Game-winning drives are hero builders. Play like shit for three quarters and throw a game-winning touchdown and you'll be branded a winner. Throw for 400 yards and 5 TDs, but then throw a game sealing INT and you're a choker. Football is a cold mistress.
On Friday, True Freshman Anthony Jennings tasted glory in his first extended collegiate action. After spending much of the season running QB sneaks or seeing a few garbage handoffs, an injury to Zach Mettenberger pressed Jennings into duty in the most dire of circumstances. Trailing by six with just 6:34 left in the game, Jennings took the field with the Tigers in FG range. If it wasn't enough that Jennings stepped in unexpectedly, he came into the game missing one of his best WRs and his starting center... and one play in, his starting RT. All of this smelled of disaster. A false start, a short gain by Jeremy Hill, a three-yard scramble and a poorly thrown, but catchable, incomplete pass later, LSU cut the lead to three. They were quiet plays, perhaps most effective in that they didn't lose field position and turn a moderate risk FG into a high risk one.
The LSU defense responded with a quick three and out.* Then Arkansas punter Sam Irwin-Hill put a Stone Cold Steve Austin boot into the ass of the football, sending it 65 yards right onto the LSU half yard line. If ever there were a least desirable time to roll out your Freshman QB in extended duty this was it. 99 yards. 3:04 on the clock. Three points needed for a tie. Then something special happened.
*A special note: the LSU defense allowed just 24 yards and one first down in the 4th quarter. Regardless of the caliber of offense, they finally stood up to make a game-winning stand.
1) 1st and 10, LSU 1, 3:04, 22 Personnel, Big I Formation
This seemed like a wasted play. Admittedly, it's a call many coaches make with your offense backed up against your own end zone, but it's never one I've particularly cared for. I think the idea here was to not risk a turnover due with a sloppy or hurried handoff and just buy Jennings a couple of yards of breathing room to operate. It's a QB sneak in which Jennings took right over the MASH unit of Turner and Washington on the right side for a pick-up of two.
2) 2nd and 8, LSU 3, 2:30, 22 Personnel, Big I Formation
2nd and 8 with the clock ticking and one timeout means LSU needs to get throwing. Cameron dials up a PA roll out pass, and it's just a two man route, with Logan Stokes, Connor Neighbors, and Jeremy Hill all staying in to protect. The idea of the call is perfect. Two-man routes mean Jennings only needs to read half the field. Adding a roll out gives him a run-pass option, and the capability to utilize his feet if he doesn't like what he sees in the passing game.
But the play itself quickly goes awry. Here we get to see a little bit of what makes Anthony Jennings a special prospect. Arkansas DE, Junior Trey Flowers, reads the down block of Stokes and quickly pulls off and steps upfield. LSU's designated Neighbors to pick up the end man on the line (Flowers), which he does admirably, but Flowers came upfield in such a manner that it prohibited Jennings from getting outside of the tackle box and completing his roll out.
Jennings, ever the quick thinker, realizes this, plants his back foot and steps UP into the pocket, like a savvy veteran. He then composes himself and resets his feet. All while standing in his own end zone. The combination of the play action and an outstanding job up front gives Jennings plenty of time and room to operate. From there he drops a simple, but beautiful, touch pass right over the head of the underneath covering LB, but right onto TE Dillon Gordon, a guy who won't catch the ball unless it's placed right on his numbers.
It's not a play that will make highlight reels, or result in much fanfare, but something about Jennings sheer composure in that play alone makes me genuinely excited for the future. A lesser QB would likely have attempted to to widen and still get outside of Flowers, and even if that lesser QB did realize he couldn't make it, the awareness to not only step up into the pocket, but reset his feet to make a good throw... this is amazing stuff and a sign of excellent coaching and preparation.
3) 1st and 10, LSU 19, 2:09, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Single Back
The first down gives LSU the opportunity to change personnel, and Cameron calls for a 3WR set. Dural and Boone are flanked wide, with Landry on the hashes inside Dural to the strong side of the formation (move the TE to the outside of the LT in the graphic above).
To the left, Dickson, Landry and Dural all run go patterns against a soft zone coverage. I can't tell where the safeties are, but with the corners playing 10 yards off, I can guess they were playing deep halves, around 15-20 yards deep to prevent anything from getting behind them. Hill runs a simple "V" pattern out of the backfield on the weak side, while Boone runs a comeback route to about 15 yards depth.
Trey Flowers again proves problematic, using his quickness to beat Evan Washington around the edge getting right into the face of Jennings. With the pressure right in his face, Jennings dials up the throw to Boone about a second too early, though accurately thrown with pressure in his face. For Jennings, it's a good decision for a few reasons. Getting rid of the ball means he avoided a needless sack. He also knew that throwing to that particular spot on the field presented minimum risk: either Kadron Boone was going to catch it somehow or it was going to be incomplete.
