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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Defensive Play-Calling vs. LSU

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Syracuse got gashed for 268 rushing yards, but in a weird way, the Orange proved their run defense is for real, as long as they don't run into any more superhuman tailbacks

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Is it weird to be encouraged by a run defense that just gave up 268 yards on 6.4 yards per carry? Probably, but stay with me.

We don't usually track opposing players in the defensive breakdowns, since it doesn't typically serve our purposes of evaluating the Orange defense. But this week, I decided to track plays where Leonard Fournette got touches and non-Fournette plays, not to gush over the Heisman frontrunner some more (we've already done enough of that for the year), but to prove that this defense can actually hang with a real offense ... just not with superhuman running backs like Fournette (note: there are no other running backs like Fournette).

The results were encouraging. And when you consider the fact that the offensive line didn't change, and the backup running backs for LSU are extremely highly-rated recruits as well, it means the SU defense can play against real competition and the dominant early-season rushing numbers probably weren't a fluke.

Fournette tallied 27 touches in the contest, and abused the Orange defense to the tune of 251 total yards (9.3 yards per play). Don't try to fool yourself that his production was limited to a few big plays either - 16 of his 27 touches (59.3%) went for at least 5 yards. He thoroughly dominated Syracuse, but that's nothing to be ashamed of, as he's going to dominate nearly every defense he plays this year, most likely.

On the flip side, when Fournette didn't touch the ball on the 31 other plays, LSU only gained 173 yards (5.6 yards per play). And in the first half in particular, SU held non-Fournette LSU to just 24 yards on 14 plays (1.7 yards per play). The 5.6 yards per play is on par with the 5.7 yards per play Central Michigan averaged last week and the 5.4 yards per play Wake Forest averaged, meaning Syracuse played just as well against LSU as it did against its other FBS competition, with the exception of Fournette.

The second half wasn't quite as rosy for the Orange defense, as they allowed 149 yards on 17 non-Fournette plays (8.8 yards per play). This was mostly the result of Syracuse daring Brandon Harris to beat them deep, and he was able to convert on a few big throws that stuck a knife into the comeback hopes. The Orange took some risks they needed to take to beat a superior team, and they got burned in the end.

Meanwhile, the play action pass was strangely absent from the Tigers' offense for much of the game. LSU had success in first quarter, completing three-consecutive play action passes for 38 yards, and then broke the 48-yard Fournette run off a play action that was nearly a sack. However, they only tried it two more times after that, both resulting in incomplete passes, and abandoned it entirely the rest of the game.

Let's see how it all shook out, below.

First Quarter

DRIVE 1
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
12:03 1st and 10 LSU 9 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB RCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 4 yard gain Winfield Tackle
11:23 2nd and 6 LSU 13 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) WR End Around Run Right 1 yard loss Whigham, Bennett Tackle, Personal Foul on Thompson, 15 yard penalty
10:52 1st and 10 LSU 27 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 6 yard gain Williams Tackle
10:18 2nd and 4 LSU 33 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Samuels Tackle
9:53 1st and 10 LSU 37 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (Rush 6) Run Middle 3 yard gain Hodge Tackle
9:12 2nd and 7 LSU 40 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Called PA Pass, Run Middle No Gain Thompson, Raymon rush from pocket, Hodge Tackle
8:30 3rd and 7 LSU 40 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 5), ROLB and RDE QB Spy Pass Middle Incomplete Pass off target, Raymon pressure up middle
DRIVE 2
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:22 1st and 10 LSU 9 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) PA Pass Left 12 yard gain Soft coverage by Whigham fell for deep fake, completed with extra 3 yard cushion
6:57 1st and 10 LSU 21 2 RB, 3 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Right 14 yard gain Whigham beat, missed tackle, Cordy Tackle
1st and 10 LSU 35 False Start, 5 yard penalty
6:22 1st and 15 LSU 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Left 12 yard gain LBs bit on play fake, left quick pass open in slot, Franklin Tackle
2nd and 3 LSU 42 False Start, 5 yard penalty
5:22 2nd and 8 LSU 37 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Called PA pass, run Left 48 yard gain Thompson beats TE blocking easily, Harris almost sacked, pitched to Fournette, Cordy, Morgan Tackle
4:39 1st and 10 SU 15 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Left 1 yard gain Scissum Tackle
4:03 2nd and 9 SU 14 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 14 yard TD Fournette jukes Hodge at line, bounces outside for untouched touchdown
DRIVE 3
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
2:16 1st and 10 LSU 35 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (Rush 6) Pass Sack 11 yard loss Cordy Sack on Safety Blitz, untouched
1:35 2nd and 21 LSU 24 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Multiple players on tackle
0:55 3rd and 15 LSU 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB, MLB, ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Left Incomplete Very nearly caught, Cordy with big hit as receiver hits head on ground and drops ball, Cordy pass breakup

LSU Play Calls: 9 runs, 7 passes

Defensive personnel: 14 base defense, 2 subpackages

Blitzes: 9/16 (56.3%)

