When I heard radio reports of 30-40 mile-per-hour wind gusts, rain storms and possible delays, my spider sense immediately went up for this game. Delays and wonky conditions can change the script of any game, especially if one side can have an emotional advantage, like after a coach firing.
And sure enough, LSU started out a bit tentative, and seemed unsure of what it wanted to do early on Saturday, but as Tennessee started to come back the Tigers woke up, kicked things into gear and put the game away in the second half, pushing through some of the strangest, and ugliest weather, that I’ve ever seen a game played in.
It was far from ideal, but at this point in the season, the conference schedule is about surviving. And the Tigers will have a chance to put one final check-mark on the 2017 resume next weekend against Texas A&M.
I was in-and-out of this game due to a family function, but let’s look back at how it all played out:
- Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. In speaking with a source, LSU’s coaching staff took one look at the game conditions and quickly made a decision to make major adjustments to the game plan to eliminate turnover risk, both in terms of offense and on special teams. D.J. Chark avoided risk in fielding punts and LSU did what it could to avoid putting the ball in the air down the field. Tennessee fumbled five times, and while they only lost two, LSU held onto the ball for a clean game.
- Tennessee won the yardage and per-play figures, 287 to 281 and 4.9 to 4.8, but part of that was in due to LSU having so many short fields. The Tigers still finished with six total red-zone possessions, scoring on five of them.
- If there’s been one major reversal over the last two weeks, it’s been field position for LSU. For the second straight week, LSU’s opponent started on or inside their own 20. The Tiger offense, its own 43.
- And yes, Tennessee’s problems fielding punts and kickoffs were a big part of that, but Zach Von Rosenberg also averaged a fantastic 49.2 yards per kick on the night, and dropped three inside the 20.
- For all the weather, and all the #Grumors that dominated the coverage of this game, you could see early that Tennessee fans came out ready to support their team in this game. Coach firings can have that kind of galvanizing effect. A fast start was going to be paramount for LSU. Sadly, that did not happen.
- Tennessee had no respect for LSU’s passing game. Not only were they stuffing the box with numbers, but the safeties were absolutely flying up on the jet-sweep action.
- Dave Aranda changed tactics up a bit early on, eschewing the Donte Jackson safety look for more of a typical base defense, and adding more corner blitzes — Kevin Toliver smokes Jarett Guarantano on third down early on from the boundary. Must have been a vulnerability he noticed on film during the week.
- Really liked the idea behind Matt Canada flashing the swing-pass screen to Darrel Williams and then trying to hit a middle-screen to Foster Moreau underneath the look on the second possession. The play didn’t work, but that’s a constraint I’d keep in the back of my mind in the future.
- Thing about overloading versus the jet look — if you guess wrong, you can be really wrong:
- LSU lines up tight, with Williams on the wing. UT loads up, bringing the field corner in. But the linebackers and defensive linemen flow hard on the inside-zone action to Derrius Guice on third-and-short. Williams gets the ball, the end man on the line crashes in hard, and J.D. Moore sweeps out to block the safety in the C gap. Easy touchdown, untouched.
- Williams would come back right before the half and pop a zone run to the edge, thanks to a missed tackle and a solid block from Saahdiq Charles, and get LSU in position to build a lead that Tennessee would never really threaten. LSU cashes in on a really clever twist on the zone-read:
- LSU spreads it out with trips to the field, and Tennessee matches them with a dime look and just a single linebacker in the box. From there, LSU runs an inverted veer read, but instead of reading the nose tackle, the offensive line doubles him, and Etling reads the linebacker. Linebacker flows on the back, and Etling has a huge lane to take off. Never seen a call like that before.
- Defense takes its eye off the ball on the next drive. Donte Jackson lets Marquez Callaway get behind him on a scramble drill, and follows that up by bodying up Callaway so tightly that he can’t move his feet to turn around, falls down and allows the touchdown.
- Jackson got a bit lost in the sauce in this game, with silly one-play errors that stood out because they allowed big plays, and then, of course, stupidly taunting and then flipping off the UT student section. He’s getting some extra running, at minimum, this week. Might even sit for part of the A&M game.
- Etling couldn’t have been less flashy on this play, but you have to love the way he was able to respond to Tennessee’s fluky touchdown with a clutch drive, hitting a couple of nice sideline throws, plus a scramble to set up a field goal attempt in just a few minutes. Sure, Connor Culp misses a 53-yarder, but only barely so. All things considered, it probably built a little confidence for the offense before the half.
