It only took one play for things to swing Saturday for LSU tailback Leonard Fournette and South Carolina’s rushing defense.
For a half and a carry, arguably the best player in the country found himself met with loaded boxes and gangs of tacklers. He’d been held to 3.25 yards per carry and the Gamecocks were hanging close with a top-10 team. Then, on a single handoff, he was back to averaging more than eight per run, all on a tried and true playcall.
The Counter Trey.
Fournette’s game-changing 87-yard odyssey early in the third quarter came courtesy of a running concept with a long history. It was a staple of Tom Osborne’s Nebraska dynasty and three Washington Super Bowl titles with coach Joe Gibbs in the 1980s. A power run, it’s versatile enough to be used out of the shotgun with three receivers as LSU showed.
At the play’s start, Fournette took a half step and angled his shoulders to the right of the formation before cutting left to take the handoff. He followed a backside guard and H-back (mobile tight end) who pulled across the formation and locked on to unblocked defensive end Marquavius Lewis and linebacker Skai Moore.
The other four offensive linemen blocked down, pushing the defensive line to the formation’s right. The play clicked so well, offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins had no one to block and launched downfield at middle linebacker T.J. Holloman (more on him in a minute).
With a clear path into space and the second level, Fournette added his biggest touch. Deep into the hole, he was face to face with box safety Jordan Diggs with deep safety Isaiah Johnson coming fast to fill. Angling left, Fournette hopped right, leaving both with no chance at the tackle.
Holloman couldn’t turn off a block as Fournette brushed by, possibly because Hawkins had a hold of his pads. The linebacker stopped pursuit mid-play to argue his case, not running it out, but with Fournette’s speed, even the corners were not catching him.
This, plus the repeated hammerings from LSU’s downhill attack seemed to take their toll.
Video breakdown showed on the next three defensive series, South Carolina had 11 tackles broken, plus a couple attempts run through. Up to that point, LSU had only broken five tackles, with two more missed and seven plays where backs surged for a few more yards while getting tackled.
Four broken tackles in the third came on one run where Tigers tailback Derrius Guice slipped through tackles from defensive lineman Kelsey Griffin, spur T.J. Gurley, Lewis, then dodged attempts from Griffin and Gurley again before running out of Chris Lammons’ grasp and finally bouncing over Rashad Fenton and hitting the turf.
During the week, Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said his team only had two running plays, drawing the ire of fans, and that one wasn’t working.
This is a bit of a simplification, as the team has more “plays” than that, but only two baseline “concepts” for the running game (Ohio State has around five for reference). Those are zone plays and sweep plays, which deploy a pair of pulling linemen to lead the runner.
Missouri did a good job diagnosing those sweeps, frequently blowing them up. Against LSU, the Gamecocks all but moved away from sweeps, using that blocking on only three of 20 called runs (18 true runs, two jet sweeps with a shovel pass). Of those, only one was a true sweep handoff, while the others included sweep blocking as misdirection for a Pharoh Cooper jet run and a reverse when the back took the handoff and pitched to Cooper going the other way.
About half of USC’s runs were direct zone runs, but there were a few other things mixed in. The staff had quarterback Perry Orth read an unblocked defensive tackle, had Cooper read an unblocked lineman out of a Wildcat-esque look and even used an old-school speed option. It didn’t help, as 13 of 20 called runs went fewer than five yards. None were longer than 11 yards and they averaged a mere 3.65.
Spurrier can commiserate with the fans. After the LSU loss, he had stern words for his running backs.
“They run in there and nobody tackles them and they fall down,” Spurrier said.
On video, at least in the LSU game, this wasn’t exactly the case. More than a few runs ended quickly when defenders beat blocks and made contact in the backfield. The Gamecock offensive front seemed able to create small creases but could rarely slip to the second level.
It didn’t help how South Carolina’s backs couldn’t make many plays once they got to the LSU linebackers. The one play that best fit Spurrier’s bill was a late draw play to David Williams, when the sophomore tripped over a lineman’s foot on a draw play deep in garbage time.
Fournette yards per carry by Gamecock defenders in the box (Team average)
Six: 20.2 (14.7)
Seven: 2.3 (5)
Eight: 3.4 (4.8)
Nine: 1.5 (7.4)
Ten: 1 (2.4)
Fournette yards by direction
Between tackles: 4.7 (6.3)
Off-tackle: 10.6 (9.5)
Edge: 4.3 (9.5)
South Carolina passing by LSU pass rushers
Four: 10-for-19 85 yards, one touchdown, one interception
Five: 3-for-8 73 yards, one touchdown
Six: 1-for-3 42 yards
SC yards per play by personnel
One back, one tight end, three receivers: 2.6
One back four receivers: 10
No back, three receivers: 11
No back, four receivers: 17.3
One back, two tight ends: 3.2
Two backs, three receivers: 3.5
Two backs, one tight end: 0
South Carolina targets
▪ South Carolina’s pass protection did yeoman’s work late in the third quarter against an exotic look. The Tigers had a defensive end drop back to linebacker and then become part of a six-man blitz, all coming at interior gaps. The line slid and didn’t break, while Shon Carson showed guts slowing down defensive end Lewis Neal, who is 48 pounds heavier.
▪ Upon further review, D.J. Smith probably should not have been called offsides on the onside kick attempt. The ball was rolling as he stepped on the line. Tough break.
▪ This comes up every week, but when one looks at the little things, it only affirms how special an athlete the Gamecocks have in Pharoh Cooper. With the ball, he just makes angles appear and works defenders in small ways to suddenly pop open.