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Clemson vs. LSU is Good on Good

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Thoughts and Musings on the National Championship.

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Oklahoma vs Louisiana State Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an infinite amount of parallel universes out there and I’m pretty sure in all but one of them LSU wins the National Championship. We just have to hope this one isn’t that one. This season has been too magical for it to end with a loss to Clemson in Superdome on Monday Night.

Still, we could be in store for an absolutely fantastic football game. From the quarterback matchup to the OC vs. DC battles, this is one has all the juice necessary to give us one hell of a show.

I’ve put together some thoughts on what we could see out of LSU’s defense against Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense and then how the mad man Brent Venables could attack LSU’s offense:

When Clemson Has The Ball

As I watched Ohio State let Clemson back into the semi final from up 16-0, it hit me that neither Clemson’s offense or Ohio State’s defense really changed schematically. For almost the entire the game Ohio State played with one safety and manned up everyone on Clemson. It worked until it didn’t. When you live by the sword you also die by the sword. Cover 1 man to man the whole game.

Clemson’s offense is not complicated. From the route concepts to the protections to the run game. What Clemson has done during their recent reign atop the College Football world is out execute anyone and everyone. You can’t play them in zone because Trevor Lawrence will pick you a part. Play them in two-high, Travis Etienne will. And most teams can’t deal with their receivers in man.

Ohio State, of course, has the horses to play a lot of man to man and did so to great affect. The problem is that all it takes is one of your linebackers to get picked off on a screen pass for Etienne to take the rock down the field for an explosive play.

You can see the Clemson receivers run off their defensive backs and the Clemson tackle blocks the player responsible for covering the running back. After that there is no one near Etienne. The Lawrence draw for an explosive play touchdown was also against man to man. I have no doubt that both plays Etienne and Lawrence would not have made it all the way to the endzone against zone. Too many eyes in the backfield.

Of course, zone presents its own problems. The play that set up Clemson to score the game winning touchdown played out against Ohio State’s Cover-3 zone.

You can even argue that Lawrence should have hit the seam route to the field that he looked at first, but he eventually comes back to Amari Rodgers on the deep over wide open.

All of this brings us to Dave Aranda and the LSU Tiger defense. Luckily, Aranda already employs a ton of Cover-1, man to man defense. In fact, after the Ole Miss debacle, LSU has increased their usage of this coverage. It’s good against good. LSU’s strength is their secondary and Clemson’s receivers are some of the best in the country.

Where Clemson could have success is with LSU not getting enough pressure from their four-man rush. If LSU plays Cover-1 they do it from an “under” front which means a guy like Rashard Lawrence will have to play defensive end. Obviously, he’s played many snaps at that position but he’s better against then run and isn’t a natural edge rusher. K’Lavon Chaisson, from the other side, will have to affect the game to slow down Clemson.

The other issue is how off do you play with your cornerbacks. For my money, if you have the talent, you need to get up in people’s grills and disrupt timing and make them win contested balls. LSU certainly has players who can do that. Clemson is too good when you play off. Lawrence’s timing and accuracy really show off in the quick/RPO game.

LSU can’t play press the whole game but a steady dose of it could slow the other Tigers down.

It’s possible we’ve seen the last of Aranda’s Tite-4 (zone quarters-ish) defense for the season. It served it’s purpose against Oklahoma’s option attack and Jalen Hurts at quarterback but it’s hard not to think that Trevor would eat it up.

When LSU can get Clemson into third downs, Aranda can start having some fun. One of the things you’ll notice about LSU’s offense this season is how much looking back to the sideline Joe Burrow does to get a new play call from Brady/Ensminger. Often, they aren’t changing the whole play just getting the offensive line into a better protection scheme for what they feel is coming from the defense. The targeting penalty on Ohio State’s Shaun Wade showed how you can kinda get to Lawrence because of the simplicity of their scheme.

Clemson bluffs their snap and gets Ohio State to show their safety rotation and nickel blitz. If this was LSU, the protection would change. They would slide over to pick up the blitz whether that was with moving the running back or sliding the center to that side. The adults in charge of making sure Lawrence doesn’t get hit didn’t do their job!

I think, overall, what makes this match-up exciting is that it will be five-star versus five-star. All American vs All American.

When LSU Has The Ball

The chess match is probably going to come on this side of the ball as the LSU offense faces their toughest test of the season. With Clemson losing four defensive linemen to the NFL draft in the offseason, Brent Venables needed to re-imagine his defense. The word was that he already wanted to tinker with playing with three safeties some time ago but that would mean not being able to play with four d-linemen so the three-down, three-safety defense finally made it’s debut this season for Clemson.

This defense is a good fit against LSU’s zone and duo schemes on the ground and could cause Burrow and Co. some troubles.

However, in the middle of the season, Venables went back to his trusted 4 down defense. Against Ohio State he was in four-down for a huge portion of the game.

“Between the way that Venables likes to send pressure with backers and DBs and drop ends in coverage, and the decision to use more of their 3 safety defense, Venables is a 3 down guy masquerading as an old school 4-3 coach” - Coach Diante Lee

This is early in the year vs. Syracuse:

And this is in the semifinal game:

Big difference.

I don’t think Venables can sit in a four-down base defense and dent LSU’s attack. I believe we’ll see the return of his three-down attacking defense. What is interesting about that three-down stuff is that it’s still a pseudo four-down defense which Venables has based out of for a lot of his career. When he bases in three-down, he’ll still rush four guys even on early downs via stunting the three defensive linemen and bringing the fourth rusher from somewhere. This is different than Dave Aranda’s static three-down defense. Both defenses work but in different ways.

In the second half of the Ohio State game, Venables started heating up Justin Fields and I’d imagine he will try to get after Burrow early. Burrow and this offense will make Clemson pay if they sit back in a four-down base early in the game.

Venables will try to figure out where LSU’s hot routes are coming from and drop a defensive end into a slant window to create a big turnover. Burrow threw a would be interception against Ole Miss on a play like this. You don’t get Burrow often on stuff like this but if anyone can it’s Venables.

Where LSU has killed a bunch of teams is on early down passes. College defenses are still philosophically and pragmatically set up to defend the run on first down, for example. Venables is kind of a mad man so blitzing LSU on those down is not a problem for him.

Here he is sending six guys and playing zone on the back end with only 5 guys to sack Justin Fields on third down:

And here is is doing the same thing against Syracuse on first down.

Mad man, I tell you.

Clemson probably needs to go through their entire defensive playbook to slow down LSU. Any straight four-man rush will get eaten alive so there needs to be a lot of disguise to the pressures and the coverages.

I don’t want to make predictions, although I do think LSU will at least cross the 50 yard line this time around. I’d say that if LSU’s offense plays as it has the whole year, the defense probably has just enough stops in them to allow LSU to pull away. If Clemson is able to corral LSU’s offense it will be because they trapped Burrow into making bad throws against zone when Venables uses his defenders to trap routes. Either way we should get an exciting game.