How does Alabama win so much and why do they keep beating up LSU's offense? The first quarter of the 2015 LSU-Alabama tilt provides us a sliver of an answer.
Alabama's defense in 2015 often featured two deep safeties with very quick run support keys. This gives them the benefit of being able to get to nine guys in the box in a hurry versus runs. While one of the safeties will still rotate down in certain calls, they end up far more in split safety coverages than the famous Rip/Liz Cover 1/3 match coverages that Nick Saban is famous for. Because of the depth of the safeties, offenses versus Alabama are presented with a numbers advantage in the box.
This would, seemingly, fit perfectly into LSU's hands. LSU is going to run the ball no matter and then call their deep post play-action passes when the safeties starts reacting too quickly to run action. So then how did LSU lose, for the sixth time a row, to Alabama? Scheme might only account for a quarter of this whole equation. Talent goes a lot further. Alabama simply dominated LSU in the two most important areas: in the trenches and quarterback play. LSU knew what Alabama was going to be and Alabama knew what LSU was going to do. The Alabama defensive line mauled the LSU offensive line. With a light box, they need their defensive line to win one on battles to make up for their lack of numbers. Doing this against most other teams is one thing but doing it against the talent LSU supposedly has at offensive line is another. During the game, Gary Danielson talks about Alabama's d-line being two-gap players. This means their job isn't to penetrate the offensive line but to engage the blockers, shed the blockers and then make plays if their linebacking crew hasn't already. LSU fans will remember the heydays of LSU's defensive line being one-gap penetrators, wrecking havoc in the opposing teams backfield. As far as the quarterbacking is concerned, LSU had a quarterback who was woefully inaccurate and couldn't find enough big plays in long yardage situations to make up Alabama stuffing the LSU run game. The first quarter shows a glimpse into all of this.
1st & 10 on the LSU 31
LSU starts the game with a Les Miles staple: the outside zone toss. LSU's run game was very zone heavy this past year and this unique play that started out in the early years as a "power toss" scheme has evolved to a "zone toss" scheme more often than not. The reason why LSU has always tossed or pitched the ball when they run these schemes from under center is so that they can use their QB to "block" a backside defender. This frees up a bigger body (offensive lineman, tight end, fullback, etc.) to add himself to the frontside of the play. When LSU is in shotgun, they read one of the backside defenders (zone/power read) with the QB instead of blocking him.
Of course, Leonard Fournette is a very capable zone runner. His vision is superb. With a zone scheme, the running back makes his decisions based on the reactions of the defensive line. On outside zone, you are generally reading the outer defensive player first and on inside zone, you would read an interior defender first. If your offensive lineman blocks that player to the outside, than your cut should be inside of your teammate and vice versa. The role of the fullback on these types of plays varies. Personally, my favorite scheme is to have your fullback take the same path as your running back and read the same blocks so as to use him as a true lead blocker. Some schemes have the fullback arc release to a linebacker or cut off the backside pursuit. The main thing that has to happen when running a zone scheme is that you need your o-line to move the defensive line. Penetration into the backfield is a good way to get yourself into long yardage situations.
On this play, we'll take a look at the blocks by Foster Moreau (84) and Jerald Hawkins (65). Fournette (7) and Mouton (47), the fullback, are most likely either reading the block of 84 or 65 first. Mouton decides to come down inside and pick up any backside pursuit, which I imagine was part of the scheme. This leaves Fournette to read the two blocks by himself. Moreau gets a pretty good block on Dillon Lee (25). He doesn't create any upfield movement but he gives Fournette a very clean read. Hawkins gets manhandled and lose ground terribly but still gives Fournette a clean read. Fournette should go inside of 84 and outside of 65. Fournette hesitates, possibly because he sees a linebacker sitting in the hole and decides to bounce out. Defenses love stringing out zone plays so this is usually not the best move versus a team as talented as Alabama. Fournette uses his supreme athletic ability and falls forward for a modest gain. I think if Mouton inserts himself in that same hole that Fournette should have run in and blocks that linebacker, Fournette could squeeze in there for a nice gain.
