The No. 1 LSU Tigers return to heat up Atlanta one more time — against the Oklahoma Sooners in the Peach Bowl. Loser goes home, winner heads to New Orleans to play for the national championship against the winner of Clemson-Ohio State.
From the undefeated season, to the SEC title to the Heisman bydamn Trophy, I don’t know that this LSU football season could get any better to this point. And there’s still chance to cap it off with one more trip to the Superdome to compete for a national championship. Saturday will begin the final chapters of the story that will determine just how high it ranks in the pantheon of Tiger legends.
I’ll be watching this one with family at a late holiday party. I hope you’re all lucky enough to watch this one surrounded by loved ones. Enjoy the journey. Celebrate the moment, because for us fans, they don’t come around too often.
What To Watch For On Saturday
Lincoln Riley got his start in the Mike Leach Air Raid, and brought it to East Carolina some 10 years ago; I can remember thinking of him as a pipe-dream candidate for LSU’s offensive coordinator spot after Gary Crowton left. But since his move to Oklahoma he’s melded that passing attack with a running game that’s more geared towards having a big, physical offensive line — which the Sooners have had each of the last few years. Oklahoma loves to pull guards and tackles and use fullbacks and/or H-backs as lead blockers, and even with Heisman winning quarterbacks, they’ve still rushed for more than 3,000 yards each of the last four seasons.
The bread and butter of the Sooner offense is the G-T counter:
It’s not all that different than the classic Counter Trey, only with the backside guard and tackle pulling. This year’s OU team uses a fullback or tight end as the second puller with the guard a little more, but the principles are still more or less the same.
What’s interesting is how much Riley and the Sooners have taken what’s classically a constraint play and made it a feature; teams usually run counter to try and spring a big play when the defense is over-pursuing to the play-side on power runs. But GT Counter is very much the foundation of the Sooner running game. They use it with a read look, as we see above, they run it directly with the quarterback (especially with Jalen Hurts), jet-sweep looks plus play-action and RPO looks off the play.
QB Counter-Swing Pass RPO (images via Spread Offense Football)
Counter-read/Jet Swing RPO
Riley has done a masterful job of adjusting his play-calling to the difference in Hurts versus Kyler Murray or Baker Mayfield. He doesn’t have their abilities as a passer, but offers a much more dangerous option in the running game.
As Mike Gundy tried to explain earlier in the year, it’s almost gone back to the Wishbone days in terms of how the offense relies on Hurts to make the running game work. Which is not a bad idea, given that Hurts has the size and build to handle a heavy workload compared to the average quarterback.
The Sooners aren’t throwing it as much, but they’ve been every bit as efficient wearing people out on the ground — they’re still right at 50 percent on third down, and still averaging 8.1 yards per play (down from 8.6).
One for Two
While the GT Counter’s main feature are the two backside puller, the fulcrum of the attack is the play-side guard and tackle. They’ll be responsible for double-teaming the play-side three- or 4i- technique with one player pealing off to cut off the mike linebacker. This helps sets the edge for the pullers.
So that play-side defensive lineman, if he can disrupt that double-team block, is the focal point for breaking up the entire play. If Riley wants to copy some of what Ole Miss had so much success with, they’ll run it away from Rashard Lawrence, who was often the unblocked read player for John Rhys Plumlee.
Whether the player in question is Lawrence or Glen Logan, he’ll need to fire off the ball and make sure he keeps a hand on both linemen, and observe “Block Down, Step Down” rules and try to hold his nearest play-side gap. The next outside man (an outside linebacker like K’Lavon Chaisson, Andre Anthony or Ray Thornton) will then be charged with “wrong-arming” the pulling blocker attempting to kick him out. That is to say, engaging his up-field shoulder to stall his movement and squeeze the hole he’s attempting to create for the second puller to lead through. As Seth detailed, the nose-tackle can also get involved by crossing his man’s face to the play-side gap as well.
Keeping the inside linebackers will be incredibly key, as they’ll often be in conflict with the jet looks OU will dress this run up with, or RPOs possibly thrown behind their heads.
The other key will be having extra numbers at the point of attack from the safety position.
Wheel Keeps Turning
We’ve all heard the talk of the LSU-Ole Miss game as a parallel for this match-up due to the Rebels’ success with similar schemes to the OU running game. As Seth also brought up after said Ole Miss game, safety play was a big part of the issues in that game. LSU stayed with a fairly vanilla, two-high safety look, and had much more success a week later against Arkansas with Jacoby Stevens lined up closer to the line of scrimmage.
Playing with that extra man against Oklahoma creates liability versus the pass. And while Hurts has his limitations as a passer, he’s much better than John Rhys Plumlee. And he has one of the best receivers in the country in CeeDee Lamb, who also happens to work mostly out of the slot, a position LSU’s had trouble defending this year.
How LSU’s safeties — with the nickel corner position being a safety for these purposes — balance run support and coverage will be a big part of the defense’s success or failure in this game.
I would look for Dave Aranda to rotate Stevens and Grant Delpit in the box at different times, with Kary Vincent playing with deeper leverage — the nickel look we’ve been used to this season.
With the nickel playing off, the safety closest to the line will have alley responsibilities versus most outside runs, but will be in conflict at times with how Oklahoma works the slot in with their running and RPO game. On down-field passes, that box player can work with Vincent at nickel to bracket the slot by undercutting the throwing lane. However, the Sooners love to motion that slot player to try and create more conflict for both the safeties and the other linebackers, as well as throw to him on bubble screens and quick slants. That will put a premium on smart rotation between the safety up near the line and whomever is in the deep middle.
