Dave Aranda came to LSU this year with a solid reputation but not as a “superstar” coordinator. That was partially due to the fact that he is a pretty young guy but also because he had been at Wisconsin for the past three years where it’s easy to be good while being under the radar. The Badgers aren’t stocked with a bunch of NFL talent and the Big Ten is so top heavy. Now that he’s at LSU, he’s been able to show just how good his system is and how hard he gets his players to play for him. Wisconsin was known for toughness and speed on defense but that’s almost cliche up there. Now he has a bunch of NFL caliber guys playing his style of ball and he’s been rewarded with a huge contract for it.
Any coach in the country will tell you that the defensive line sets the tone for the entire defense. LSU is no different. Their front is experienced and talented and they picked up Aranda’s scheme quickly this year. Davon Godchaux is the best of the bunch at defensive end. Godchaux does a great job of getting penetration and disrupting plays. Lewis Neal does the same on the opposite side and both are real play makers for this defense. It stands out that both guys are so high on the total tackles list. They’re not just guys that can take up blockers and do the grunt work. They both can make plays and they’ve made their fair share behind the line of scrimmage.
Greg Gilmore is the nose tackle in the Tigers’ 3-4 scheme and we will likely see a little bit of Ed Alexander when Gilmore is out of the game. Gilmore is the smaller of the two, but he is built well and can eat up blockers in the middle. I think that how Gilmore plays will really play a big role in the outcome of the game. If he can force double teams it will free up LSU’s speedy linebackers to make plays in the run game. Alexander is a massive player at 333 pounds but I actually think Tobijah Hughley has handled larger guys pretty well this year so I’m not sure if Aranda will rotate guys as much.
Louisville will likely see a very similar scheme to what they saw in the Houston game. Aranda has been fairly vanilla this year but he has stated that LSU fans will see what he intends his 2017 scheme to look like in the bowl game. Wisconsin was known for inventive blitzes and wide pass rushes around the edge. They also were a little smaller up front and they used that to that advantage with constant pressure. That constant pressure was a massive issue against Houston and the line was confused all night. If they can manage to pick up where the pressure is coming from, they then have to make sure that they don’t disregard the front three in their adjustments. These guys can get to Lamar Jackson quickly and they can bring him down.
Just like Louisville, LSU has outside linebackers that will slide down to the line in certain situations. The most important player in that role is Arden Key. Key is tied for 6th place in the country in sacks per game. He is a nightmare around the edge and he could play a key role in pushing his pass rush up the field and forcing Lamar Jackson to step up into more pressure. Key is also incredibly long and he can get into passing lanes if he can’t get around the corner. When Key slides down to the line, he has been used as a decoy at times and dropped into a short zone. If Louisville looks to the swing pass like they’ve used at times, Key could be used to cover that zone as well.
The inside linebacker spots are very good for LSU even thought they will be without Kendell Beckwith. One could almost argue that having the smaller Donnie Alexander is a bonus for the Tigers. Beckwith is an all-american but he is also 250 pounds and does his best work in between the tackles. Lamar Jackson is a nightmare for pretty much anyone but he definitely works better against bigger opponents. Alexander has played at the “Mack” linebacker spot for a full game and he’s had the entire break to get it down. He also has the luxury of lining up next to team MVP Duke Riley which should help with calls and adjustments.
Riley is the exact type of linebacker that has killed UofL for the last handful of years. He’s fast, undersized, and he’s a guy that plays like his hair is on fire. We saw what guys like Ben Boulware from Clemson, Joe Giles-Harris of Duke, Micah Kiser at Virginia, and Steven Taylor from Houston were able to do from their linebacker spots. All of those guys can run extremely well and all of them play their tails off. Riley fits that mold and he also has the experience to back it up. Riley sat behind guys that went on to the NFL for three years and finally got his chance this year. He learned a lot and now he uses that knowledge to make a ton of plays.
Lamar Jackson will have to have a really strong game passing the football because I think that this defense has the ability to slow him down in the run game. Jackson has excelled against teams that don’t have play makers up front which allows him to get to the second level in favorable match ups. Somewhat like when I pointed out how Chucky Williams and JHC can’t be left in space against Derrius Guice by themselves in the offensive breakdowns. Jackson won’t likely see one guy waiting for him if he breaks contain. So, Jackson has to exploit the weakest point of the defense which is the middle of the field in pass coverage. It’s not a weak point for the defense, but it’s definitely where they’re not going to wow you. Cole Hikutini should be targeted a lot on Saturday and James Quick should find windows behind Riley and Alexander. Jackson has to hit those guys in stride to get the defense to loosen up. Then the running game should have more space.
It wouldn’t be questioned if one were to say that LSU has the best secondary in the country. They have a consensus all-american in Tre’Davious White as well as a potential top-10 pick in Jamal Adams. Throw in former track star, Donte Jackson and you have a fast and physical group that fit this scheme perfectly. Aranda wants to pressure you and wants to bring more guys than you can block. When you do that you have to be able to trust your corners and safeties to stay with their assignments. White and Jackson are guys that make it so hard to separate because of their speed. Jackson won the Louisiana state championship in the 100 meters and White is one of the top punt returners in the country. These guys will be in man coverage on every play and they will make you beat them in man before they even think about doing anything else.
Adams isn’t an outstanding guy in coverage but he provides two things that could be big in this game. He could be used to spy Lamar Jackson as an extra defender in the box. He could also be used in coverage against Hikutini which would put their best player on Louisville’s best receiver. Adams is one of the best defensive players in the country and he plays harder than just about anyone. He is a “must account for him” type of defender because he lines up in so many different areas of the field. If the Cards chose to spread the field he can be a deep safety over the top or he could slide down next to Riley if they bring in two tight ends. He’s just a versatile guy that can cause so many problems.
In my opinion, this is where Louisville has to be at their best. Jamari Staples and Jaylen Smith have to find a way to create separation in their routes and make some big plays. It’s been an underrated issue this year when they’ve gone against top corners. Cordrea Tankersley and Tarvarus McFadden are good examples of this. Both were always in stride with Louisville receivers down the field and they were able to make plays on the ball. I think Bobby Petrino will try to work the middle of the field more this game and stay away from the corners. If the running game gets going, play-action should help with that. Getting aggressive guys like Riley to step up into the fake and hitting short passes right behind him should work well.