What a mess.
In a game that felt like nothing but a continuation of everything that went wrong a year ago, LSU once again got absolutely curbstomped by a less talented opponent. It seems to be a team that, on one side of the ball, is desperately trying to recreate the utopian 2019 offense without the utopian 2019 roster, and on the other, has not grown one iota from last year’s disaster. If I knew nothing about coaching personnel and you told me Bo Pelini was still the DC, I’d believe you, it looked exactly the same. The offense was inefficient and adverse for Max Johnson, who himself didn’t help the situation. Everybody not named Kayshon Boutte is culpable here.
The first possession went pretty well for the LSU defense. They gave up a big play on third down but recovered on the next set and forced a punt, the first of five consecutive punts to start the game. After that run of nothing, LSU dink and dunked their way down the field before Kayshon Boutte caught a TD on third and goal. UCLA immediately answered with a long TD to tight end Greg Dulcich. LSU went three and out and UCLA scored again immediately after a handful of explosive plays. LSU punted again because they run an offense that will force them into third downs all the time but got it handed back to them on an Eli Ricks interception. They only turned that into a field goal and that was the end of that bad half.
The second half started with a BONEHEADED Jordan Jefferson Title game interception by Max Johnson. UCLA quickly turned that into a touchdown on a crossing route. LSU answered back with a 44-yard ref assisted touchdown strike to Kayshon Boutte. Then it got pretty ugly. The teams traded field goals but UCLA then marched down the field, including a back breaking 3rd and 14 to go up 31-20. LSU feebly went third and out in response. UCLA then dropped the dagger and went up 38-20. LSU scored a late consolation touchdown by the only player on the team, Kayshon Boutte before it ended.
So close to the game, the only thing I could find was a highlight video, so I don’t have all the perfect clips to exemplify the points I will try to make but here goes anyway.
I’ll start with some credit to Chip Kelly, who is all the way back on the horse as a schemer. He found out early that LSU was going to play a lot of single high and he exploited it in the way Kyle Shanahan has been killing the Pete Carroll tree single high defenses in the NFL. He’s got wide zone action and fly motion to the boundary but slides the tight end on an over route away from it. DTR boots off the play fake. What’s so hard for man-to-man oriented defenses (LSU) in these situations is that a linebacker has to worry about fitting the wide zone run and their man coverage assignment. Those two things are moving in opposite directions, so it’s extremely difficult to recover off the play-fake and track down the TE. That is a technique known as ROBOTing, and only the best cover linebackers in the NFL can really do it all that effectively. Sometimes, you bite so hard on the fake you aren’t even in the play anymore, that’s what happened here.
Here’s another Chip Kelly masterpiece. This pin and pull scheme with a midline read is a great thing to run against a 4-down front, read the backside DT and if he sticks with you, hand it off. Perfectly executed gap schemes are a thing of beauty, I’d like LSU to try it someday.
I could go on and on about Chip Kelly, but this is technically an LSU blog so I have to unfortunately review the LSU side of things which was....ugly.
Here, Eli Ricks and Micah Baskerville both carry the same under route, leaving the back unaccounted for. On a lot of man match coverage schemes, there exists something called an “under call.” The idea is, if the corner’s man assignment runs underneath like this, he yells “UNDER UNDER UNDER” and an underneath defender picks up the crosser while the corner zones off to a deep quarter or in some cases, a deep third. It seems to me that Baskerville assumed there was an under call packaged into the coverage, but Eli Ricks clearly never made one, as he follows the under route himself. Nobody takes the back. Some coverages would also have the strongside linebacker, Damone Clark in this case, take any crossing routes coming from the other side of the field after his original man heads vertically. It’s hard to tell exactly what went wrong without knowing the specific coverage call and assignments, but this is a total communication mess. You have Ricks and Baskerville chasing the same crosser and Damone Clark looking unsure of what to take after releasing his man vertically. Just incoherent, and after last season, it isn’t easy to dismiss it as a first game mixup.
Here you have Damone Clark in the wrong A gap on this inside zone. On inside zone, what you’re ideally trying to do is work frontside, but hit that backside A gap on the cutback, that’s where you get big plays from. That’s uh...sorta why you want someone in the backside A gap, not two people in the frontside A gap.
So this play gets at what I think the fatal flaw of the LSU offense is. The LSU offense is built entirely on empty protections and getting as many people out in the concept as possible.
For starters, the line isn’t even close to good enough for that to be anything resembling an option. This is what they did in 2019, and it worked because Joe Burrow was an elite processor who was somehow even better at handling pressure and free rushers, they also had multiple elite receivers which meant somebody was usually getting open early enough in the progression to get the ball out quickly even when throwing downfield. The line wasn’t elite, but it held up okay.
It’s not 2019. As we saw the other night, the LSU offense is pretty limited to throwing quick by their insistence on 5 and 6-man protections. This is really inefficient, and drastically reduces your margin for error by forcing you to string plays together and convert third downs. Offenses need to generate explosive plays, and teams like Ole Miss design downfield, play action pass concepts with 7-man protections that protect their QB, support their sketchy OL, and generate the explosive plays needed to win football games. Oklahoma and Alabama do this as well despite not really needing to protect a bad offensive line, it’s just the best way to generate explosive plays in the modern game.
There are great, longer developing downfield pass concepts that, with good receivers, are brutal to defend. LSU has the pass catchers for that. The other problem is that an offense beholden to empty protections is vulnerable to the blitz. In theory, offenses like this WANT you to blitz, as the QB can identify the source and throw hot behind them. In practice, this takes a quick processor who is effective at dealing with pressure and Max Johnson just doesn’t look to be that. He’s not Burrow, the 2019 offense can’t be run with just any personnel, and the staff should have known that going into the season.
Here, UCLA blitzes him and he panic throws a slot fade that is badly out-leveraged. LSU is going to have a tough time generating explosive plays this year, the offense just isn’t designed for it. That puts immense pressure on Max Johnson to be perfect on every snap, and puts him into a lot of obvious passing situations, and that’s just too much to ask.
Max Johnson reaaaaally struggled to process the other night. UCLA changed the picture on him a lot like this on third downs and he really froze. The linebackers to the boundary either blitz or drop deep. Instead of locking onto the frontside concept here, you’d like him to recognize the blitz, abandon the progression, and throw behind it to Bech’s dig but he just kinda freezes.
Another 3rd down. His first read is the corner here, if he stays shallow, throw the corner route behind him, if he sinks to take it, throw the flat. The corner plays this well, however. He appears to be staying shallow, but Johnson needs to see that his hips are positioned to be able to break on the corner route. He needs to move off this and then see that the boundary apex defender has dropped pretty deep. The drag here to Boutte was wide open,
In a piece a month or so ago, I laid out exactly what LSU needed to do to try to generate an effective run game. The basic thesis was that LSU would continue to have massive trouble leaning so incredibly heavily on inside zone as the tite front (and close variations) proliferate. UCLA completely shut LSU’s run game down in tite, and there was basically no deviation from inside zone. None of the pin and pull that Chip Kelly used, none of the counter that Mike Norvell just used to gash Marcus Freeman’s use of the tite front, just banging their heads against a wall.
Not that they’d be able to block anybody anyway.