Look, LSU lost because Tennessee is the better team. LSU got blown out because of several high-impact, catastrophic miscues that spotted Tennessee double-digit free points. From a tape perspective, there’s no real reason that LSU got BLOWN out. On offense, the passing game performed better against a dreadful pass-defense but didn’t change much overall. Daniels looked better and more decisive as a passer but without any structural change I don’t expect that increased success to translate against tougher units. On D, frankly I thought they called a fine game. They held Tennessee fairly comfortably below their averages and did enough to hold-serve. The problem is, Tennessee’s offense creates some pretty irreconcilable structural conflict in some simple ways. They dictate and use space, they dictate pace, and they manipulate numbers.
Screen Game and Sequencing
In this game, LSU decided to play a fair amount of single-high so they could deal with Tennessee’s 2x2 stack quick screens that they use to create easy offense against 2-high structures. In 2-high, if you want to have a 2 on 2 on those receivers in the stack, you’d have to take your overhang defender out of the run fit, which creates positive numbers for them to run the football. If you bring the safety down, you can eliminate that conflict. Tennessee still wanted to maintain the easy offense and spatial conflict that these screens create, so they would late motion their TE across the formation and add him as an extra blocker, creating a 3 on 2 for the offense. The defender responsible for him stays on the other side of the formation and it’s hard for the frontside linebacker to get over in time to make a tackle, so they steal a number here and create an easy play.
Off of that same action, you can throw vertically and potentially catch one of the DBs flat-footed or even triggering downhill. Worst case for the offense you just have a slot-fade 1 on 1 which they get vertical separation on. It’s an extremely easy read, as they all are in this offense, for Hooker as he’s kept out of any condensed windows in the middle of the field where your timing and anticipation start to get really stressed. They do a great job sequencing their vertical shots off of their screen game. It’s incredibly difficult for defenses to play both and very easy on the QB mentally, all he has to do is grip it and rip it.
In the end of half situation especially, you really got a good look at how much stress your overhang defenders are placed under when playing a Heupel tree offense. LSU decided to play quarters with their safeties fairly to try to ensure they didn’t give up any quick strike TDs on vertical shots. Here, Heupel dials up his staple concept which is their vertical choice (more on that in a bit). On the outside, the final #1 has the option to stop his route and run a comeback if he can’t get vertical leverage on his guy, and on the inside, the final #2 has the option to bend his route into space if he is capped vertically by a safety or head vertically if he can find space there. You can see how much space Sage Ryan is forced to cover here, there’s no way he can actually get to the bender and it’s an easy explosive for Tennessee.
Here, LSU has both their down safety and nickel out of the run-fit to deal with the number 2 receivers to either side. Regardless, the MIKE linebacker here has to account for a lot of space in the hook/curl area to the field because of how far out the number 2 receiver is. He can still run a bender underneath his defender if the MIKE doesn’t get out there fast. Tennessee takes advantage of this by running Q draw. You get the edges rushing upfield so they’re out of the play and all you need is for your guards to hold up and your center to climb to the WILL linebacker. Running the quarterback allows you to steal a number by adding the RB to the blocking scheme, but due to the spatial conflict created to the field and the draw action, he isn’t really needed for this play to happen. Easy explosive on the ground for Tennessee.
Vertical choice is the base concept of the entire offense because of how versatile and explosive it is. The basic idea is pictured below, and it can be effective against basically anything.
They’ll run this from your standard slot alignment, from stack, off switch release, and all of that to dress it up, but the concept is basically this like, 20 times a game. In addition to being versatile, it is an incredible easy read for the QB that does not require he work through a progression or sort through a bunch of moving bodies in the middle of the field with any precise or difficult timing. If you can throw deep and outside the hashes, you can run this concept fairly easily. You don’t need an advanced processor, just a dude with an arm, which is much easier to find than the former.
The read for the final #1 receiver is called a “vertical read” and it’s fairly simple. If he can get vertical on his guy, go, if he can’t by about 10 yards, stop and come back. Tennessee loves to throw these against pressed outside corners because a lot of times they won’t have safety help there due to how spread out their alignments are. Go balls against press corners with no safety help are great looks for explosive plays unless that corner is absolutely shutdown in man like a Patrick Surtain, Derek Stingley, or Sauce Gardner. Here, they get a pressed look on the outside and the receiver gets vertical for a TD.
Here, the corner is playing off so the receiver just stops his route, comes back, and collects his free 10 yards.
The route the final #2 receiver runs is called a “middle read.” If he is capped by a safety, bend underneath him into space, if not, go vertical into space. The space created by their ultra spread out alignments creates a void for him to bend into. The space additionally creates a clean picture for the quarterback and an easy read.
Against Cover-3 looks like this, the safety will rotate to post and open up the seam, where he can just continue vertically because he’s not capped on his route by any safety. The ultra spread out alignments force the post safety to worry about a ton of space and prevents him from effectively dealing with the seams. Normally, the windows in the seam are pretty tight and require a lot of timing, placement, and anticipation, but their alignments expand them, making it easy for the QB. The play-fake also expands the window a bit, which is why almost everything they do in the passing game is on play action.
And God help you if you 0-blitz them on it.
I know that it’s easy to get mad at your team when they get embarrassed, and I certainly understand being mad at the run game and special teams for what happened Saturday, but the big reason that Tennessee was able to move the ball so efficiently and explosively is that they just are the way that they are. Josh Heupel runs what is probably the least defendable and most explosive system in America. Unless your players are so much better that you can live in man, I really don’t know what you’re supposed to do that they don’t have an easy answer for in just a handful of core concepts. Good luck defenses.