Film study: how LSU’s offense dominated Florida’s defense

While watching the Florida-LSU game live, I was mostly relaxed about the proceedings believe it or not. I expected the Gator defense to struggle with the Tigers’ excellent offense, but they recorded two stops (FG attempt, punt) in the first three drives. I figured they’d be able to come up with a couple more later on, and maybe that’d be enough with the Gator offense grinding out long touchdown drive after long touchdown drive.

Instead, the UF defense only got one more stop the rest of the way. Four of the six remaining Tiger drives went five or fewer plays, all of them resulting in touchdowns. The Gator offense would have to be perfect the rest of the way to give the team a chance to win, but perfection is an awfully high bar.

With the benefit of hindsight, I am far less sanguine about how the game went. I still feel good about the offense’s ability to crank out six 70+ yard drives even if two of them went awry at the end. I do not feel good about the defense or especially the defensive coaching. Here’s why.

Personnel issues

Many teams don’t have even one edge defender as good as Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard, so of course Florida would struggle once Greenard went out early and Zuniga left later on.

Florida has no one who scares offense at the edge spot after those two, though, and you can see it in how UF moved Greenard from his Buck linebacker spot to defensive end when Zuniga went down earlier this year. Zach Carter is a solid rotation guy and nothing more yet; Luke Ancrum at his best merely not a liability. When Jeremiah Moon wasn’t dropping into coverage like he was most of the night, undersized true freshman Khris Bogle (listed at 216 pounds) was the only other option minus Greenard and Zuniga.

Trey Dean has not worked out at the nickel/star position. He was a high school safety who was pressed into service at corner once Marco Wilson went down last year, but he’s not a superlative cover guy. Other teams picked on him some at star this year, but LSU demolished him. Eventually Todd Grantham moved Wilson to star to try to stop the bleeding. It sort of worked, but zero corners signed in the 2018 class meant true freshman Kaiir Elam had to play outside in Wilson’s stead.

John Huggins would’ve been another good option at star, but he earned his dismissal from the team. The younger David Reese might’ve had a crack at it too, but he’s been out for the year for months.

Defensive recruiting fell off under Jim McElwain, and Dan Mullen only signed seven defenders in his 2018 class. One medically retired (Randy Russell), one transferred (Malik Langham), one is out for the year (Reese), one was dismissed (Huggins), one got benched (Dean), and one is buried on the depth chart (Andrew Chatfield). That leaves only Amari Burney as a positive contributor. The rest of the guys playing are McElwain recruits, transfers, or true freshmen.

Getting to third down

The good news: Florida allowed only one third down conversion all game, and all but one third down situation was with seven or more yards to go. That meant the average of 5.8 yards per play allowed on third down was good enough.

The bad news: UF only put LSU in third down on four occasions. The Gators allowed a 12.6 yards per play on first down and 10.8 yards per play on second down. With them allowing more than a first down’s worth of yardage on both first and second down, it would basically be bad luck for the Tigers to fail to get a combined ten yards in the first two plays of a series of downs. Bad luck only struck four times.

Soft coverage

Adam Shuler had this to say about the defense’s performance: “We know we’re better than that. We know there was a lot of mistakes. We really didn’t get out-physicaled, we just did stupid things. It’s out the window now.” I can buy that.

Burney added this: “We had the gameplan, we just didn’t execute.” That, I’m not so sure about.

Florida’s game plan initially was what it’s been a lot of the year. They would rely on the front four to get pressure and stop the run and then play soft coverage outside to avoid giving up deep bombs.

I could drop the “initially” there because it never really changed. Shuler and Kyree Campbell didn’t have that bad of games, though they seldom made good plays at the same time. Otherwise, the LSU offensive line and tight ends worked the defensive front. Ventrell Miller in particular had a bad time with stopping the run, but no one save Zuniga was all that effective against it.

Joe Burrow played lights-out even by his own lofty 2019 standards, but Florida’s soft coverage made it easy on him a lot of the time.

Here’s the problem: they wanted to disrupt the pass with the defensive front, but the soft coverage allowed Burrow to throw in two seconds or less most of the time. Unless the Gators got a defender free, they were never going to get to him. They did manage to get David Reese free off the edge on the first LSU drive, leading to the field goal miss, but they never did again.

Burrow only took two real deep shots the whole game. One sailed on him incomplete, but Dean picked up an unnecessary pass interference flag given the good help he had from Donovan Stiner. The other was when LSU schemed Ja’Marr Chase open for the Tigers’ final TD by using personnel and routes to get Miller in CJ Henderson’s way.

True to 2019 form, Grantham didn’t use many true blitzes (sending more than four rushers). When he did, the extra man too often came from a mile away.

Here’s an example where Shawn Davis is trying to blitz from a starting position eight yards off the line of scrimmage and outside the tackle box. Wilson has to play soft coverage because he has no help without Davis; if Justin Jefferson beats him long with a double move, it’s an easy touchdown. Burrow knows all this, so he gets rid of the ball short before Davis even touches an offensive lineman.

Or witness this, where Grantham stacks two linebackers before sending them into the biggest part of the LSU offensive line in the middle. Neither has any shot of getting past the three-man wall, so I’m not sure Burrow needed to get rid of it quickly. He can though, as soft coverage to the left leaves the quick slant wide open. It might be Bogle’s responsibility to take the short pattern there, but the tight end does just enough to pull him vertically instead of horizontally. It’s another extremely easy completion.

The stat of the game is three. Burrow had three incompletions, and the Gators had three pass breakups. If a defender didn’t get a hand on the ball in the air, the pass was complete. Burrow did hit some tight windows, and good on the LSU receivers for not having any drops, but Grantham apparently didn’t pick up on the pattern.

For what it’s worth, Florida did play tighter on LSU’s last scoring drive. Joe Brady had answers. He used a shallow cross-pivot, where Chase started a shallow cross but reversed his motion to beat Brad Stewart. With Henderson drifting back to cover Jefferson’s longer route more closely, there was a lot of empty space for Chase after he made the catch.

The final touchdown I diagrammed above was also tight coverage, but the Tigers exploited that too by inducing Miller to get into Henderson’s way. The Gators may have only stopped completions with deflections, but press coverage wouldn’t magically shut down the LSU offense. I still think it would’ve been good to try it earlier, but they don’t pay me to run the defense.

LSU had a masterful game plan and roasted a shorthanded Florida defense. The good news is that Georgia’s offense has regressed a couple decades, so only Missouri really has a high powered offense among the remaining opponents. There is time to work through things before the trip out there. They’ll need it, because LSU provided a very clear blueprint on how to dissect the Gator defense if the passer can be protected.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2