SEC Film Room: LSU’s x-factor is Brandon Harris, not Leonard Fournette
Alabama’s 30-16 win over LSU taught us a few lessons.
It first and foremost reminded us that one loss did not mean Alabama no longer belongs in the conversation with college football’s top teams. The Crimson Tide, once again, had success despite their opponent knowing what the game plan would be.
It also taught us a thing or two about LSU, and more importantly, what it’s ultimately capable of. I don’t believe this loss pulled the curtain from which LSU was hiding behind in a sense that its talents were fraud, but I do think it helped paint a clearer picture of the Tigers’ postseason chances.
Going into the game, Tigers running back Leonard Fournette led the country in rushing yards per game with an average of 193. He left Tuscaloosa, Ala., with a performance of 31 yards off 19 carries.
But I believe the bigger story for LSU was the play of its quarterback, Brandon Harris. I believe that game told us that even though Alabama’s defense was an ideal counter to LSU’s offense, the Tigers can only go as far as Harris can complement their run game.
Diverse run game
What made Alabama such a great counter for LSU is that when the Tigers went with 21 or 22 personnel — 21 personnel is two running backs, one tight end and two receivers where 22 personnel is two running backs, two tight ends and one receiver — Alabama could afford to play five defensive linemen, two linebackers and four defensive backs. This set up is more tailored to a Saban style of gap-control defense, and really favored the Tide more than it did the Tigers trying to get extra blockers in for Fournette.
Once LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron realized more bodies wasn’t doing the trick, he decided to get creative with Harris to both move the ball and possibly open up running lanes for Fournette later in the game.
One of Harris’ best plays of the night happened here on what is called a “nose read”. On this play, the thought process is the same as a traditional zone read except the roles between the quarterback and the running back are reversed.
In a zone read, the quarterback will begin an option handoff to a running back who is running up the middle. It’s the quarterback’s job to then read the defensive end. If the defensive end collapses on the running back, the quarterback will pull the ball and take off toward the sideline himself. If the defensive end stays in a contain position, the quarterback will hand the ball off to the running back who will go up the middle with one less body to worry about.
Now let’s look at that nose read from a different angle.
Watch the play open up in the middle as opposed to the edges of the trench. This is effective because nose tackles are rarely asked to do any kind of containment. By the time the Alabama defender realized he’s the one being read, Harris had the space he needed to go right by him.
This is one way Harris can really help open up the Tigers’ offense. They learned the hard way that you can’t just strengthen the line to get Fournette running room. They have to get creative in other ways — though, they won’t see a defensive line like Alabama’s again this season.
All the pressure on the arm
No matter how good a team is at running the ball, if its quarterback can’t make two or three clutch plays, it’ll usually come up short when the clock strikes zero. Such was the case for LSU.
In the Tigers’ win over Florida, Harris showed he has quite the arm. It’s not as consistent as I’m sure Cameron would like it to be, but when he’s in a rhythm, he can really take over a drive, and sometimes all it takes is one throw for him to heat up.
The play above showed LSU down 10 with not much momentum at all. But out of nowhere, Harris dropped back on second-and-12, stepped into a throw and dropped a dime to wide receiver Travin Dural for the touchdown. LSU had to have that play, the Tigers were going nowhere on offense and Harris stepped up big time.
On the next drive, you could visibly see Harris’ confidence grow.
On this play, Harris took advantage of a good play-action and delivered a strike to the sideline. It was this drive — also included was a big Harris pass and run — that allowed LSU to tie the score just before halftime. Though Alabama kicked a field goal of its own, Harris’ arm gave the Tiger a sense of life.
But now we get to the bad.
When Harris’ arm comes alive, you see the velocity in which he throws the ball increase. He starts to take risks on throws with smaller windows, and as we saw above, has a chance to make some very nice plays. But the inconsistencies with Harris are still there, and when you increase velocity on throws, quarterbacks who lack elite talent trade that increased velocity for lowered accuracy.
The play above was the first play of the half; a drive that provided a critical moment in this game. Harris took the roll-out off a play-action and rifled it right by his receiver and into the hands of the Alabama defender. The Crimson Tide converted that turnover into a touchdown, and LSU honestly never recovered.
So we’ve seen what Harris can do for this offense, and we’ve also watched how he can hurt it. LSU is still going to be seeded high in the upcoming College Football Playoff rankings, and with that will remain a chance to play in the Playoff or in a prestigious bowl game. Fournette will get back to being the Heisman Trophy talent we all know he is, but the next time LSU faces off against one of the nation’s top teams in the postseason, Harris will be the one who has to make the clutch plays to win, with or without Fournette.