Since Dave Aranda’s arrival in Baton Rouge, he’s imposed his will on opposing offenses with his dizzying array of blitz packages, the sturdy tite front and a lot of man to man. He’s killed so many offenses over his three years at LSU. Using Bill Connelly’s defensive percentile performance we find a 99-percent rating against Alabama and a 97 against Lamar Jackson in the bowl game in 2016. In 2017, the defense rated at 100 percent against BYU, 95 against Arkansas and 91 against Tennessee. The 2018 season was more of the same with a 91 spot against Miami and a 93 against Mississippi State.
While they’ve been few and far between, there have been games on the other side of the spectrum. There have been five games in Aranda’s tenure where the defense fell below 55% using the same Bill C numbers. 2017 Mississippi State, 2017 Troy, 2018 Florida, 2018 Alabama and 2018 Texas A&M.
Aranda has fared well against some of the top offensive coaches in college football —except Dan Mullen. After Aranda dominated Mullen’s 2016 Mississippi State team, Mullen’s 2017 MSU offense killed LSU and then his 2018 Florida also stunned the LSU defense.
LSU had almost no answers to Mullen’s game plans and that will have to change before the Tigers meet Mullen again in Death Valley next October.
Watching the film gives us a fascinating look at how Mullen stretched Aranda’s defense.
In the two games combined, Mullen trotted out some sort of trips formation 75 times. That’s roughly half of all offensive plays. There were three different variations: Trips, Trey and Trio (my terms)
If you google “how to defend trips” you get 19 million results. It’s important to have a sound plan when the offense unbalances it’s eligible receivers. The defense has to make concessions.
In Aranda’s two base coverages, this is how he would ideally deal with these formations.
First, his press quarters zone from the tite front:
And then from his Under front where he likes to play man coverage:
When LSU wants to stay in two-high (2 safeties over the top) this puts pressure on the Mike linebacker to be a run player (c-gap) and a pass defender in the hook/curl zone at the same time. He’s conflicted. His job is to find the inside most receiver and align himself at the apex point between that receiver and the offensive tackle. If you look at the diagram above under “LT Tite Trips Home” you can see the “M” between the offense’s “U” and the tackle.
Where Mullen played with LSU was by widening his trips formations to the extreme.
You can see the tremendous amount of space created. There’s a limit to how far out the Mike is willing to go chasing the most inside receiver.
After stretching the defense, Mullen then decided to play in those half spaces he created.
The LSU linebackers biting on the counter action in the backfield doesn’t help but you can see how much room to the sideline the running back has once the receivers run off LSU’s secondary.
Mullen ran the same play a year later but from a normal Trips alignment and you can see how more defenders can get involved and have eyes in the backfield because they aren’t stretched out.
With a running back at quarterback like Mullen had in Nick Fitzgerald he could create space by formation and then create a numbers advantage by using his QB as the ball carrier like in this next clip:
We saw this formation less in the Florida game with Franks at quarterback. Mullen only ran eight plays with a wide trips formation compared to 22 the year prior.
Where Florida hit LSU was on the opposite side of the formation. Against a Trio formation, teams need to decide who will cover the single tight end on the weakside. Do you bring your bigger safety down to the weakside and move the cornerback over to the trips side or do you just keep your cornerback back over there. Against MSU, the Tigers played a lot of snaps against Trio with John Battle on the tight end. Battle is really good box defender but philosophically Aranda actually likes to keep the cornerback over there. You can see that in the diagrams from his playbook above.
If LSU is going to do that, it’s going to create a personnel mismatch in the run game with a guy like Greedy Williams against a tight end. That’s already a win but Mullen was able to get a double whammy by the way LSU adjusted on the Trips side as well.
LSU became afraid of giving Mullen a soft edge to the wide side of the field. You can see in both above video’s the linebacker tries to come down and set the edge on the outside runs. He’s coming from a far alignment and even when he kinda did his job, the runner was still able to get outside of him.
Aranda adjusted by having that linebacker walked up on the edge. Now, it would be tough to get immediately outside of him.
The problem is now you only have one off the ball linebacker that can flow and clean things up. Add that to having a backside corner who doesn’t really want to get involved in the run and you’ve created many problems.
Florida hammered LSU to the weakside when LSU tried to set a hard edge. Here’s the same idea but executed as a fake inside zone —> speed option look.
This stuff was really hard on LSU’s defense.
When Mullen went into Trey (22 times), he tried to create big plays in the passing game. Of the 10 passes out of this formation, 8.5 were off some sort of fake run. He probably felt like having an off the ball tight end/h-back could help in protecting his quarterback. These were basically all deep shot play actions.
Here’s a nice one where he has Fitzgerald make it look like the QB sweep play that had destroyed LSU up to that point before pulling up and throwing a touchdown pass:
October 12th, 2019 is a big day for LSU football. Coming off back to back losses to Florida, Mullen comes to town for another huge matching of wits with Aranda. How LSU’s counters what Mullen has shown the Tigers in years prior and what new concepts Mullen brings to Death Valley will be really interesting. I trust Aranda to finally stuff Mullen and help get LSU the W.