Fournette Touches: 7 for 85 yards (12.1 yards per play)

Non-Fournette Touches: 9 for 27 yards (3.0 yards per play)

A strong defensive quarter was offset by a freak play by a star player. Fournette gashed the defense for 85 yards on 7 touches, including the freak 48-yard play on a near sack by Thompson. But other than the Heisman candidate, LSU put up just 27 yards on 9 plays. Harris did have success on play action, going 3-for-3 with 38 yards in the air off the fakes, and adding the 48-yarder from Fournette on a busted play action that turned into a run. Of Syracuse's 9 blitz calls, 8 were completely different designs, with just the MLB/Safety blitz getting called twice (and the second one resulting in the Cordy sack). Bullough was determined not to play it safe, and it held LSU to just 7 points in the opening quarter. That's a win.

Second Quarter

DRIVE 4
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
14:10 1st and 10 LSU 40 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 7 yard gain Thomas Tackle
2nd and 3 LSU 47 False Start, 5 yard penalty
13:25 2nd and 8 LSU 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Right 5 yard gain Morgan Tackle
3rd and 3 Holding, 10 yard penalty wiped out play
12:18 3rd and 13 LSU 37 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Sack 10 yard loss Thompson Sack on 3 man rush, beat RT easily, forced fumble, did not see ball on ground, recovered by LSU
DRIVE 5
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
6:53 1st and 10 LSU 6 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 6 yard gain Thomas, Slayton Tackle
6:28 2nd and 4 LSU 12 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 19 yard gain Short Toss, Williams missed tackle, Winfield, Thomas Tackle
5:56 1st and 10 LSU 31 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB RCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 1 yard gain Simmons Tackle
5:16 2nd and 9 LSU 32 2 RB, 3 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain Scissum, Clark Tackle, Holding, 10 yard penalty from spot
4:57 2nd and 17 LSU 24 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left Incomplete 1 on 1 coverage from Winfield, pass was a little long
4:51 3rd and 17 LSU 24 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Screen Pass Right 7 yard gain Hodge, Thompson on rush, Fournette catch, Williams missed tackle, Cordy Tackle

LSU Play Calls: 6 runs, 3 passes

Defensive personnel: 7 base defense, 2 subpackages

Blitzes: 5/9 (55.6%)

Fournette Touches: 4 for 39 yards (9.8 yards per play)

Non-Fournette Touches: 5 for -3 yards (-0.6 yards per play)

The Orange played their best defensive quarter in the 2nd, with two short drives, both derailed by LSU penalties. The Tigers had success with the run, putting up 40 yards on 6 carries (not counting the sack), but the penalties forced them to throw, and Ron Thompson made LSU pay with a big sack on third down that flipped the field and set up the first Orange score of the game. Bullough called five blitzes, but it was actually the 3-man rush that allowed Thompson to get to the quarterback for the big sack.

Third Quarter

DRIVE 6
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
14:56 1st and 10 LSU 20 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Left Incomplete Thompson deflected pass at line
14:53 2nd and 10 LSU 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 5 yard gain Bennett Tackle
14:20 3rd and 5 LSU 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Middle 8 yard gain Cordy broke up pass, but WR caught on deflection
13:57 1st and 10 LSU 33 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 4 yard gain Thompson, Raymon Tackle
13:20 2nd and 6 LSU 37 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 2 yard gain Hodge Tackle
12:51 3rd and 4 LSU 39 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB, MLB, ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right 42 yard gain Dowels beat 1 on 1 on deep ball, Makes Tackle
12:22 1st and 10 SU 19 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 3 yard gain Bennett Tackle
11:41 2nd and 7 SU 16 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 7 yard gain Scissum Tackle
11:12 1st and goal SU 9 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) PA Pass Left Incomplete Good coverage, Hodge on hurry, thrown away
11:04 2nd and goal SU 9 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A QB Run Right 2 yard gain Winfield Tackle
10:20 3rd and goal SU 7 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Called Pass, QB Run Right 3 yard gain Thompson chased out of pocket, Scissum Tackle
DRIVE 7
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
6:02 1st and 10 LSU 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 9 yard gain Williams, Scissum Tackle
5:26 2nd and 1 LSU 34 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 7 yard gain Arciniega Tackle
4:53 1st and 10 LSU 41 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Left 3 yard loss CB Blitz perfectly called, Samuels, Morgan Tackle
4:19 2nd and 13 LSU 38 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB Run Middle 62 yard TD Fournette untouched 62 yards
DRIVE 8
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
1:11 1st and 10 LSU 13 Illegal Formation, 5 yard penalty Wipes out 87 yard TD run by Fournette
1:00 1st and 15 LSU 8 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 2 yard gain Raymon Tackle
0:17 2nd and 13 LSU 10 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 8 yard gain Winfield Tackle

LSU Play Calls: 13 runs, 4 passes

Defensive personnel: 15 base defense, 2 subpackages

Blitzes: 10/17 (58.8%)

Fournette Touches: 9 for 96 yards (10.7 yards per play)

Non-Fournette Touches: 8 for 65 yards (8.1 yards per play)

It was all about the big play for LSU in the third quarter. Syracuse took a chance on 3rd and 5 and rushed 6, daring Harris to beat them deep. The QB found his best receiver in 1 on 1 coverage and made the Orange pay with a 42-yard strike over the top that would set up the field goal. On the next drive, it was Fournette doing what he does best, with a 62-yard run. This sandwiched a punt return touchdown in a 17-point quarter for the Tigers that could have easily crushed SU's hopes, but fortunately did not. In between the big plays, the Orange showed heart in a big red zone stop, holding LSU to a field goal on their first drive of the half when they had the ball first and goal, and even survived a play action pass with great coverage.

