So everyone's heard of Leonard Fournette, and he's lived up to the hype. But Fournette is actually the latest in a line of very good runners at LSU.
Since Les Miles took over, the Tigers have had an impressive number of backs make the NFL. In no particular order: Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard, Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware, Jeremy Hill and Stevan Ridley. Now, by no means am I insinuating that any of these runners is as talented as Fournette, as he's been the most effective.
One way in which LSU succeeds in the run game is with its inside zone pitch concept. One of the only teams in the country to employ it consistently, it's an unique way to run the inside zone play.
The reason I picked this play, even though Mississippi State is in a different defensive front than what Wisconsin runs, is that the general alignment and gap responsibilities are very similar. The down defensive lineman closest to the bottom of the screen would be Vince Biegel, and the strong-side linebacker at the top of the formation would be T.J. Watt.
If you've ever watched a game with a running quarterback, you've likely heard the play-by-play announcer mention that running with the quarterback is advantageous for the offense because it gains an extra blocker on the play. Rather than have the quarterback simply hand the ball to the running back and sit and watch, the running backs are blocking for the quarterback, thus gaining another blocker. It's a numbers game. LSU accomplishes this same concept, except the Tigers still get their running back the ball. Keep this in mind.
LSU lines up in a Pro Left Twins Right formation. The Tigers are in 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end). The blocking scheme up front is a bit exotic, but very effective. From the top of the screen, the tight end will combo block with the left guard, rather than the left tackle. Truthfully, this is a bit foreign to me, but there are two reasons why I can speculate that they do this:
- The linebackers in most defenses are taught to read the guards; "they'll take you to the ball." By having the guard combo-block rather than pull, he's drawing the linebacker forward rather than sending him horizontally as he would if he were pulling.
- When a defensive end or linebacker has contain responsibility, they are taught to "pinch down" the gap that's naturally created when a guard pulls to trap block them. Having the tackle pull here thereby reduces the time the defender has to read this and react.
Regardless, it creates a good bit of movement. The tight end and left guard are combo blocking to the front-side linebacker, or the "Mike" linebacker. This will likely be Jack Cichy with T.J. Edwards out. All-SEC center Ethan Pocic has an Ace (center and back-side guard combo) block with right guard Josh Boutte, with the goal of working up to the "Will" linebacker, likely Chris Orr. The right tackle is working to cut off the back-side end. This would normally leave the weak side outside linebacker (Biegel) unblocked.
Now, remember I told you to keep in mind that LSU is able to get its running back the ball while still being able to utilize its quarterback as a "blocker". After Brandon Harris pitches the ball backward to Fournette (handoffs are for squares anyways), Harris reverse-pivots and faces the weak-side edge defender, at least making him respect him as a running threat for a smidgen of a second and prevent him from immediately, full-on sprinting in pursuit. This allows LSU to account for that defender without having to touch him, something almost unfair for a team that could handle its business just fine without such deception.
Granted, after the first time it happens, that defender will no-longer respect the quarterback as a threat (LSU doesn't run anything out of it). Still, he's physically in the way and eliminates him from screaming down the line of scrimmage to catch the ball carrier from behind.
I've marked two ways that Wisconsin can battle this play and contain the Tigers' rushing attack Saturday. Starting with the arrow, this is a huge opportunity for the Badgers. Pocic and Boutte are working an Ace block here to the back-side linebacker, but Pocic comes off too early, and due to Boutte being around three-and-a-half bills, his lateral agility leaves a bit to be desired. If Connor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih or Alec James can shoot this gap, at the very least it makes Fournette slow down before the line of scrimmage. It would also force Pocic to stay in on the front side of that combination longer, giving the linebacker a longer look at what's going on before he becomes their primary concern.
Speaking of linebackers being able to see, how well do you think the linebacker signified with the star can see Fournette right now? You can't tackle what you can't see. The tight end and left guard bury this defensive end backward into the lap of the linebacker, which is one way to block the linebacker without either blocker disengaging from the double-team. Wisconsin's defensive ends CANNOT get blown up like this if they want to shut down the LSU run game. They need to hold the point of attack as well as they can in order to allow the linebackers the vision to get to Fournette, much less tackle him.
Almost forgotten to this point is the fullback, who is simply leading up through the hole, which by this point (one second into the play) could have a semi driven through it. Aren't football cliches fun? He's basically just looking to put a hat on the first defender to make himself available in the hole coming from the back-side. This is a luxury of riches for any back, much less one of the most highly-touted recruits in recent memory.
Here's the other main play LSU uses the pitch concept for:
The Tigers run a pretty basic power play, using 23 personnel near the goal line here. This is an example of LSU simply saying, "We're bigger and badder than you, here we come." Despite the quarterback blocking "gimmick," the back-side defender in this situation is normally left untouched, so that's a moot point. The biggest difference between this play and the last is that their blockers are, for the most part, in better position to make their blocks due to having leverage. Every player other than the left tackle basically has a base or down block.
This play is essentially a human demolition derby [insert soundbite of Jim Ross screaming about broken bodies].
The left tackle just has to get play-side and cut off the defensive lineman over the left guard, as he's pulling toward the right. The center Pocic has a base block on the 1-technique, but as long as he doesn't get run over, the defensive tackle will take himself out of the play with a bull rush, meant to clog up an interior run. The right guard and right tackle double-team the 3-technique and look to clog up the path to the play for the middle linebacker. The in-line tight end is blocking the down defensive end, and is literally shoved in the back by No. 81 Colin Jeter, to create movement before Jeter seals off the edge defender on the line of scrimmage. The fullback is basically on a kamikaze mission, heading into the car wreck of humanity in an attempt to move the pile towards the end zone.
Due to the close proximity of the players in this goal-line situation, it's tough to illustrate, but a power play is essentially a wall of blockers developing, and moving toward the back-side, with a front-side blocker kicking out the edge defender, creating an alley for the runner to run through.
This play would be a best-case scenario for Wisconsin. Fournette, signified by the yellow star, runs into the mass of humanity, signified by this expertly-drawn circle around the 3-yard line. Auburn did a good job of stalemating LSU's offensive line and shrinking down the alley way that Fournette is supposed to run through. No matter how good a running back is, it's tough to run through 18 of your own teammates and defenders.
Wisconsin has to match LSU's physicality in the running game and gang tackle. Otherwise, the Badgers could be in for a long day. If they play disciplined, hard-nosed defense, they can keep Fournette and LSU from dominating the game and time of possession, forcing Brandon Harris to beat them through the air, something he hasn't shown the ability to do on a regular basis.