2nd & 8 on the LSU 34
Here is a simple play action bootleg play where LSU will flood the sideline with 3 different routes. Travin Dural (83) runs an intermediate out route. Foster Moreau blocks and then releases into the flat creating vertical spacing in the flats. Colin Jeter (81) has a backside drag that creates the horizontal spacing this flood route needs. All three receivers are wide open and the pass is overthrown. You can't beat Alabama if you consistently miss open receivers. This puts LSU in a long yardage situation that is difficult for them to overcome.
3rd & 8 on the LSU 34
LSU lines up in trips and runs a vertical concept (that the broadcast angle doesn't pick up) with slide protection to the playside. The replay shows Jerald Hawkins getting beat cleanly again. It's very bad technique. He basically lunges at the defensive end and gets caught with his head down.
1st & 10 on the LSU 10
Alabama rotates their safety down to the strong side giving them an 8 man box before the snap. LSU is running zone to the weakside. Right off the snap, Alabama has pushed the three front-side LSU offensive blockers into it's own running back. The fullback, Mouton, reads the blocks and fits on a linebacker but Fournette has nowhere to go. LSU is manhandled at the point of attack once again.
2nd & 9 on the LSU 11
LSU runs zone to the strong side this play but the same result occurs. The front side of the play is blown to bits when the tight end, tackle and guard are moved into the LSU backfield. Alabama's defensive line and sam backer use the leverage they have created to then shed the blocks. Again, they aren't trying to penetrate. They'll use their long arms and toy with the offense before going to make a tackle.
Back to back false start penalties
This is the stuff that has always been infuriating about the Les Miles era. One time, I even saw us take a false start during the opening kickoff of a second half.
3rd & 18 on the LSU 1.5
When all else fails, throw a jump ball to your great receiver. Sometimes football is as simple as this. Dural makes a great play. Even though Brandon Harris stared at his receiver running down the sideline the whole drop back, the safety was still too late to get over the top and make a play on the ball. These are the type of big plays that aren't sustainable.
1st & 10 on the LSU 39
LSU runs their zone scheme but instead of reading the backside end, they'll read the first defender to the backside of the center. This is called a "midline" read. In this case the read is on Jarran Reed (90). Reed plays up the field, giving the QB a give read to hand the ball off. LSU finally gets some decent push on the front side of the play. If you just get a stalemate at the line of scrimmage and your back makes the right reads, with the zone scheme you're going to stay out of negative plays. The ball carrier is always going to go to where the defense is not. The problem on this play is that JD Moore (44) reads the blocks, inserts himself and then whiffs on the best linebacker in the SEC, Reggie Ragland (19).
2nd & 6 on the LSU 43
LSU runs their midline read again, this time to the opposite side. LSU gets blown up, again, on the frontside. The difference this time is that at least it makes the read easy for Fournette, who understands to cut the ball back. This is the deadliest part of the any zone scheme: the cut back. I've learnt that the way you teach running backs to run zone is that they must make their initial 1 or 2 reads on the defensive line and then they make their cut and you let them be a playmaker. This is why Fournette is so good. He makes the right reads most of the time and his play-making skills are unparalleled. Unfortunately, on this play, I can't figure out why he decides to make a great cut but then lower his shoulder when he could have bent his run all the way back for a huge gain. It's a decent gain, nevertheless, but this should have been an easy first down.
3rd & 3 on the LSU 46
Finally, LSU is in a manageable 3rd down situation. Malachi Dupre (15) runs a deep comeback. Travin Dural runs a post. Fournette runs the angle route from the backfield. Harris reads this out pretty well. He doesn't like the deep comeback because he doesn't feel like he can fit the ball into the tight window that will be there when Dupre cuts his route off. The post is taken away by the middle safety. Harris makes 2 confident reads and then checks down to his 3rd progression... and then throws an inaccurate ball to Fournette who is wide open. Harris generally doesn't go through his progressions and on this play he finally does but can't hit his receiver in stride.
End of 1st Quarter
There you have it. Alabama's scheme didn't beat LSU. Alabama's players beat LSU.The first quarter was a microcosm of the whole game. Everyone wants to throw shade on Cam Cameron but I'm not sure what else he could have called. Upfront, LSU got thrown around like rag dolls. Alabama shouldn't be able to do this to LSU.