Earlier in the year, Aranda experimented with both Kristian Fulton and Derek Stingley Jr. in the slot. We might see some more of that against OU given the dominance of Lamb out of the slot. Otherwise, we know LSU will be comfortable manning up on the outside to let the rest of the secondary deal with the run and the slot position.
Kary Vincent isn’t likely to be up to handling Lamb by himself, but with smart use of Delpit, Stevens and Maurice Hampton, LSU should be able to limit their liability there. The other end of that connection is, of course, a name we all know well.
When Hurts announced his transfer to Oklahoma, it made all the sense in the world. That said, it is a little bit weird to see him. His time at Alabama as the starter feels like a lifetime ago. He never exactly lit LSU up leading the Tide offense, he always found ways to make some big plays at big moments, usually with his legs. And it makes perfect sense that Riley shifted his play-calling to make better use of Hurts’ skills; he still has his limitations as a down-field passer, but he’s a dynamic runner, and a physical run at that. He’s the kind of player that can really take over a game on a heavy workload with 20 or even 30 carries in addition to what he does throwing the ball.
Hurts leads the Sooners in rushing attempts by more than 70, and has some 528 touches overall this year between runs and pass attempts. Ball security is an issue at times, with eight fumbles on the year, and third-and-long passing situations are still his weakest plays. This game will be very much in his hands. It will be LSU’s job to limit what he can do with that. Contain him in the pocket, chase him with delayed rushers and limit his ability to target Lamb as much as possible.
In a tight game, the Sooners will be able to lean on Hurts’ running, as well as the other backs, to limit possessions and eat clock. I also would expect to see a fake or onside kick. But if LSU’s offense does its job, and Hurts has to throw to keep pace? That’s an advantage for the Tigers.
Grinch’s Heart Grew Three Times
You know, it’s funny — at the height of the hyperbolic narrative surrounding LSU’s defense, a few national pundits made the comparison to the 2018 Oklahoma defense. For a point of comparison, that Sooner group allowed more than 33 points per game and 6.1 yards per play; those numbers are nearly two touchdowns more per game and more than a yard per play worse than LSU’s defense this season (21 points and 5 yards per play).
Enter new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, who made his bones with some strong units at Washington State a few years ago. To date, the improvement is noticeable: the Sooners moved from outside of the top-100 in scoring defense and yards per play allowed to the top 50. Granted, 24.5 points per game and 5.4 yards per play aren’t fantastic numbers, but that’s still nice success. And I tend to think that you can only do so much to fix a defense without a major talent infusion.
Grinch runs an attacking, aggressive 3-4 front, and it generated some nice improvements and sacks and tackles for loss this season. A style that pairs well with a good offense, because the opposing team is usually in catch-up mode. And against Big 12 offenses they mostly operate out of a 3-3-5 look. But it’s not the biggest group; the line averages just 272 pounds a man, and the linebackers just 231 pounds. On top of that, they’ll be down their top pass-rusher in defensive end Ronnie Perkins, and the No. 2 tackler in safety Delarrin Turner-Yell.
For the Tiger offense and Joe Burrow, the question is how much things change without Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Yes, he’s still listed as a game-time decision, but given the flightiness of hamstring injuries I would assume he won’t be very active if he does play. The attack has really settled into heavy use of the 11 personnel grouping in the last five games. With Edwards-Helaire and Thad Moss’ flexibility they could use that grouping to attack from pretty much any formation without substituting.
My guess would be that Moss will step into the safety valve role, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Tigers start out with a tight end, four receivers and no back on the field. Moss can still help out somewhat in pass protection, and having that fourth receiver on the field will provide another underneath threat. We’ve seen them flash some looks with Justin Jefferson or JaMarr Chase in a tailback spot, although usually in tempo situations to create a mismatch in the quick passing game. Maybe that package expands a little bit to use that quick passing game as a substitute for Edwards-Helaire early on.
Another angle here is that if the Tigers are relying more on 230-pound backs like Tyrion Davis-Price and Chris Curry, that could be a mismatch in and of itself against a smaller front seven. And Oklahoma has allowed 190-plus yards on the ground four times this season.
If LSU’s offense executes the way they have all season, it’s tough to see the Sooners keeping pace. However, if the absence of Edwards-Helaire creates some hiccups, Hurts is not the kind of quarterback LSU wants to see in a tight game. Nor is Riley the type of play-caller.
LSU enters this game a strong favorite even with Edwards-Helaire’s uncertain status. And the Tigers have every reason to feel confident; when this offense is executing it does too many things well for any one defense to truly stop. This game is almost an inverse of the 2004 Sugar Bowl match-up. LSU comes in with the Heisman winner, and a slew of star talents. But this isn’t the OU defense to slow down a top-shelf offense. Plus, it’s short-handed.
Still, Oklahoma’s an aggressive team that will almost certainly trot out plenty of gadgets and trick plays to try and answer whatever Burrow and the offense can put up. It may not be enough, but it’ll score points.
For the Tigers, the challenge is to maintain the status quo. None of the awards or banquets or anything else matters. It’s just about the next game.
Win on Saturday, and then there’s only one more to go.