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LSU Versus Alabama Film Study -- The Tigers Earn Five Tough Yards on the First Play

Ware wore down the Tide with jabbing runs.
Photo via Uni Watch
This piece is a part of the "LSU Versus Alabama Film Study." To read the opening piece on the ultimate reason why Alabama lost to LSU, click here. Here is Part I & Part II of Alabama's first offensive drive. Today we check in on the LSU offense. 

I would like to first off wish everybody a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I always love celebrating the birth of my risen savior. But I would like to issue an apology for not posting for over a week now. I had a feeling this would happen.

I have been home with my family in El Dorado, Ark. for the Christmas holidays. During Christmas, I am a volunteer for the Salvation Army. There is not a more rewarding experience than spending time working for them. Plus time with my family is valuable and watching people my age playing football on replay isn't as important as being around my bloodline.

But on top of that, I had to emcee and manage a rock concert put on by "The Swoops" two days before Christmas. Two of the three members are childhood friends and the other is a friend I've made since I've been in college (Yes ladies, all three guys and the sexy emcee/manager is single). It was a rush to be on stage with a damn strong band. 

But now let's get down to business.

Tiger fans were raving about the performance from LSU running back Michael Ford. He rushed for 72 yards on 11 carries while starter Spencer Ware rushed for only 29 yards on 16 carries. 

While the numbers and highlights show Ford had a better game, Ware was just as important. Despite his smaller stature, Ware punishes wimpy tacklers that stand in front of him. 

The comparison between the two can be compared to a boxer's punches. Ware's runs served jab punches to the Alabama defense while Ford connected on flashy hook punches. Like the final devastating left hook thrown from a championship boxer, Ford's run in overtime was the most highlighted offensive success replayed from this game. Most of Ford's yards came from brilliant execution on option plays. While Ford did a nice job, his yards were more of a byproduct of the play instead of impressive individual runs. 

Ware's case is the exact opposite. The three-man front of Alabama abused the LSU offensive line at crucial moments in this game. But Spencer broke and pushed back numerous tacklers for tough yardage. We will see it here on this play...

Play #7
Spencer Ware runs for five yards. 

LSU, like Alabama, uses pre-snap motion on their first play from scrimmage. LSU chooses to motion their best blocking tight end Mitch Joseph (MJ), from the right of the formation to the left. In this first play alone, we see the major distinctions in defensive philosophies. 

The biggest difference between the LSU and Alabama defense is their base set. Alabama plays a base 3-4 (3 DLs, 4 LBs and 4 DBs) while LSU plays a base 4-3. As you see above, Alabama, like the LSU defense on the first play, gives the offensive line five guys to block at the line of scrimmage (a 5-2 look). What makes both coordinators special is that you hardly ever see them line up in that set before the play begins.

By MJ going into motion, we see the first major difference between the two teams defensively. When Alabama on offense went in motion on their first offensive play, no LSU defensive player(s) flip flopped sides of the formation. As you see in this next picture, Alabama outside linebackers Courtney Upshaw (CU) and Jerrell Harris (JH) switch positions. 

As you can see, there is a ton of traffic for CU and JH to run through. They flip because JH is the strong side linebacker and he lines up on the side the "strength call" is declared. In one tight end sets, the "strength call" is to side of the formation where the tight end lines up. And since CU becomes a down-rusher in passing situations, Alabama feels more comfortable with him facing an offensive tackle over JH.  We also see inside linebackers Nico Johnson and Dont'a Hightower flip spots pre-snap as well. 

Though it's the first play of the game, this had a negative effect on the Crimson Tide defense. Both Upshaw and Harris played a majority of the snaps. In a game that was extremely physical, these extra pre-snap sprints can wear down players. I think that's part of the reason why the Crimson Tide were slow defending the option throughout the game. 

Usually when a team has their defenders moving before the snap, it changes up the blocking assignments for the offense. But if LSU does a simple motion with one player and they see only two players switching sides on defense, blocking assignment's don't change. 

A couple of quick notes about this play. Notice how far off the football left defensive tackle Jesse Williams lines up off the line of scrimmage down in a 3-point stance. This forced JH to take an even wider path to run to the other side of the formation. This is fairly unusual for defensive lineman to be that far back.  LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers sometimes does the same thing. I spoke with Brockers a week ago, and he explained to me why he does it. 

Both Brockers and Williams have similar body types, especially with their extremely large arms. Brockers says if he lineups close to the ball, it doesn't allow him to fully extend his arms when he fires off the football. They are both phenomenal at shedding blockers and making tackles, so the extra space allows them more time to read and react. 

As we in this picture, both teams are finally lined up. Upshaw and Harris do a great job of getting into a ready position before the ball is snapped. But then LSU decides to motion one of their better blocking receivers in Russell Shepard (Shep).

Cornerback DeQuan Menzie (DM) has to switch sides of the football because his assignent on the play is man-to-man coverage versus Shep. This shows the Crimson Tide playing their favorite coverage when they don't blitz, "2-Man Under." In this coverage, the safeties play deep while the other defensive backs and linebackers play man coverage underneath. To play this coverage, athletic, versatile linebackers are required to play in ample amounts of space. LSU exposed the weaknesses of this defense with mobile quarterback Jordan Jefferson, as I will show in later film study. 


As the play begins, we see LSU is running a simple "blast" play through the "B-Gap," which is the gap located between the guard and tackle. As you can see, LSU is running the play to the side where Williams (JW Blue) is located pre-snap (in a "3-technique", which is the outside shoulder of a guard). LSU right guard Josh Williford (JW Orange) has a tall order trying to get Williams out of the B-Gap. You can see Williford trying to turn Williams hips and getting his butt to the gap to "seal" the Australian defender to the inside. 

