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Film Room: Fiesta Bowl Preview Part Two

How will Dave Aranda defend the Golden Knights?

NCAA Football: Rice at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

In Part 1 of my Fiesta Bowl preview, I looked at the concepts that make the UCF offense go. For part 2 we’re going to look at how Dave Aranda has defended similar offenses and how he might scheme up a way to stop the Golden Knights in the Fiesta Bowl.

The main film we’re going to look at is Missouri (Heupel) vs LSU (Aranda) in 2016 and Ole Miss vs LSU this past season. I’m using the Ole Miss film because I felt it was the closest approximation to Heupel’s offense. LSU’s defense has changed, slightly, since 2016 so we can see how 2018 Aranda handled this type of offense.

Before we start, we have to talk about the attrition on the Tigers defense. No Kristian Fulton, no Ed Alexander, no Greedy Williams, no Breiden Fehoko, no Jacob Phillips (for a half). You could argue that cornerback is the most important part of Aranda’s defense so not having the starting two guys, both of which are first round NFL talent, is the biggest issue.

This is not good and it might affect how Aranda deploys his defense against Heupel. In their meeting in Baton Rouge two years ago, the biggest difference in the game might have been the play of the cornerbacks. Donte Jackson, Tre White and Kevin Toliver all took turns locking down the Mizzou wide receivers.

Heupel wants to spread his receivers all the way to the sideline and create one-on-one match-ups. The receivers will run vertical option routes. If they can’t beat the cornerback after 8-10 yards they hitch up. If they can get over top, they continue to run vertical and then adjust the route based on where the safety is.

LSU pressed the heck out of those Missouri outside receivers and completely took them out of the game. With the corners in press, the receivers are taught to get vertical. That’s great in theory. It doesn’t work when the corner can absolutely man handle the player in front of him.

(look at the top of the screen)

UCF’s receiving corps isn’t elite but it will go against either Kary Vincent, Terrence Alexander or Jontre Kirklin (or whoever LSU has left at corner at this point). This will be a test. The first thing to look at when UCF has the ball will be how aggressive Aranda plays his cornerbacks. I think he’ll still try to press and see how it goes. This is part of his system’s DNA so I don’t think he’ll change it right away.

Whether LSU played two high or single high, Aranda pressed his corners. Heupel had two answers for this.

First, he tried to get his slots involved more. LSU generally gave the slots a free release whether they were playing man or zone.

Mizzou tried to put the slot receiver out to the field and then run the slant into some space. Against Cover 1 pre-snap, the quarterback likes what he sees.

LSU, however, is essentially doubling the slot guy. With the two outside receiver manned up and pressed into the sideline, the free safety could stay over top of the slot. This allows the slot corner to trigger quickly on the first break of the route.

LSU doesn’t have that luxury when they are in zone. The slot receiver will work vertically longer looking to get past the underneath zones and get matched up with the safety. This is how most teams want to attack the press quarters system LSU employs.

The problem for opposing offenses have always been the personnel issue. LSU has elite players at safety. The clip above shows top-10 NFL pick Jamal Adams eliminating that route. In the Fiesta Bowl, that will be future top-10 NFL pick Grant Delpit and 5th year veteran John Battle on the otherside.

The other scheme solution put forth by Heupel was to run a lot of picks and rubs to free up his receivers against press. Theoretically, this would help against the press corners but LSU was just too good.

Stopping the Missouri run in that game showed off an interesting wrinkle from the LSU defense. Heupel plays predominantly with an h-back. They use this player to split across the formation on split zone and counter run plays. LSU has defended against offenses like this by spinning down the LSU after the snap to where the H-back is going.

Heupel has always had a nice trick up his sleeve, one that I wrote about in Part 1 of this preview, where he will send the h-back on a counter action himself after the snap.

If LSU triggers the opposite safety, they get screwed by the h-back coming back to the same side. Aranda decided to spin down pre-snap but leave that safety behind the linebackers so he could mirror the h-back from depth. The front almost becomes a 4-2-1 formation.

Ole Miss doesn’t play with the considerable splits that Heupel plays with but often send out the same personnel and use the same formations.

This year, like in 2017, Aranda tended to play Ole Miss in Cover 1. The biggest difference from this year to last was how he played the down safety. He chose to put the low safety in the box to begin with making the defense look like a classic 4-3 under defense.

When John Battle was low, he looked like a true linebacker:

But when Grant Delpit was low, he was a little off...

...Because Aranda wanted to disguise when he sent him on blitzes, which he did throughout the game

(this run busts because Phillips fits into the wrong gap)

It’s not like Aranda to start out playing off coverage, so I don’t think we’ll see that here. He’ll likely roll Vincent and Alexander up and dare UCF to throw it down the field.

I think we’ll know pretty quickly how Aranda feels about the corners that will be playing in this game. If he presses them right away, UCF will try to throw it over their heads immediately. He might play off to start the game but it’s really not Aranda’s style. I think he plays Vincent andI and straight up dares Heupel to throw it deep.

I asked in Part 1 which offense the UCF high-tempo-run-the-same-play-over-and-over style reminded you from recent LSU opponents. The answer is the Lane Kiffin led Alabama attack. Aranda shut down that offense in 2016. LSU transformed into more of a 1-high team this year so I could see that trend continuing in the bowl game especially with the lack of depth up front. It wouldn’t be such a bad idea to drop down either Delpit or Battle to take away the numbers advantage. At the end of the day, he’ll have to decide he needs to help the most: the corners or the box.