This is Chapter 7: Les Miles’ Bag of Tricks, an excerpt from 17 Drives: College Football’s 2015 Season One Game At A Time by Mark Schofield.
A huge week 7 matchup took place in Death Valley between Florida and LSU. Both teams were ranked in the top 10 entering the contest, with Florida at #6, and LSU checking in at #8. Following the suspension of starting quarterback Will Grier, the Gators turned to Treon Harris under center, and in the wake of Antonio Callaway’s 72-yard punt return for a touchdown, the visitors pulled even as Death Valley fell into a mix of concern, despair, and fear.
What better way to calm a restless crowd than by feeding the football to your talented running back and using the staples of your offense?
Starting at their own 25-yard line after the touchback, Brandon Harris lines up under center and 21 offensive personnel on the field in an i-formation, with pro alignment on the right. Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette (#7) aligns behind fullback Bry’Kieiethon Mouton (#47). The Gators are showing Cover 2 in the secondary:
X receiver John Diarse (#9) is completely uncovered before the snap, but Harris has no intention of calling an audible here: It’s time for the lead toss play. LSU employs an unbalanced line, moving left tackle Jerald Hawkins (#65) to the right, giving the Tigers a guard and two tackles to the right. Tight end Colin Jeter (#81) lines up in Hawkins’s usual spot of left tackle:
On the backside, both Jeter and left guard Maea Teuhema (#75) need to cut off the nose tackle and the defensive tackle from pursuing the ball carrier. The tight end gets inside the defensive tackle, while Teuhema uses a cut block on nose tackle Caleb Brantley (#57). Playside, the linemen flow to the right, with Hawkins blocking the edge defender. Meanwhile, right tackle Vadal Alexander (#74) is handling the other defensive end, and right guard William Clapp (#64) is flowing to the second level to take on the middle linebacker. Center Ethan Pocic (#77) makes sure that Teuhema has handled Brantley before he works to the second level to seal off the backside linebacker:
One player poses a problem for LSU on this snap: Florida strong safety Marcus Maye (#20). As the play begins, the safety explodes into the box and into the designed hole. However, fullback Bry’Keithon Mouton (#47) leads Fournette into the hole and turns the blitzing safety toward the sideline with an effective block. The back cuts inside off the block and rips off an easy seven-yard gain on first down.
On the next play the Tigers turn to another pillar of their offense, the HB lead play. LSU lines up with Harris under center with two running backs, a tight end, and two receivers on the field, and a standard alignment up front with the TE on the right side of the offense in pro formation. Florida adjusts to their base 4-3 defense, showing Cover 3 in the secondary with free safety Keanu Neal (#42) down in the box. At the snap Neal drops with the rest of the defensive backs into a Cover 4 scheme.
The Tigers run their lead play to the weak side of the formation with Mouton in front of Fournette as the two players head for the B Gap:
Where the previous play worked because of execution up front, this run works because of the footwork from the big RB. Off the snap Brantley gets a good initial push on Pocic, driving the center into the backfield. This forces Fournette to make a quick cut behind the line of scrimmage. The RB looks to bounce outside after cutting, but defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (#94) has established outside leverage on the left tackle, forcing Fournette to make another cut before even leaving the backfield:
After these first two moves, Fournette is in the secondary, where he puts a quick juke move on cornerback Jalen Tabor (#31). Maye finally pushes the back out of bounds, right at midfield after a 14-yard gain.