The result is an incompletion, but it's a play you can live with in the face of poor protection. Brando comments that Boone broke late, but I think Jennings released the ball early, realizing the pressure was coming. While Jennings did eye Boone the entire play, the awareness and anticipation are nice to see. Had he shifted his vision sligthly, he likely could have completed to Hill underneath. But this is also a sign of good coaching. Jennings is looking to work the sidelines, realizing time is tight. He's likely been coached that 5-7 yards underneath with around two minutes remaining is less valuable than stopping the clock.
4) 2nd and 10, LSU 19, 2:02, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Two Back Twins
Despite the incomplete, Cameron opts to stick with the same personnel grouping, though this time deployed differently. Travis Dickson lines up in the backfield to the left of Jennings, rather than at the end of the line. The WRs remain the same.
This time, Jennings gets five men out from which to choose. Arkansas continues to leave a nice cushion, playing a soft zone. Jennings takes a three-step drop, but once again pressure from Trey Flowers forces him to re-route. This time Washington has him bodied up, so Jennings takes a subtle slide step to his left, behind La'El Collins, who is manhandling a superb pass rusher, Chris Smith. This time Jennings doesn't take the time to reset his feet, but quickly unloads to Landry, who is working back to the sideline on a comeback route, about 12 yards deep. Underneath, Jennings could have found Hill or Dickson wide open for more modest gains, but he made the heady decision to go to the trusted Landry, who cut his route perfectly underneath what looks like quarters coverage. The play is not only good for a 1st down, but Landry fights to get out of bounds to further preserve the clock.
Jennings very well could have tucked and ran the ball here, but this gives a good indication of his predilection for passing. He's a guy that can run, but one that views that as an option second to finding a receiver down field. This is backed up from his HS tape as well. And, once again, Jennings is able to work the sidelines, rather than opting for a few yards underneath.
5) 1st and 10, LSU 30, 1:56, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Two Back Twins
Same formation, except this time the ball is placed on the left hash, so Landry lines up on the right hash, inside of Boone, and Dickson to Jennings' right. Arkansas maintains the same soft zone coverage. This time, the soft coverage plays into their favor. All three WRs run off screen, but judging by Landry's post game quote, it may have been a post and corner combo to the strong side. Landry is bracketed up the seam by the LB and the S. Boone, and I assume Dural (he's off screen), are both well covered.
Dickson and Hill both chip and then break into crossing patterns, but by this point Jennings has identified that the wide side of the field is completely cleared out due to the deep routes. The offensive line does an outstanding job in protection, with a hat tip to Travis Dickson, whose chip block decleats Trey Flowers. Jennings rolls right, where there is no contain due to Dickson's block. He initially keeps the ball high and tight, in case the opportunity to throw presents itself, but seeing all the green in front of him, he decides to put his athleticism to use.
His speed allows him to cover 15 yards before a single defender is within even five yards of him. Hill smartly leads the charge, looking downfield for a block. While Hill positions to pick up the corner, Jennings uses a little extra burst to split two defenders, which allows him to pick up an additional 10 yards on the play. All told, it's a 21-yard gain, and LSU plays benefactor to an injured Razorback on the play, stopping the clock.
Again, what we see is that Jennings has a strong sense of when to throw and when to run. With the defense in a deep zone and an easy 15 yards of ahead of him, he doesn't try to force the issue, but tucks the ball and takes the big 1st down. Smart and decisive.
6) 1st and 10, Arkansas 49, 1:46, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Two Back Twins
Despite the injury timeout and the opportunity to change personnel, Cameron elects to stick with the formation that accounted for the previous two first downs. On the right hash now, the Tigers align identical to play four. Now on the other side of the 50 and trailing by only three, LSU sits in a much more comfortable position with plenty of time on the clock and a timeout in their back pocket.
It's hard to tell exactly, but this time it looks as if Jennings is reading the entire field. His head swivels slightly left, before working right, a practice likely introduced to the LSU QBs by Cam Cameron. Evan Washington is once again beat badly on the outside, but Jennings can sense the pressure from Chris Smith, and is able to avoid a sack by simply dipping his right shoulder underneath Smith and Washington and rolling to his right. This is the type of play I feel confident would be a sack for Mettenberger, but Jennings is able to utilize his athleticism to beat the rush.
He rolls right and fires a tightly contested ball to Boone, who is running a comeback on the sideline. The CB, Dean, has his left arm wrapped around Boone and uses his right arm to bat at the ball, but Jennings arm strength is such that he's able to slip it past him. Boone can't handle the pass, but the ball was put in a place where it should have been caught. Beckham or Landry likely make this catch, but Boone just isn't that caliber of a WR.
Here we see the escapability and athleticism that Jennings brings to the table, but also the arm strength. One thing I've long admired about his game is that he's got a great touch in the passing game. For many QBs, especially ones with strong arms, it's a skill that takes time to learn.It seems to come naturally to Jennings. He knows when to take a little off and when to bring the mustard. This throw needed strength and Jennings brought it, even without having his feet set.
