In an exciting game, LSU handily beat Ole Miss in the first real test of the Orgeron Era. The contest was also the first old school Tiger Stadium game of the season, as it featured a large and lively crowd. Such home night games with a late start (8 CT) are usually good ones, and LSU hasn’t one since 1988.
And LSU’s players didn’t disappoint either, especially the peerless Leonard Fournette and the defense. Everyone knows about Leonard, a player who is at the same time mercilessly physical and vanishingly fast. What he did is deservedly the main story of the game, but for the purposes of this post, I wanted to focus on the defense.
My main interest in this was because I was concerned that Ole Miss’ capable passing game might expose one of LSU’s weaknesses. This might seem foolish to think, but LSU has at times struggled against the pass this season, and this has been especially true of Jackson and Tolliver.
But not only was my worry misplaced, it was totally rebuffed. Ole Miss’ excellent tight end, Evan Engram, was almost non-existent, and Chad Kelly, a possible first round pick, was held in check. This helped limit Ole Miss to 325 total yards and 21 points. Considering that Ole Miss scored 36 offensive points and gained 522 yards against top ranked Alabama, LSU did really well. Another, somewhat arbitrary piece of data to consider is Ole Miss’s offensive performance after their first 2 scoring drives[i]:
|Number of Plays||Yards Gained||Result|
|3||9||TD (Etling fumble)|
|8||50||End of Game|
In 13 drives, Ole Miss had 8 punts, 2 turnovers, and only 5 drives with more than 3 plays. How was LSU’s defense so effective?
LSU’s Rushing Defense
To help explore what LSU’s defense did well against Ole Miss, I decided to chart some statistics for LSU’s run and pass defense. I thought it would be handy to keep track of Ole Miss’ runs, as I figured LSU might sell out on the pass, giving Hugh Freeze and company a lot of opportunities for long runs.
So to look at their rushing attack and LSU’s rush defense, I used football prospectus’ 4 categories of rushes: stuffs, 1st level runs, 2nd level runs, and 3rd level runs.
Stuffs, the first category are runs where the defense allowed 0 or even negative yards on the rush. 1st level runs are rushes that gained between 1 and 5 yards. The “stuff” and “1st level” categories are indicators of how good LSU’s front seven was and run-safety support. Generally, the line and linebackers are tasked with clogging holes, filling gaps, maintaining the edge, and making tackles around the line. The more stuffs and 1st level runs, the better LSU’s front 7 was playing.
0 or negative yd. gain
|1st Level Runs
1-5 yd. gain[ii]
|2nd Level Runs
6-10 yd. gain
|3rd Level Runs
gain of more than 10 yd.
As the chart above illustrates, LSU’s rush defense was good. It’s front seven, with some safety support from Adams, was able to limit Ole Miss’ runs. Whatever Ole Miss tried, running around the edge and between the tackles, didn’t really work well. At And the Valley Shook, Seth Galina used a variety of videos to demonstrate how LSU’s defensive line, especially their defensive ends were able to stymie Ole Miss’ power running game.
A very simple synopsis is that LSU’s defensive ends were very disciplined, and resisted Ole Miss’ blocking scheme. This tampered with Ole Miss’ timing and gap creation, which forced runs to the edge where linebackers and Adams were able to make tackles. Here’s one example that Galina used to show how Arden Key forced an inside run play to the outside.
The side ways running gave fast LSU players more time to recognize what was going on, and come up and make tackles/support. One result of this was that few Ole Miss running plays were able to get to the 3rd level. In fact, their only 3rd level run was a Chad Kelly scramble, as were at least 2 of their 2nd level runs. In other words, Ole Miss had very few designed run plays that LSU did not stifle.
