Four months ago, Leonard Fournette was the Heisman frontrunner, and Lamar Jackson was an intriguing talent who was going to present an interesting challenge to Bobby Petrino’s pro-style preferences.
Now their teams are facing off in the Citrus Bowl after a wild season for both. Jackson won the Heisman, and Fournette’s not even playing in the bowl, being replaced by star No. 2 back Derrius Guice.
Whether this game is a consolation or an exciting opportunity depends on when you asked each team’s fan base. LSU wouldn’t have wanted this before the season, and Louisville wouldn’t have wanted it in October. But we could be in for a really good game to tide us over until the Playoff semifinals later in the day on New Year’s Eve. (This one’s at 11 a.m. ET on ABC).
The outcome probably comes down to whether Jackson or Guice is the more dominant runner. To that end, here’s a tale of the tape.
It turns out stopping Jackson is pretty hard.
Jackson’s numbers are terrifying. He had 4,928 total yards with 51 total touchdowns. When he was throwing, the Cards were getting 8.9 yards per pass, and when he ran the ball, they were getting 6.6. He was the dominant player in nearly every game Louisville played, save one 11-sack debacle.
The most fearsome part of the Jackson playbook is this double-lead zone bluff play the Cardinals like to mix in from double-tight end sets:
Florida State is so badly flanked here that TE Keith Towbridge (No. 89) is literally waiting for his assignment to catch on and arrive so he can block him. The problem is inconsistent teamwork between end DeMarcus Walker (No. 44) and linebacker Ro’Derrick Hoskins (No. 18). Walker approaches the play with positioning to contain the ball and force a handoff, but bails inside to try and make the tackle on a running back who turns out not to even have the ball.
That sets off a domino effect. Hoskins also steps inside and isn’t in position to “scrape” outside to make the tackle. That tempts free safety A.J. Westbrook (No. 19) to try to beat the other tight end’s block inside, rather than focusing on forcing the ball back inside.
Against Jackson, you can’t make minor mistakes in perimeter containment. If he gets outside, it’s over. Louisville loves raising the ante by using two tight ends to lead the way, punishing the smaller athletes who’d normally chase him down in space.
If you try to contain this play by focusing on the edge, Louisville can run a power-read play, switching up which runner (the QB or RB) has the inside or outside path.
Florida State’s linebacker and end both try to set the edge, forcing the ball inside. On this concept, that’s what Jackson wants. And if the defenders had crashed inside together, Jackson could’ve just handed off.
LSU hasn’t had to defend a player like Jackson this year, but the Tigers have done well against mobile quarterbacks. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts got them pretty badly, running for 117 yards and a 6.2-yard average. Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly made some good runs, too. But a less-than-100 percent Trevor Knight didn’t run much against them for Texas A&M, and Ole Miss’ Nick Fitzgerald couldn’t break 4 yards per carry.
Hurts and Kelly were both able to do some damage against the Tigers’ defense, with single-wing-style QB runs:
That’s a QB counter run, with a fake RB sweep to the backside to hold the unblocked weak-side defender. LSU didn’t try to contain these runs on the edges but consistently looked to spill runs outside to their LB pursuit or the DBs coming in run support.
LSU almost snuffed that play out. Later, the Tigers did smash it, because they aggressively deployed a boundary safety against Kelly.
LSU coordinator Dave Aranda has largely eschewed the clever blitz schemes he used at Wisconsin. He’s focused on allowing the Tigers to play a few base defenses at a high level, with all of their NFL talent.
On this play, they’re playing cover-1 (one high safety in coverage) with press coverage on the outside and safety John Battle (No. 26) ready to run to the ball. Battle was keying on TE Evan Engram (No. 17) and, seeing the run, went after it.
Against Louisville’s option, the Tigers will try to spill every play to the outside, where middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith can run it down or where roving safety Jamal Adams (No. 33) could arrive to help.
When you have future pros at strong safety and middle linebacker, that’s as good a plan against the Heisman winner as you can find.
Guice presents his own challenges for Louisville.
LSU has had a running back revolving door for a while. All-SEC Guice is already more than an heir apparent, having played more downs and taken more carries this year than an oft-injured Fournette. Guice has been excellent: 157 carries for 1,249 yards (8 per carry), and 14 touchdowns.
The Tigers’ run game has been largely unchanged over the years. It’s centered around the same inside-zone and power schemes that make up the Louisville option game. The difference is that instead of optioning unblocked defenders with a quarterback, the Tigers just blast people out of the way with fullbacks and tight ends.
The challenge in stopping Guice is only slightly different than the challenge in stopping Jackson. You need to prevent Guice from hitting open spaces with square shoulders and momentum, because he has breakaway speed and will bowl players over. But it’s more about getting defenders in position to beat blocks, while against Jackson, it’s more about playing disciplined football.
Louisville has a top-20 rushing defense by S&P+. The Cards may be up to the task of controlling the Tigers’ smashmouth style. They try to control the edges with an aggressive, 3-4 defense that will park a few big outside linebackers to maintain a perimeter, like they did against Dalvin Cook out of the I-formation in September.
The line penetration is so good that Florida State’s fullback can’t reach the linebackers. But Cook’s footwork and a nice second-level block by right guard Ryan Hoefeld (No. 69) allowed the Noles’ back to find space, until Louisville safety Josh Harvey-Clemons flew in and erased that space.
The 6’5 safety is a difference maker and moves around the field, often depending on where Louisville needs run support. In this instance, Florida State uses motion to force Louisville to rotate the safeties, but Harvey-Clemons stayed pretty shallow for a deep safety, and he arrived to stop the run after 3 yards.
Louisville will try to keep Guice between the tackles with those playmaking OLBs, leaning on Harvey-Clemons to help clean up his runs up the middle.
When Jackson’s on the field, it’s speed on speed. When Guice is, it’s power on power.
And that’s true not just as these featured skill positions, but in the encounters between their supporting casts. There’s no one faster than Jackson, but don’t be shocked if LSU’s supporting cast does a better job supporting its leading man.