7) 2nd and 10, Arkansas 49, 1:30, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Single Back
After going Two Back on three consecutive plays, Cameron keeps the same personnel, but shift back into the Single back look. The formation brings no adjustment from Arkansas, who continues to respect the deep pass, despite Jennings being an unknown quantity at QB. Against Mettenberger, this wouldn't be terribly surprising, but seven plays into a drive where the QB is proving he can take the underneath and move the chains efficiently, or scramble to beat you, I'm not sure what Chris Ash was thinking not a) Bringining any pressure or b) Trying to bump the LSU WRs to disrupt timing.
On this play, Jennings once again reads left to right, and once again, his protection breaks down. Washington simply can't handle any DE Arkansas elects to throw at him. This time, Chris Smith bull rushes Washington right into Jennings, who again senses the pressure. He's able to roll right and get just outside the pressure, but Smith pulls off Washington and is able to get his arms out to begin wrapping Jennings up. Jennings dumps it off to an open Hill, but the Arkansas defense quickly collapses limiting Hill to no gain.
It's a shame that the protection was shoddy, because Landry came open underneath the zone, and that seemed to be who Jennings was eying on the play. In this scenario, you'd probably rather Jennings throw the ball away to preserve the clock, but seeing a wide open Hill and knowing he's a guy that can break tackles and get to top speed quickly, it's not an altogether awful decision. Still, the play points to not only the athleticism he brings to the position, but that he's already got a strong pocket feel for pressure.
8) 3rd and 10, Arkansas 49, 13 Personnel, Shotgun Two Back Twins
Following a timeout, with a crucial play coming, Cameron goes back to the Two Back look. We would later learn this was entirely for protection purposes. Jarvis Landry, exercising his superb football sense, suggested LSU run a 9-route (go or fly pattern) behind his out. Landry noticed the corner would suck down to him, something he believed would leave a man running free behind them if LSU so chose. Cameron trusted his WR and called the play. "Tsunami."
Rather than working quickly into routes, both Hill and Dickson chipped the rushing ends, which provided Jennings just the time he needed . Jennings, feet set in a clean pocket, effortlessly flicked the ball down the sideline to a streaking Dural, battling only a potential drop that would keep him from scoring. The ball couldn't possibly have been thrown better, as it tear dropped right into a full-striding Dural, carrying him the game-winning score.
To quote Tim Brando, "Can you say, '99 yards... with a Freshman at quarterback?'" In the final piece, Jennings showed deep touch and accuracy, something we even saw Mettenberger struggle with as a Junior. But we also saw Jennings use his eyes to manipulate the defensive back, sucking him down onto Landry before firing it over the top to Dural.
This Is No Mirage
It's always risky to heap too much praise upon a young player. The details of Mettenberger's leg injury are yet to emerge, and there's a possibility that this is the last we really see of Jennings until the Wisconsin game next season. Having made such a huge play to win LSU a tight ball game, expectations will likely be sky high for Jennings entering the 2014 season. Tiger fans expecting a Johnny Manziel-type debut campaign are likely setting themselves up for disappointment. Too much too fast is often a very bad thing. And Anthony Jennings still has a lot of learning and growing to do.
But some players are special. Some players are bigger than the moment. What we saw from Anthony Jennings on Friday is a player that was bigger than the moment. Buried on his own one yard line with a hair over three minutes to play, Jennings never looked nervous or out of sorts. He calmly operated the offense, drove the team past the 50 and then delivered a devastating death blow on a pass that's easy to let adrenaline take away from you. Did he do it all against a porous defense that played soft zone coverage? Yes. But he still did it, when most would not.
The important take away for Tiger fans here is that this wasn't luck. This wasn't the ball bouncing the right way or a guy stumbling into success. What we saw from Jennings are the very things we've been talking about about him since he was just a commitment. Jennings wasn't just poised, he did a ton of little things right that made the drive a success. He's got tight, clean mechanics. He's got superb awareness. He uses his eyes to manipulate the defense. He uses his legs, but with deference. His arm is strong, but he also throws with pace and anticipation. Vadal Alexander commented after the game that Jennings is a "mature guy." He brings a calming presence to the huddle. Not super chill indifference, but that knowing confidence. He's proven to be coachable. He is the marriage of mental and physical abilities that spawns unique success. Hell, the kid seems prescient:
I thank God in advance for the blessings coming my way.— Anthony Jennings (@JENNINGSWINNING) November 24, 2013
Everyone will remember the drive, and the game itself, for "Tsunami," but when I re-watch the tape, I can't help but be enamored with what all Jennings brings to the table. He entered the game in the worst possible situation, and he turned it into 10 points and a Tiger victory.
It's early yet, and you hate to thrust too much upon any one player, but we've got something. We've got Anthony Jennings.