For the sake of comparison, here’s a chart that shows how LSU’s rushing attack did when compared to Ole Miss.
|Team||Stuffs (0 or negative yards)||1st Level Runs (1-5 yd. gain)||2nd Level Runs (6-10 yd. gain)||3rd Level Runs (gain of more than 10 yd.)|
The big difference is the 3rd level category, and that was Fournette’s three big TD runs. And before discussing the pass defense, here’s how Ole Miss’ total offense compared to Leonard Fournette’s total offense.
|Leonard Fournette||Ole Miss|
|Total Plays (rushes + passes/receptions)||19||69|
|Total Yards Gained||312||325|
|Yards Per Play||16.42||4.71|
LSU’s Pass Defense
LSU’s pass defense was perhaps even more impressive than its rush defense. As noted earlier, Ole Miss is a formidable passing team, and LSU was still able to hold them in check.
Before the game, I devised two categories, “comfortable passes” and “uncomfortable passes”. Comfortable passes were those in which Kelly wasn’t moved in the pocket, didn’t have a defender/s in his face, and made the throw in what appeared to me a comfortable way. Bootlegs and plays in which Ole Miss intentionally had Kelly moving also counted as comfortable. Generally, though, these were fairly quick throws with Kelly standing unencumbered in the pocket.
Uncomfortable passes were the opposite—plays in which LSU collapsed/penetrated the pocket, got in Kelly’s face, or made him run and throw when that was not Ole Miss’ intention. Hurries, sacks, and holds that were committed to avoid sacks/protect the passer were counted in the uncomfortable pass metric, but so were instances of lesser harassment. And it’s important to state that Kelly did just fine on many uncomfortable passes, though he did throw one pick and another pass that should have been intercepted (when LSU’s two DBs ran into each other) on such plays. It’s also important to point out that there’s a lot of subjectivity in determining what a “comfortable” and “uncomfortable” pass was, so take everything here with a few grains of salt. Some folks could use the same categories and come up with very different numbers, so this ain’t a science.
A third category emerged during the game—positive scrambles. These were plays in which it appeared LSU had moved Kelly out of the pocket and disrupted Ole Miss’ passing play, but Kelly gained yards on a rush. I couldn’t tell on several occasions if some of these plays were intentional draw plays for Kelly or were scrambles, so I just lumped them into their own category.
|Comfortable Passes||Uncomfortable Passes||Positive Scrambles|
As the chart above shows, Kelly was fairly comfortable. This is somewhat misleading, though, as LSU only ever rushed 5 players 5 times according to the Advocate’s Ross Dellenger. Galina noted that LSU only blitzed once. There may be different counting systems these guys used to determine what a blitz/rush was, but the theme is clear—LSU rushed only 4 players on most plays still achieved a degree of consistent pressure on a quick passing offense. Due to this efficient pass rush, LSU was able to have more players covering receivers or spying on Kelly.
But what is really interesting about LSU’s pass defense and defense in general is Aranda’s use of multiple fronts. This is something Dellenger mentioned, as he noted that sometimes Arden Key would be used to rush the passer, but other times Key would drop back. Aranda did the same thing with other players too, which creates a kind of uncertainty about who on the defensive is doing what.
But perhaps the most deceptive aspect of Aranda’s defense is that some of the players seem to read certain cues from the offense, and based on what they see the offensive players do, they alter their behavior. Sometimes, they’ll drop in coverage very quickly if screen pass/pass in the flat appears evident based on the offensive line’s behaviors. Other times, the defensive linemen avoided being down blocked by reading their would-be-blockers. This is all done very quickly, so an what may have seemed as an opportunity for the offense very quickly disappears.
None of this is really new, as defenders are trained to react to the offense. It just seems that LSU has become much better at it than they have been in the past. The result is that the offense must execute very cleanly, which is a difficult standard to maintain for an entire game. This is something Ole Miss found out the hard way.
- For those with a lot of time, Arranda designed a few presentations that have some slides how defenders can read offensive players’ cues. Here’s one.
[i] All data per ESPN box score http://www.espn.com/college-football/playbyplay?gameId=400869032
[ii] Ole Miss had 3 first level runs that were excluded from this tally—a 3rd and short, a goal line run, and a 2 point conversion run. All of these were left out because the offense only needed a couple of yards (1-5), so it wouldn’t be fair to give LSU’s defense credit for holding them to a small gain.