Tigers ground game will be key against TCU’s unusual defense
Lining up across from Chucky Hunter, LSU’s Vadal Alexander will have to suppress the urge to plow the TCU nose tackle into the turf of AT&T Stadium.
Temporarily rerouting the hard-wiring to splay a man on his back is just a small wrinkle posed by the No. 20 Horned Frogs and a front seven boasting a long-standing reputation as one of the nation’s stingiest defenses.
“They like to sit back, get their hands on you and read before they shed you off,” Alexander said. “They’re a defense that plays scheme and positioning.”
The ultimate goal of the 4-2-5 scheme, masterminded by coach Gary Patterson, is a choked-off ground game, leaving opponents stuck in third-and-long with no choice other than to put the football up in the face of simply constructed but irksome blitzes.
For all the hubbub over the No. 12 Tigers’ tweaks to a scattershot passing game, LSU’s power run game won’t be diminished under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But with the offensive line reshuffled and a trio of ball carriers each with their own obstacle to overcome, LSU’s capacity to rush the ball remains a critical facet — even if it’s not as hot of a topic as the Tigers potentially throwing deep or working at a faster tempo.
“Coach (Les) Miles emphasized in the meeting we’ve got to be able to run and pass the football,” senior running back Alfred Blue said. “In the past, we’ve been pretty good at running the football here, and he’s trying to get that passing game going more.”
A cursory glance at playcalling stats shows LSU’s identity. In the past five seasons, Miles’ teams have run the ball at least 55.8 percent of the time, peaking in 2011 with runs 67.8 percent of the time.
The Tigers brought back three starters on the line, but La’el Collins moved over a spot to left tackle, and Vadal Alexander was shuffled over to Collins’ old home at left guard after Jerald Hawkins supplanted him on the depth chart.
In the backfield, Blue is fully healed from a torn ACL in his right knee but hasn’t seen action since a victory against Idaho last season. Behind Blue, a svelte Kenny Hilliard is trying to rediscover his freshman form, and sophomore Jeremy Hill is only a month into his return from an offseason suspension for attacking an LSU student at an off-campus bar.
So there’s good reason to wonder how productive the running game, which averaged 173.7 yards per game last season, will be early on against a TCU defense that finished No. 8 nationally at 105.4 yards rushing per game and is unique in what it presents.
“At times, they’re a reading team and play off the ball, and they’re basically designed so they don’t let double teams onto their linebackers,” Miles said. “Their linebackers play close to the line of scrimmage. They have a call that says they’re not going to play coverage, and play in there tight and tell those linebackers to pass flow and safeties have cutbacks.”
The front four is aligned with four code words. Defensive ends don’t swap, but inside tackles can. Their alignment is dictated by the code relayed in from the sidelines. Slants away from the play call are dictated by words that start with the letters “T” and “A.” Twists and stunts are dictated by six terms.
TCU, though, doesn’t follow the same template as Ole Miss and Auburn — who installed the system under new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson — in trying to attack gaps and get up field.
“You have to be controlled and finessed with the things you do,” Collins said. “You have to have patience and make good quality blocks instead of just try to pancake them and put them into the ground. You have to get your hands on them and wait for them.”
The popular myth is that Patterson constructed his defense on smaller and faster players. Five years ago, the observation might have been true. But the Horned Frogs’ front four stands an average of 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 281 pounds — bigger than groups slated to start for SEC foes at Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. For example, Hunter is 6-1, 300 pounds, and fellow tackle Davion Pearson is not-so-slim at 305 pound and plugging inside gaps.
“They’ve got just really good athletes on the D-line,” LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger said. “They just play the run really well, but we’ll see what they do against power. Not too many people ran that against them last year.”
And the running backs, well, just have to do what they’ve always done, Blue said.
“We’ve just got to keep running physical and get those tough yards if they stack the box,” Blue said. “It’s those three or four yards, and eventually they’ll back off once we start throwing the football. Once they do that, who knows?”
If the middle is bottled up, the Tigers still have staples to the outside, such as their toss zone run, and can mix in simple principles: block down, with a playside guard potentially blocking the next level, and receivers cracking back, and the full back clearing out the strong safety.
“They have a quality front, and if you’re just going to attack them inside, it’s an issue,” Miles said. “We’re going to attack the flanks and the perimeter as well. We’re going to attack them across the front and attack them inside.”
This is where LSU’s size and power factor in. Sending J.C. Copeland outside and having larger LSU linemen — averaging roughly 315 pounds a pop across the board — hooking defensive ends along with a tight end is risky for the Horned Frogs.
“There’s a lot of outside zone and outside toss plays that we can do to get out on that edge,” Blue said. “If they want us to stack that middle and allow us to get that edge, so be it. I’d rather the edge anyway.”
Rolling safeties up in pursuit also puts the onus on TCU corners in Jason Verrett, a returning All-American, and Kevin White to clamp down on receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry in solo coverage down the sidelines.
Still, Hilliard said, LSU isn’t losing sight of its core identity —even amid the chatter of change or in the face of TCU’s reputation.
“That’s what we do here,” Hilliard said. “We pound the ball.”