As you can see, Williams does one heck of a job on this play driving Williford one yard behind the line of scrimmage (the blue line). What makes this particularly impressive is how far Williams was, unorthodoxically, off the line of scrimmage before the snap (which was pointed out earlier in the piece). By doing this, he shrinks the gap and creates more traffic for headhunting fullback JC Copeland (JC) to run through. 

The gap is also shrunk because of the push Upshaw (CU) gets off the snap. LSU right tackle Alex Hurst is jacked up and losing ground. But what makes this play impressive is that (JC) does a great job of still getting through the hole and getting a block on his man, linebacker Nico Johnson, as we see in this next slides. 

Also off the snap, we see a brilliantly executed double team from center T-Bob Hebert and Will Blackwell on nose tackle Josh Chapman. Chapman then gets blown back into the path of Hightower as the play progresses, which is embarrassing for a player of Chapman's caliber. Unfortunately LSU wasn't able to consistently when their double teams throughout the game, but LSU did a Hell of a job on this one. 

Williford's technique saves him on this play. Williams' 6-4, 319 pound frame allowed him to win his battle with Willford early on, but his poor technique and over-penetration caused him to loose it late. Off the snap, Williams is shown driving Williford backwards just with pure strength. But Williford stayed calm, and in the next slide gets lower and extends his arms. As you see in the slide, Williford couldn't have better technique. He's lower and his arms are fully extended. Because Williams over-penetrated, the hole widened and Ware was able to slip under him. He then has to retreat to go chase the ball carrier. 

We then see Upshaw (CU) continue his whopping of Hurst. Hurst needed to keep Upshaw on the outside, but (CU)'s athleticism allowed him to shed a block and go help make a tackle on Ware. 

You see Copeland (JC) disappear in the above slides as he executed a perfect "cut block" on linebacker Johnson. I spoke with Copeland last week before the Christmas break and he told me he enjoyed how Alabama's linebackers did nothing out of the ordinary in the running game. 

"They did a great job sitting in the hole, and I did a great job of locating them," said Copeland. "It's good smash-mouth football."

As you see, Copeland did a great job of getting Johnson out of the "B-Gap" and not allowing himself to be in the way of Ware. Ware races by the block and it's now up to him to make the safety, Alabama's Mark Barron, to miss him or run him over. As many LSU fans have noticed this year, Ware loves to run over and drag safeties

Like I said in an earlier film study highlighting the brilliance of Trent Richardson, when a play is blocked effectively, the running back's job is to make a safety miss to gain extra yardage. For a power back, it's important for a running back to gain extra yardage and not allow himself to be solo tackled by a safety. Barron is one of the best tacklers in the country, so Ware has a tall task in front of him. You will see he succeeds in this next slide.

Ware was able to run through a solo attempt by Barron and keeps his legs moving. And then you see Hightower (DH) and Williams (JW) get blown back into the air from the power of Ware. This one picture displays Ware's strength more than any of his other "posterizations" of weak defenders. You see on the right side of the slide, Johnson finally gets back on his feet after the great block by Copeland.

Ware then forces an all-out gang tackle by the Alabama defenders. Harris, who in the slide before was three yards away from Ware, becomes the leading tackler on the play. This run is vintage violent running  from Ware. It's not often a guy his size is able to blow back the powerful Hightower and Williams, both NFL talents at their respective positions. Ware exploded the initial contact and kept going forward. Ford doesn't have this capability or mentality to do something like this. 


Like I said in the opening, Ware made some of the more phenomenal short yardage runs I've ever seen versus a defense filled with NFL talent. There have been many throwing Ware to the curb because of his lack of big runs and low rushing average (including me). But this shows why before you judge somebody with stats, it's important we take a closer look. With that said, Ware's role in the offense has been diminished to a certain extent because of the emergence of true freshman Kenny Hilliard.

In recent weeks, Hilliard has shown why he is the most talented running back in LSU's deep core. Hilliard has the power of Ware and the outside running capabilities of Ford. He got a couple of carries in at full-back in this game, but expect him to get at least 10 at running back versus the Crimson Tide. 

We also see that Alabama has an advantage with their 3-man front versus the Tigers offensive line. LSU utility offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert has had an amazing senior season for the Tigers. But in watching this film, both Williams and nose tackle Chapman ate him alive in the third quarter when he replaced Williford at guard. This play shows why Williford needs to be playing right guard because he stands a better chance at the point of attack. The more mobile Hebert a few years ago in Tuscaloosa had a spectacular game at center versus Terrence "Mount" Cody, but could never get in a groove in this one. 

LSU didn't start with their usual center P.J. Lonergan as he was coming off injury and a missed game versus Auburn. He will be back in the starting lineup versus Alabama. Tackles Hurst and Chris Faulk have had great, but not elite seasons. They both held their own versus Alabama, but they both can play better as Upshaw was able to turn the corner on them in pass rushing situations. 

We also see why Upshaw is one of the nation's most versatile players in college football. There is nothing he can't do on the football field. Even though NFL draft scouts say he doesn't have ideal size, speed or strength, I beg to differ because the guy has a ton of talent and instincts. That's how I survived playing as an undersized lineman and Upshaw will do the same at the next level.  Plus I had a phenomenal conversation with Upshaw regarding on and off the field issues and he blew me away with his knowledge of the game and humility.

Despite winning this play and gaining a tough five yards, LSU needs to play better up front in the running game. Left guard Blackwell said after the game they got off to a slow start running the ball. But Blackwell knows they need to play better if they want to establish more consistency in the running game between the tackles. The Tide will defend the option better this time around and LSU will need to adjust accordingly.  


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