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LSU vs FSU: Over the Counter

LSU’s biggest weakness from a year ago meets FSU’s biggest strength.

NCAA Football: Cheez-It Bowl-Oklahoma at Florida State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports


Football is, by nature, a cyclical game. What’s old will be born anew, and what’s new will be tossed aside, and on and on it spins. After years of zone-based run games, college football is starting to see counter, one of the defining staples of old-school football, rise again as the base element of running games. In the modern era, the pioneer of this push has been Oklahoma/USC’s Lincoln Riley. With defenses keeping 2 high safeties in response to his explosive, air-raid-rooted passing game, counter became a sound and explosive base play to punish empty boxes. From a defensive perspective, the juxtaposition between defending counter from 2-high and 1-high is stark. Simply, it’s a play that is easy to defend in single-high, and very difficult to defend in split-safety alignments.

The reason for the varying levels of difficulty is simply due to the fact that defending counter ultimately just comes down to getting a third defender to the side of the two pullers. While there are several different ways to achieve that depending on the front and box count, it all boils down to that.

Boxing vs Spilling

There are two main techniques for fitting counter. First, you can “box,” which means your defenders engage the outside shoulders of the pullers and force the play back inside the box. Second, you can “spill,” which means that your defenders engage the pullers’ inside shoulders to force the play out wide for a free third defender to track down. Many different factors go into determining which technique is chosen, but LSU is primarily a “spill” team.

2-High vs 1-High

1-High, “Lever-Spill-Lever”

In single-high, the defense is “gapped out,” which means it has a body in the box for every gap. With 3 second-level defenders in the box (Mike, Will, and Down Safety) plus an edge defender on the DL outside each tackle, the 3rd defender is simply closer to the play and has a much easier path to get in position to make the tackle.

Here we see this in action. Because of the rotated safety, the Mike LB is able to align in the middle, which he would not be able to do if it were just him and the Will in the box, as you’ll see in the next section. The technique they play is “lever-spill-lever.” This means that the 2nd level defenders to the playside can effectively sandwich the 2nd puller, creating a 2 on 1 situation, with the weakside defender for backside support.

2-High, “Spill-Overlap.”

Tyler Manes, Throw Deep Publishing

2-high is where it gets tricky, as you are short a body in the box, usually with only 2 second-level defenders. This is usually LSU’s reality, as they prefer 2-high alignments to limit vertical passing games and retain both multiplicity and the ability to disguise/rotate on the back end. From this structure, LSU’s preferred technique against counter is known as “spill-overlap.”

The idea of this is to have the 2nd level defender to the playside hit the inside shoulder of the 2nd puller and force the back into a crease, where the backside linebacker will “overlap” and make the play. The difficulty here is getting that backside guy from his alignment over the top of the formation without getting cut off. If he can’t successfully make that play, the offense has numbers to the playside.

LSU’s Issues with Counter

LSU’s biggest weakness defensively last season was not the defensive backfield, but their soundness against the run. It was pretty glaring against counter, with poor leverage and technique allowing offenses to stay efficient and on-schedule.

LSU particularly struggled at linebacker. Because Penn ends up absorbing the puller down the center, he’s unable to impact the path of the RB, and with Baskerville failing to get over top, there’s a crease.

Because the Safety is usually a more effective tackler than the corner, a lot of times offenses will have the WR “crack” the safety. The job of the corner, in this case, is to replace him and make the tackle, an assignment LSU’s corners had trouble executing properly. Once again we also see the Mike LB fail to get over top.

Here’s an example of what this is broadly supposed to look like

When the offense is in a 3x1 detached look like this, the Mike has to bump over wide to relate to the Y in space. Since he’s no longer in position to overlap, the weak safety can take his place in the run fit, with the Mike becoming the secondary support player. Once again we get poor leverage. Had Penn engaged the inside shoulder as he was supposed to, the ball would have spilled to Foucha who was free to make the tackle. Plays like this were frequent a year ago.

FSU and Counter

This leads us to Florida State which is, for my money, the best counter team in the nation. It is the core of their run game, with a million different tags, variations, RPOs, and play-action elements built around it. Between multiplicity in presentation and variation, a QB who can run, and one of the best RBs in the nation in Trey Benson, FSU is built to make a living running counter.

FSU does a great job using a massive variety of presentations of counter from different formations to create favorable numbers. While there are too many different variations to catalog here, the unifying theme is that they force defenses to also honor the OTHER side of the formation, which makes it difficult to get the bodies they need frontside to match the pullers. As seen in the counter-read example, it’s hard to have favorable numbers on both sides.

That leads us into the RPO game. Similar to a QB keep, it allows the offense to put the backside of the play in conflict. FSU attaches a lot of RPOs to counter, particularly various screens to get the ball out to a numbers advantage if the conflicted defender flies frontside.

In the PA game, to take advantage of the displacement created on the second level of the D by the counter-action, FSU can boot away from it, popping routes behind the vacating linebackers.


LSU’s best shot here, before Maason Smith’s (probably illegal, by the way) suspension by the NCAA was announced, was to rely on their stars on the interior to dominate their 1-on-1s and cave in the structure of the blocking scheme. With that becoming more difficult, LSU will likely have to get fluid and creative along the front to try to create disruption. Florida State has two dominant, 1-on-1 winning outside WRs in 6’4 Michigan State transfer Keon Coleman and 6’7 freak Johnny Wilson, plus a QB that can deliver the ball accurately downfield, so putting that extra body in the box is a recipe for death.

With LSU’s biggest weakness at corner, it’s critical they keep enough bodies on the back end to keep FSU’s two Avengers out of 1-on-1s. If they end up needing to add that extra body to the box, it’s ballgame.

However, because they are short in the box, they probably cannot rely on their base techniques and positioning in this game to successfully fit up these runs.

A lot of teams, when dealing with a numbers disadvantage will use twists/games along the DL, pressures, blitzes, and other exotic front movements to muddy the blocking assignments and create disruption. Especially without Smith, I think LSU’s best bet is to game them up and be as fluid as possible in the front-6. Ideally, this could ease the stress on the LBs for leverage, screw up the OL, and create run-through situations for Harold Perkins to get into the backfield and create negative plays. If they’re able to do that and stop the run out of 2-high, they can dictate terms to FSU and tee off on third down. If there’s a path to defensive success here for LSU, that’s how it’ll go.