First down, time for more Fournette. The Tigers line up with Harris under center and the same personnel grouping in the game, using a stack-slot formation on the right. The big running back dots the i in the LSU i-formation, behind Mouton. Florida stays in their 4-3 defense and shows Cover 2:
The Tigers run Fournette to the right side, with the fullback leading the way, using a similar design as the previous snap:
This time, the Gators are ready. Brantley gets good push yet again off the snap, driving Pocic into the backfield once more. This forces Fournette to angle outside while still behind the line of scrimmage. But Powell has burst into the backfield off the edge, and as the ball carrier cuts to his left, the linebacker hurdles two bodies in front of him, and with the help of DE CeCe Jefferson (#96) and Davis, holds Fournette to no gain:
On 2nd and 10 the Tigers spread the offense out a little, putting Harris in the shotgun with trips right, the tight end on the edge of the offensive line, and split a single receiver out to the left. Florida counters with a 4-2-5 nickel package, sliding nickelback Brian Poole (#24) outside the right tackle in a linebacker’s alignment. Up front they use three defensive ends, putting senior Jonathan Bullard (#90) inside over the left guard. The secondary displays Cover 2 before the play, with both cornerbacks in press alignment:
LSU runs the zone read to the left on this play:
Harris takes the snap and turns left, putting the football in Fournette’s belly. With the running back aimed for the right side, the QB reads the defensive end. Four of the offensive linemen, plus the tight end, block to the right side. But the left tackle, Jerald Hawkins (#65), blocks Cox on the edge, and the line leaves the inside DE, Bullard, unblocked. He slides into Fournette’s path and, seeing the edge sealed, Harris tucks the football away and darts toward the left side:
After he turns the corner, the QB encounters receiver Tyron Johnson (#3) struggling on the outside to block cornerback Jalen Tabor (#31). Harris bounces to the outside, but the CB is able to disengage and make a diving tackle attempt. However, his lunge misses the quarterback’s ankles, and Harris turns upfield before being forced out of bounds by Cox. The five-yard gain gives the Tigers a more manageable situation for the next play.
The Tigers burn a timeout before third down with the ball at the Florida 45-yard line. They send out the QB in the shotgun and a single back and four receiver set featuring a trips formation on the right. The Gators display Cover 1 in the secondary. One linebacker shows an A Gap blitz while the defensive backs to the the trips side of the formation show off man coverage:
At the snap, the defense rolls into Cover 2 while the Tigers set up three in routes from the trips receivers:
Receiver Travin Dural (#83), the middle trips receiver, runs a skinny post route. He is able to get inside leverage on nickelback Brian Poole (#24) thanks to the deep alignment from the defensive back before the play:
Harris takes advantage of the big throwing window, delivering the football before Mays is able to break down on the route. The 14-yard gain gives the Tigers another set of downs and keeps the drive alive.
On the next play, the Tigers return to the ground and Fournette. They line up with Harris under center and come back to a 21 offensive personnel package, with their running back deep in the i-formation. Again they use an unbalanced line, moving Hawkins over to the right side in a tight end’s alignment, and putting the tight end on the left edge where Hawkins would usually set up. The Gators adjust their defense, lining up with their base 4-3 and putting Powell down near the line over Jeter. Right before the snap safety Marcus Mays (#20) starts walking down near the right edge:
This time the Gators run their lead toss play to the right, and the safety reads and reacts perfectly:
As Fournette takes the pitch from Harris, Mays explodes downfield and around Hawkins. Mouton cuts to the inside and Fournette tries to follow, but the SS bends around the edge and hits the running back in the backfield. Despite the early contact, Fournette is able to stay upright and manages to fall forward for a four-yard gain, with Mays draped over his chest the entire time.
Now facing 2nd and 6 at the Florida 27-yard line the offense sets up with another i-formation using the same personnel, but this time has the tight end on the left side of the field to the slot formation, covered by the X receiver. Florida has a 4-3 defense in the game, using three defensive ends up front:
LSU runs a split zone play with the offensive line moving to the left at the snap, leaving the backside edge defender unblocked. While Fournette heads left, Mouton cuts right to seal off the defender’s pursuit angle:
As with any zone play, Fournette has some options. But Hawkins and Jeter make it easy for him:
At the snap, the left tackle executes a perfect reach block, firing out his left foot wide toward the sideline before turning upfield and driving his upper body into the defensive end. From there, Hawkins remains engaged with the upper body while using his legs to drive the defender upfield, away from the play.