Fourth Quarter

DRIVE 8 cont.
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
15:00 3rd and 5 LSU 18 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Right Incomplete Whigham, Williams in good coverage, ball underthrown, Bennett on pressure
DRIVE 9
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
12:00 1st and 10 LSU 27 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 3 yard gain Raymon Tackle
11:22 2nd and 7 LSU 30 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 7 yard gain Cordy Tackle
11:02 1st and 10 LSU 37 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 6 yard loss Perfect CB Blitz stuffs run, Cordy Tackle
10:19 2nd and 17 LSU 31 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 7 yard gain Cordy Tackle
9:41 3rd and 9 LSU 38 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Middle 51 yard gain Whigham in coverage beat deep easily, ball underthrown, Pass Interference, Declined
9:18 1st and 10 SU 11 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB MLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right 11 yard TD Whigham burned on fade in 1 on 1 coverage
DRIVE 10
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:44 1st and 10 SU 26 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 2 yard loss Cordy, Franklin Tackle
7:04 2nd and 12 SU 28 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz QB Run Left 19 yard gain Defense Committed to Fournette on fake, opened up left for QB run
1st and goal SU 9 False start, 5 yard penalty
6:10 1st and goal SU 14 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Right 6 yard loss Simmons Tackle immediately at Fournette took pitch
5:27 2nd and goal SU 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB, MLB, ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Left Incomplete Rushed out of pocket by Bennett, pass dropped, Hudson in coverage
5:20 3rd and goal SU 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle Incomplete WR dropped pass, Bennett in coverage
DRIVE 11
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
1:53 1st and 10 SU 48 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 5 yard gain Bennett Tackle
1:40 2nd and 5 SU 43 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 30 yard gain Inside run bounced outside, Scissum, Hodge Tackle
1st and 10 SU 13 Kneel Down 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run 2 yard loss QB Kneel
2nd and 12 SU 15 Kneel Down 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run 2 yard loss QB Kneel

LSU Play Calls: 11 runs, 5 passes

Defensive personnel: 11 base defense, 5 subpackages

Blitzes: 10/16 (62.5%)

Fournette Touches: 7 for 31 yards (4.4 yards per play)

Non-Fournette Touches: 9 for 84 yards (9.3 yards per play)

All it took were two bad plays from the secondary to kill any hopes of an SU comeback. Trailing by a touchdown and looking at 3rd and long, the Orange once again dared Harris to beat them deep, and he did just that. Julian Whigham was the goat on back to back plays as LSU converted on a 51-yard gain on 3rd down and an 11-yard score on the very next play. Whigham was badly beat on the first play, and would have been better off had he committed to the pass interference and taken out the receiver. On the touchdown, he bought the fake inside and gave up a tremendous amount of ground in the corner on the fade.

Whigham's teammates tried to bail him out with two 3rd down stops in the quarter, including three-consecutive negative-yardage runs by Fournette in the quarter, but the back-to-back passes proved to be the backbreaker. Fun fact: SU ran a 5-3 for the first time all season on the 11-yard TD fade against Whigham. Was tough to tell if that was an accident, or if it was specifically designed to stop the run. Wonder if that's the last time we see that defense though.

  • Overall LSU Play Calls: 39 runs, 19 passes
  • Total Yards (per play): 425 (7.3) - season high yards per play
  • Total Rushing Yards (per carry): 268 (6.4) - both season highs
  • Total Passing Yards (per attempt): 8 for 16 for 168 yards (9.8) - season high yards per attempt
  • Play Action Calls Against - 7 (34 on season)
  • Play Action Results - 3-for-5, 38 yards, 1 QB scramble for no gain, 1 near sack pitched to Fournette for 48 rushing yards, 1 pass deflected at line
  • Play Action Results (Season) - 18-of-26, 242 yards, 2 TDs, 2 Pass Interference, 4 sacks
  • Plays in base defense (4-3): 47 of 58 (81.0%)
  • Plays in subpackages: 11 of 58 (19.0%)
  • Blitzes: 34 of 58 (58.6%)
  • Blitzes from base defense: 24 of 47 (51.1%)
  • Blitzes from subpackages: 10 of 11 (90.9%)
  • Fournette Touches: 27 for 251 yards (9.3 yards per touch)
  • Non-Fournette Plays: 31 for 173 yards (5.6 yards per play)