October 06, 2011
With its relatively pedestrian offense and consistent reliance on "hidden yards" via field position and turnovers, LSU isn't your typical championship frontrunner, and cornerback Tyrann Mathieu certainly isn't your typical Heisman candidate. Not that he doesn't have the numbers: Through five games, Mathieu's forced fumbles, notched two quarterback sacks, scored two touchdowns and come with one yard of a third score on his only interception, while also serving as the leading tackler for a defense that ranks in the top ten nationally in every major category. As a true freshman in 2010, he finished fourth on the team and tops among DBs in total tackles, third with 4.5 sacks and fourth with 8.5 tackles for loss despite starting a single game. Even on paper, he's a ballhawk.
But the stat sheet isn't going to do nearly as much for his campaign as getting voters to actually watch him play, which they'll have another chance to do Saturday against Florida and its untested stable of freshman quarterbacks. For his diminutive size, Mathieu is a fearless hitter in the open field, quick to jump routes in coverage and always finds a way to get his hands on the ball. Most obviously, though, he's emerged as nightmare on frequent — and frequently effective — blitzes out of the Tigers' nickel packages.
Last year, victims of Mathieu's blindside blitz party included Mississippi State's Chris Relf, Tennessee's Chris Simms and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill, and his knack for getting to the quarterback created interceptions for teammates against Mississippi State and Ole Miss. This year, even while branching out as an every-down cover corner, he's been equally lethal as defensive coordinator John Chavis continues to find new ways to free up his best player in the name of havoc.
• Numbers Game. Against Kentucky, the Tigers lined up with a heavy pressure look on third-and-long, showing seven potential rushers against seven blockers for the Wildcats — straightforward enough, if every Kentucky blocker picks up his man.
While LSU initially comes with a seven-man rush, though, Kentucky releases a blocker (tight end Jordan Aumiller) up the field, leaving the Wildcats in an apparent six-on-seven situation. Freshman running back Josh Clemons is in a Catch-22: Pick up blitzing linebacker Stefoin Francois up the middle, or leave Mathieu free on the outside? Initially, he moves toward the linebacker:
Ideally, freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith would get rid of the ball quickly on a shallow crossing route to No. 3, Matt Roark, who may enough space to run for the first down. After initially engaging with the left tackle, though, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo drops into Roark's lane, taking away the quick throw, leaving the tackle blocking no one and Josh Clemons flailing much too late to lay a hand on Mathieu, who has easily beaten Francois into the backfield:
Mathieu arrives at roughly the same time as fellow corner Ron Brooks, who has blown by the right tackle outright…
… leaving Mathieu free to swipe the ball away and jog into another highlight reel.
In that case, the Tigers effectively overwhelmed the protection by outnumbering it, and put the tailback (again, a true freshman, blocking for a true freshman quarterback) in a no-win situation by bring blitzes from two different angles. But even the threat of pressure up the middle can have the same effect of occupying blockers. In the 2010 season opener against North Carolina (Mathieu's first college game), LSU showed a similar pressure look on a critical fourth down late in the fourth quarter, bringing seven potential rushers crowding the line of scrimmage at the snap. This shot is right at the snap; Mathieu, highlighted at the top, has not given away that he's blitzing prior to the ball leaving the center's hands:
Again, North Carolina has seven potential blockers to block seven potential rushers — and they actually get fewer than that, as both of the inside blitzers bail out immediately in to coverage. Even disregarding the tailback, North Carolina has six blockers for five rushers, and a three-on-three situation on quarterback T.J. Yates' blind side:
Because the potential blitz up the middle didn't materialize — and because he can count — the tailback heads out into a pass pattern. The tight end, however, specifically lined up to stop a rush from the outside, has completely missed Mathieu coming from the corner and instead blocks down on the blitzing outside linebacker, leaving the Tar Heels with two completely unoccupied blockers in the mess while Mathieu flies around the edge untouched…
… with inevitable results:
Counterpunching. One way to combat LSU's aggressiveness off the edge is to get the ball out quickly into the flat, which Texas A&M was able to do with some success in the Cotton Bowl in January — anything that may be able to use the Tigers' aggressiveness against them. Then again, West Virginia had the same idea, and it didn't turn out quite as well:
For Florida's young quarterbacks, the main idea — after "establish the run" has been exhausted — will be to get the ball out of their hands as quickly as possible, before LSU's rush can get home. If they don't know what they're seeing, though, and especially if their blockers don't know what they're seeing from Chavis' multitude of blitzes, it's going to be another "punting is winning" kind of night for the Gators.