The tight end has an easier angle, with outside linebacker Jeremi Powell (#23) lined up outside of him before the play. Jeter simply uses his alignment and positioning against the linebacker, sealing him off from the hole. Fournette makes his bang read and splits the gap between Jeter and Hawkins. From there, the first player he faces is DB Keanu Neal (#42). But remember, the Tigers still have two receivers to the outside with this unbalanced look. Slot receiver Trey Quinn (#8) is in position to make a block on Neal, freeing up Fournette for his second 14-yard gain of the drive.
Armed with a fresh set of downs, the Tigers keep the football on the ground. Harris lines up under center again with 21 offensive personnel on the field, a pro alignment to the right and an i-formation in the backfield. The Gators respond with their base personnel on the field, with Powell down near the line of scrimmage over the tight end, with strong safety Mays close behind. Once more they employ three defensive ends along the front:
Once more the offense runs the lead toss play to the right:
Powell and Mays combine to prevent this run from getting going. At the snap the outside linebacker slides to the outside a bit, to set the edge. Jeter comes out of his stance to block Powell, but the linebacker holds his ground. Edge defender Alex McCalister (#14) angles inside at the start of the play, and occupies the right tackle. With Powell setting the edge and the DE occupying the interior, there is one hole for both the offense and Mays:
The safety fills the hole perfectly, meeting Mouton at the line of scrimmage. He drives the fullback into the ball-carrier, slowing Fournette just past the line of scrimmage. Mays then works off the block, and with the help of Davis and McCalister, the trio of defenders drag Fournette to the turf for just a two-yard gain.
On second down, both teams adjust personnel and bring on a heavier package. The Tigers line up with two backs, two tight ends and a receiver in a tight i-formation to the left. Florida lines up with 5-3 personnel, putting McCalister in a linebacker’s alignment on the right side of the offense:
Harris tries to hit Dupre on a fade route in the end zone, and the pass falls incomplete:
This brings up third down, with under twelve minutes remaining. LSU lines up with Harris in the shotgun, three receivers, one tight end and a running back on the field. Dural and Jeter are on the right, both off the line of scrimmage, with the tight end in a wing alignment just outside the right tackle. The other two wide receivers set up on the left in a slot, with both players on the line of scrimmage:
Dural comes in jet motion toward the football. Defensively, the Gators have their 4-2-5 nickel in the game using three defensive ends up front. They show Cover 0 in the secondary, with cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III trailing Dural as the receiver comes in motion:
The design is to get the entire defense flowing to their right. Harris fakes the jet sweep before dropping back to pass. The offensive line flows to the left as well to sell the fake sweep. Jeter blocks the defensive end before releasing to the outside and remaining behind the line of scrimmage. The delay allows the right side of the line to release from their initial blocks and try and get in front of the TE before Harris dumps the ball off to Jeter.
But Neal is having none of that:
The defensive back reads this play perfectly, and races forward like a cannonball. Neal chops Jeter down for a five-yard loss, setting up the Tigers with a 4th and 13 on the Florida 16-yard line.
Drive over, send out the kicking team*.
The Tigers line up to kick from the right hash. Trent Domingue (#14) steps off his normal approach, stares down the center of the uprights, and nods at his holder. The long-snapper fires the ball back with Domingue… taking off to his left?
Yes. While kickers may not be the strongest or biggest players on the field, LSU nevertheless turned to the most unlikely of players on this fake. Holder Brad Kragthorpe delivers a perfect toss to Domingue, who bobbles the ball for nearly five yards before sprinting into the end zone for the eventual game-winning score:
And he drilled the extra-point right down the middle for good measure. Tigers win, 35-28.
The victory gave LSU a huge win in the SEC, and although they would falter down the stretch and even contemplated firing Les Miles, that decision was reversed in the wake of the season’s final game. But the drive also illustrated that even when an offense runs one or two plays at a high ratio, a defense might not be able to stop those plays – especially when the ball carrier is Leonard Fournette.
*The last play of this drive was written by Inside the Pylon special teams guru, Chuck Zodda.