The LSU Tigers’ Inventive Running Game

The LSU Tigers knocked off the Ole Miss Rebels Saturday night with an inventive rushing game plan. Andrew Pina takes a weekly look at the most interesting victory of the weekend for Inside the Pylon.

In LSU’s 10-7 home win over then-#3 Ole Miss on Saturday in Baton Rouge, the Tigers used an old-fashioned rushing attack to wear down the Rebels. The victors (ranked #24 in the AP poll heading into the game) ran the ball 55 times for 264 yards, often taking it right up the middle. When a team piles up that much real estate, and averages 4.8 yards per carry, they are doing something right.

Two aspects of LSU’s ground attack proved most impressive. First, they used a variety of runs between the tackles, mixing up handoffs through the interior (including fullback carries) and stretches to the outside with deceptive zone-read options and inside pitches. Personnel-wise, they used their big, talented offensive line to lead the way and rotated their running backs frequently.

LSU’s front line is imposing. Their five starting linemen average 314 pounds, with junior guard Vadal Alexander tipping the scales at 340. Even junior tight end Dillon Gordon, listed at 285, looks more than just a few burgers over 300 and is bigger than every Ole Miss defensive end. He’s not a factor as a receiver (zero catches this season), but the Rebels often switched out a DE for a defensive tackle to counteract Gordon’s massive presence on the line, which occasionally left the Rebels with a slow defender on edge rushes.

The Tiger backfield features three big, fast, ground-churning backs. Freshman Leonard Fournette (6’1”, 230) ran 23 times for 113 yards on Saturday, while seniors Terrence Magee (5’9”, 217) and Kenny Hilliard (6’0”, 232) each had 12 carries for 74 and 63 yards, respectively. By rotating these three bruising backs in waves, LSU kept all of them fresh, wearing down the Ole Miss run defense.

With such an array of enormous and strong athletes to carry and block, any team would be expected to have success on the ground. But the Tigers used interesting strategic tweaks to find holes between the tackles.

Running out of the i-formation most of the game, LSU seemed to want their backs getting to the line of scrimmage as quickly and directly as possible. As a result, there were few counters and no draws, which should not be surprising. No one is falling for a draw play when 78% of a team’s snaps are runs, as was the case with the Tiger offense on Saturday. Against Ole Miss’ quick defenders, such slow-developing plays would have a low probability of success.

But LSU couldn’t just hand the ball off for runs between the guards or on stretch plays, knowing the Rebels would eventually key in to stop that strategy. To add deception, the Tigers used some zone-read option runs to mix things up, and also employed the inside pitch in similar fashion.

Pitches are generally run to the outside, either just off-tackle or as sweeps, where many things happen in the backfield, giving the defense a chance to penetrate and stop the play. But inside pitches can keep a defense honest, mainly by forcing the outside linebackers to respect the middle instead of cheating to the exterior. That opens up the offense for outside sweeps and pitches.

With LSU trailing 7-0 in the second quarter, the Tigers drove 90 yards on a whopping 17 plays, running on 15 of those plays, culminating in a field goal by Colby Delahoussaye. An example of the innovative play design in the run game had the Tigers in an i-formation, with Gordon lined up on the left side of the offensive line:

LSU-rush-Gordon-left

Quarterback Anthony Jennings takes the snap, turns and pitches it immediately to Fournette (#7). Notice right guard Ethan Pocic (#77, next to Jennings) pulling to the left while the rest of the LSU line blocks down to the right:

LSU-rush-Pocic-pull

Instead of going outside like on most pitch runs, Fournette targets the area on the left side of the line ‒ where Pocic is making his presence known:

LSU-rush-Fornette-left

Fullback Connor Neighbors (#43) blocks on the left to seal the hole. Because Jennings has pitched the ball so quickly, he has time to block the trailing weakside linebacker and prevents him from catching Fournette from behind. Meanwhile, Pocic leads the way to open the hole.

LSU-rush-Neighbors-left

Fournette hitches his wagon to Pocic as the lineman plows through the gap:

LSU-rush-Fournette-follows

Fournette drives with his legs to get a yard or two more until Ole Miss can finally take him down:

LSU-rush-churn

The keys to this intricate play are Pocic’s pulling and the quickness of the pitch to Fournette. The only faster way to get him the ball would probably be a direct snap. But since he’s already on the move when he gets the pitch from Jennings, going downhill is an advantage over a direct snap in shotgun formation.

This play picked up 7 yards for a first down, and LSU utilized this inside pitch a handful of other times in the game for gains in the 5- to 10-yard range. However, once Ole Miss adjusted and keyed in on this play, it made LSU’s outside runs more lethal. The Tigers’ game-winning drive, 95 yards and nearly six minutes long, included 12 consecutive rushes before a play-action touchdown pass put LSU ahead for good. Three of those runs went for 16 or more yards, and all three were to the outside ‒ set up by those earlier interior pitch plays.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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