There’s a reason why great coaches are often the first ones in the door and the last ones to leave. It’s because football games can be won or lost before the first snap is even taken.
Florida and LSU both went into Saturday night’s matchup undefeated, and that was as much a testament to their coaching staffs as it was the players themselves. Talent can go a long way, but it truly takes all 11 players on one side of the ball on the same page to make a difference. It comes down to coaching, and after studying the Gators defensive performance versus the Tigers, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins just didn’t have an answer for Cam Cameron and the LSU offense in the first half. Confusion and chaos were too common — something Florida never recovered from.
Mismatch from the Start
LSU’s main offensive focus was getting running back Leonard Fournette the ball as much as possible while maintaining efficiency; you knew that, I knew that, even your pets knew that. That said, the problem for Florida early on wasn’t so much figuring out what LSU would do, but how the Gators would contain the Heisman favorite.
On defense, the Gators’ bread and butter was their 4-2-5 formation, which means there’s four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. This formation plays to Florida’s biggest strength and deepest position by getting as many defensive backs on the field as they can while still containing run plays to an extent. For the most part, that scheme has held up well, even against some stronger rushing teams.
However, LSU was different. Though quarterback Brandon Harris is considered a dual-threat option, the Tigers still line up 77 percent of their rushing plays out of the I-formation with a fullback in as a lead blocker.
The screen shot above was how Florida tried to handle the I-formation while maintaining the 4-2-5. What it did was rotate safety Marcus Maye down into the box and near the line of scrimmage so if there was a handoff, he might be the extra body needed to take Fournette down for a minimal gain. But, as we’ll see, the Gators were actually too focused on stopping the run, and it hurt them off play action.
Instead of covering the tight end, Maye closed in on Harris, and left an easy dump-off pass to a roll out route off a block. This play was important for LSU for more than just the yards it gained. It also tipped Cameron to Florida’s order of operation on defense. Now he knew the Gators’ game plan was:
- Stop Fournette
- Contain Harris
- Get the corners one-on-one match ups, and let them make plays
As soon as he knew that, he was able to attack the defense vertically by taking advantage of Florida’s fear of Harris scrambling.
The video above shows a first down pass to Travin Dural, but again, the yardage wasn’t the main takeaway here. Notice the defensive linemen. With no linebacker in as a spy, each defensive lineman slowed down their push on the pocket once blocked. Their eyes and focus were on containing a Harris scramble instead of beating their blocker. The Gators defense was concerned more with Harris’ legs than his arm — which was understandable and expected going into the game — but as we see here, maybe they respected his legs too much. A lack of pressure gave Harris plenty of time in a clean pocket. If you give a passing play enough time, someone will eventually get open.
The screenshot above picks up a few series later after Fournette had gained nearly 100 yards on the ground. To counter, Florida moved from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 subbing in linebacker Jeremi Powell for its nickel corner. Collins was hoping more size and an extra edge player would have a better chance of containing Fournette since stopping the run is always priority No. 1 for any defense — Texas A&M learned that the hard way against Alabama.
Cameron’s response to the change in formation was again one step ahead of Collins.
(Not the same play as the screen shot. This was a few plays later)
On this play, LSU gave Florida exactly what it wanted, and the Gators still got beat. The play above shows the strong side on the left of the formation. When the ball was snapped, Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivey and Alex McCalister all get one-on-one match ups to the left. You’d have thought that was a win for the Gators, but it was all a part of the design. As Florida was blowing up the play to the left, two offensive linemen were swinging free to the second level, and Fournette was following a lead blocker off the edge into space.
Cameron set this particular play up by running a few previous plays to the strong side. Knowing Fournette would have some success on those plays, even if outmatched, he predicted correctly that the Gators would soon get overaggressive and want a stop for negative yardage. Once he saw that, he called this play and negated the 4-3 just as easily as he negated the 4-2-5.
The final nail in the coffin for the Gators defense in the first half was on this play above. This was the first play Florida switched back to its trusted 4-2-5 after getting gashed in the 4-3. Just as they took size off the field and tried to put more attention toward covering Harris’ passes, the Gators got hit up the middle.
It was a frustrating half for Collins and the Florida defense. One that, in the end, it couldn’t recover from. Florida was busy playing catch up while LSU was capitalizing on the confusion.
Defensive Back Struggles
If you’re still not convinced Cameron call this game to perfection for the Tigers, here’s all you need to know: He made Brandon Harris look like a stud against the best secondary in the country.
It didn’t matter who was in coverage.
LSU’s offense attacked Florida at its strongest point time and time again and came away with success far more than anyone predicted.
Was it a bad game for the Gators secondary? Yes. Does it mean anything in the long run? Not really.
Florida’s game plan of containing Harris’ running ability hurt the entire team’s preparation when the Tigers started to call the passing plays they did. This game was much more of a round of applause to LSU than it was a panic button for the Gators’ defense.
The difference between being a decent corner and being a great corner are the plays you make on the ball. Florida’s heralded cover guys just couldn’t make many in Death Valley.