- If you’ve watched enough college football, you’ve seen one of these elemental upsets play out. The home underdog is sky high and within striking distance, and the home team just looks frustrated and ready to take their ball and go home where it’s warm and dry and nobody is making them do any of this stuff. Instead, Coach O had LSU sky high and ready to power through to finish this game. Yes, they could have started better, but how LSU finished this game is a testament to good coaching.
- And that last sequence right before UT’s first offensive snap? Helluva pitch right there.
- And then it always helps when you’ve been able to find the Warp Whistle, and can teleport the football in mid-air to the only place Tennessee didn’t have anybody on that kickoff in the second half. The Vols were so juiced and pop went that balloon when they had to set up right back on their own goal-line.
- And LSU’s defensive front was more than up to the task, swallowing up two stretch plays right off the bat. Devin White is still imperfect — he’s a guided missile when he has a clear path to the ball, a bottle rocket when he has to work his way through traffic. But when you can still make mistakes and finish with 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss, that shows just what White can be capable of. He could lead the entire country in tackles next year.
- A little surprised LSU didn’t go for the block on the ensuing punt, but it also makes sense to try and make sure D.J. Chark had lots of space to track the ball, and make sure everybody stayed clear.
- Later in the third, Brady Hoke has Tennessee go for it on fourth and short — why the hell not, you might as well empty the chamber here. They do the smart thing and call a QB sneak, because it was easily just a foot or so. But LSU puts on a short-yardage clinic:
- Greg Gilmore completely submarine’s the center and does pushes him backward. LSU’s defensive line completely resets the line of scrimmage, and the linebackers crash the gaps to keep Guarantano from falling forward. Yes, it’s a completely undermanned Vol offensive line, but they needed very little room to get that first down.
- I want to highlight this damn sexy play after the turnover:
- LSU shifts both tackles, both tight ends and Darrel Williams from the offensive right to the left, with Williams moving to a fullback position. And it’s a basic play-action bootleg with a levels play into the field with Williams, but look at Stephen Sullivan lining up as an eligible receiver at the right tackle spot? That could be a mismatch waiting to happen. Williams would cash in the touchdown on the next play.
- Kevin Toliver continues to struggle with the ball in the air; he loses his man trying to turn around, then dives at him and instead, takes out John Battle, allowing a big play that only avoided a touchdown due to some real hustle from Corey Thompson.
- Well, that and the Tennessee offense just melting down with snap and other procedural issues.
- Couple big-picture notes: on screens and the defense’s problem with them — it really comes down to recognition at the second level. I charted all five of the ones that Tennessee ran. The first big play to John Kelly was more of a check down where Tyler Taylor just lost him slipping out of the backfield. But a consistent theme were the LSU inside linebackers, and whichever safety was in the box (usually Grant Delpit) failing to read the action before the blocking could get set up. One did feature a very nice crack block from a receiver to help set edge, but in each case K’Lavon Chaisson, Jacob Phillips, White and Taylor all failed to get into the flat quickly before the offensive linemen could get out in front. Just a question of players having to rep it and focus on it. And you can bet Texas A&M will work on it a lot this week, as they’ve always been a very active screen team.
- Offensive line was spotty, but played with much better energy in the second half. Toby Weathersby in particular had a lot of problems setting the edge on Tennessee’s ends. Also, give the Vols credit for playing the misdirection well and not biting on too many fakes. The rushing yardage would have looked little better had Guice not slipped on the wet grass on a cut that could’ve sprung a big run in the fourth quarter.
- On Connor Culp — I wouldn’t be so quick to bench him, were I on this coaching staff. Yes, he missed a short field goal (I wouldn’t hold the 53-yard miss against him in the least) and an extra point (a serious no-no after last week), but all things considered, I think a lot of that can be written off to the weather conditions. It’s not a free pass, and I’d still make him earn it in practice. But based on what we’ve seen from Jack Gonsoulin to date, Culp is still the best place-kicker on this team.
- Overall, not a win anybody’s going to remember much, but it damn sure would have been tough to forget as a loss. Really liked the way the team came out with some energy at the half, and if you don’t understand why Matt Canada radically altered his play-calling, go look up Notre Dame versus NC State from 2016. Now on to the final home game of the year, which I am also likely to miss #cryingemoji.