Come Citrus Bowl Saturday, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is going to run. The only thing the LSU football team hopes is that it can control which way.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Jackson has rushed for 1,538 yards this season. Since 2010, only two quarterbacks have rushed for more yardage in a season, and that’s counting bowl appearances.
Jackson is a dominant and intimidating rusher. His greatest asset is his speed. But as LSU senior defensive end Lewis Neal explained, there’s only one way to stop Jackson: make him run sideline to sideline.
“He wants to run north; he wants to go straight down the field,” Neal said. “He doesn’t want to go side to side. It’s a game where you’ve got to play technique. You’ve got to be in the spots where you’ve got to be and do what you’re supposed to do. If you make a mistake, he’s going to capitalize off of it.”
Jackson has had a blackjack player’s dream rushing season in 2016, accounting for 21 rushing touchdowns, the most of any Power 5 player. Not quarterback. Player.
But Jackson’s tape makes it clear that he wants to run straight ahead. Louisville runs a spread offense in the truest sense, splitting receivers and tight ends out wide to keep defenders out of the box. With fewer players in the middle of the field, Jackson’s electric abilities kick into overdrive, making it hard for linebackers and defensive linemen to take the right angles to bring him down.
Then, Jackson breaks into the open field. And that’s where he gets dangerous.
On 62 occasions in 2016, Jackson carried for 10 or more yards on a single play. At a rate of more than five such plays per game, Jackson led the FBS in that category. Additionally, Jackson has rushed for 78 first downs this season, second most in the Power 5 and fifth most overall.
“They have explosive plays; they want to spread you out,” LSU senior cornerback Tre’Davious White said. “They want to exploit matchups. It’s going to be on us to get in the film room and see what they do and try to limit their big plays because they’re an explosive offense.”
To say that LSU hasn’t gone against a player of Jackson’s caliber is a bit of a misnomer. The only teams that have gone against a player of Jackson’s caliber are the teams that went against Jackson. As Neal said, “He’s not the Heisman Trophy winner for no reason.”
But veterans of the LSU football team are no strangers to Heisman Trophy winners. Last year, LSU was tasked with slowing Alabama running back Derrick Henry. In 2012 and 2013, LSU stared down the barrel at Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, whom the Tigers dominated.
When asked to compare Jackson and Manziel, LSU safety Jamal Adams lobbed some high praise toward the Louisville sophomore.
“I would say he’s more elusive than Manziel,” Adams said of Jackson. “They’re both great passers but at the same time can definitely get away with their feet.”
So, what’s the technical trick to beating Jackson? Forcing him to run east-west is an ideology, but that’s not something you can prepare for, that’s just sort of something you have to do.
As Adams and defensive tackle Greg Gilmore brought up, the real trick to slowing Jackson is eye discipline. As a pass rusher, you have to stay in your lane, making sure that Jackson doesn’t escape contain. And as a DB, you have to be aware of Jackson the passer and Jackson the runner. This is a particularly difficult skill given how reliant LSU is on man-to-man coverage and how frequently Louisville dispatches its receivers on deep routes.
But the LSU football team has spent the last week preparing for Jackson. Freshman quarterback Lindsey Scott is LSU’s stand-in for Jackson. Gilmore said Scott is full speed every snap, giving defenders an honest simulation of what facing Jackson might be like.
Practice is one thing. Game speed is another. Gilmore said if Jackson slips through on even one play and beats contain, there’s really only one thing he can do.
“I’ll tell you, if he passes me,” Gilmore said, “I’m just going to take an angle for the end zone.”