 yards allowed per rush. The Tide had an extra week to prepare for this SEC clash (so did LSU), and you can be sure that Nick Saban’s defense has scouted the Tigers’ run game better than anyone this season.
Let’s take a look at LSU’s tape from the Ole Miss game to see some of what has made the Tigers so dominant on the ground, putting them in position to run over the Crimson Tide and into the top 10.
The nightmare bend play
The bend play is tough as hell for linebackers to read, and LSU runs it with near perfection.
It’s essentially a lead play that starts to either the weak side or strong side of a formation but then bends back to hit on the opposite side of the formation. For example, if the play starts out as a lead weak headed for the weak-side A-gap, the fullback and running back will bend the play back after the handoff so that it ends up hitting in the strong-side A-gap.
Here’s how it’s drawn up:
Take note of the original line of scrimmage (denoted by two red dotted lines with the yellow dotted line between them). You’ll notice the bend play features two double-teams at the point of attack by the offensive linemen — just like in a normal lead play. Also note what the linebackers usually do when they sense flow to the weak side in a two-back run (denoted by the red arrows).
In the next photo, you can see how much fullback Connor Neighbors and running back Fournette sell the lead weak play to get the two linebackers flowing laterally, which is dreadful for the defense because this is a downhill play. Also notice how LSU’s offensive linemen and tight end are already starting to create a massive dent in the defensive front.
In the last photo, you can see that three defenders (including one of the linebackers who was out of position) – marked by X’s – are getting pummeled 3-5 yards beyond the original line of scrimmage. Fournette ran for a big gain on this play and was not even touched by a defender until he was seven yards downfield.
Alabama linebackers will be vital components within its defense if they are going to slow down LSU’s bend play. They’ll have to do an excellent job of keeping their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage and reading through the offensive linemen to the fullback and running back to see their flow. If they bend the play back, they’ll have to stick their foot in the ground to fall back into the A-gap opposite of the original direction of the play. The Tide’s down linemen will also have a long night of trying to be stout, holding their ground against the double-teams by the Tigers’ behemoth offensive linemen.
Power-O with precision
LSU’s offensive linemen have been running the power-O play with precision, and if the defense fits just one gap incorrectly the running backs have the vision and burst to make you pay.
In the first photo, you’ll see how the play is drawn up. Notice the defense has eight men in the box — the perfect situation to defend the run. There is one man for every gap, which means there should be a minimal gain for the offense no matter what play they run.
In the next photo, as the play develops, you can see how the run should be fit with eight defenders in the box. The edge defender has contain and forces the ball to stay inside while the two linebackers should fit the pulling offensive lineman — one on the outside (dotted red line) to force the ball inside to his partner who is running in pursuit to make the tackle.
In the next photo, you can see the linebacker who was supposed to fit outside the pulling offensive lineman — to force the ball back inside — fit inside instead. Now he has voided his gap and is in the same gap as his partner, who was running to fit inside the pulling lineman to make the tackle. With excellent patience and vision, Magee sees the mistake and in a split second takes advantage of the poor fit and bursts through the voided gap for a huge gain.
LSU’s power-O scheme will test the football IQ of Alabama’s defense. Each type of run play is fit by the defense differently based on the number of defenders in the box and the type of coverage being run (zone or man). The power-O is one of the most basic — yet successful — runs in all of football because it allows the offense to run downhill while throwing in a pulling lineman to challenge the defenders’ knowledge of run fits.
There’s no doubt Saban’s soldiers have been coached properly. It’s now up to the players to execute their run fits properly on Saturday night. Being that LSU doesn’t pose a serious passing threat, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama keeps it simple in regards to defensive play-calling to minimize the chance for errors in run fits, which would be devastating against the Tigers.
Welcome to Brutality Ball
LSU’s offense plays with a brutality that is among the fiercest in all of college football. Their offensive line averages over 316 pounds of nasty and their running backs have the ability to break ankles – literally (see below).
Here’s an example of how dominant the Tigers can be in the trenches. Take note of the line of scrimmage in this first photo:
In the next photo, you can see before the running back even gets to the line of scrimmage, the offensive line has pummeled every single defender backwards more than two yards. That’s power. Magee gashed the defense for 38 yards on this play.
Here’s a GIF of the physical and combative nature with which the freakish freshman Fournette has been running the football. Even though there wasn’t much of a gain in yardage, this is the type of run game that can break a defense as the game wears on.
Fournette literally breaks the ankle of the linebacker who tries to tackle him by running over him, and it takes four other defenders wrestle him to the ground.
Alabama holds its own destiny in its hands. If the Tide win out, they’ll be rolling into the first-ever College Football Playoff. For this next contest though, it’s the ‘Bama defense that holds the key to victory. They’ll need to stop the Tigers, who have become one of the best running teams in the nation in the past four weeks.
Alabama will have to shut down one of LSU’s top runs — the bend play — with great linebacker play, fit the power-O with precision and match the intensity of the Tigers at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide defense is a physical bunch too – and won’t back down from a brawl in the trenches — but it’s on them to rise up and play as tenacious as the Tigers if they’re to prevent the upset in Death Valley.
If Alabama’s defense shuts down LSU’s run game, the Tigers don’t stand a chance. If the Tide don’t, you might say the same thing about them.
* Video courtesy of ESPN and stats courtesy of Tim Bazer, STATS Research
Coy Wire played college football at Stanford before a nine-year NFL career in Buffalo and Atlanta. He’s currently a college football analyst for FOX Sports 1 and writes for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @CoyWire.