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Master class chess games of 2018: Mullen vs Aranda

LSU proved to be one of Florida’s biggest wins for Dan Mullen in year one and made two in a row that he’s put over on defensive guru Dave Aranda.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The uniting of Dave Aranda’s defensive mind with LSU back in 2016 was always an intriguing and potentially devastating combo. He’d built a wildly effective defense up in Wisconsin that leaned on man coverage, which figured to translate nicely with LSU’s superior DBs, and then a versatile front built out of sturdy DL and then crafty linebackers for which the Badgers have never seemed in want. The Tigers have been inconsistent with LBs, fielding a few brilliant players like Devin White, but have had all the other pieces for Aranda to build smothering units.

The 2018 defense was perhaps the best yet, finishing fifth in defensive S&P+ despite lacking a star pass-rusher at their OLB position thanks to Devin White, DT Rashard Lawrence, and then a loaded secondary led by SS Grant Delpit.

Heading into year one with the Florida Gators, Dan Mullen has two years of experience dealing with Aranda’s defense from his time in the SEC West with the Mississippi State Bulldogs. In 2016 his Bulldogs were crushed by Aranda’s Tigers but then in 2017 dished out payback in a 37-7 stomping in which QB Nick Fitzgerald ran the ball 14x for 88 yards and a pair of scores while RB Aeris Williams had 23 for another 146. Mullen is a master of spread-option run schemes but heading into the first of his bouts with Aranda from his new seat in Gainesville, the Gators didn’t quite have the ideal spread-option personnel yet. Here’s how things went...

LSU’s smothering approach

The Tigers like to play man coverage, they’ve had a revolving door of NFL corners now and are on five years in a row now of having a CB selected in the NFL draft. The 2018 unit was led by Greedy Williams, who had a pair of picks and nine break-ups, and then paired with a few different figures but in this contest Kristian Fulton who added another pick and nine more break-ups on the year.

Aranda’s preferred set-up was to play nickel personnel with a third corner, Kary Vincent, Jr, who’d match the slot and free up strong safety Grant Delpit to hang out in the middle of the field, drawn here against one of Florida’s favorite offensive formations:

From that strong safety spot ($) Delpit could be a devastating weapon and he finished the year with 74 tackles, 9.5 TFL, five sacks, five picks, and nine pass break-ups.

With Delpit and White (the R here as the LSU rover) blitzing and roaming around between the hash marks, the Tigers are daring you to try and take shots down the field while Aranda dials up some brutal four and five man blitzes. That’s difficult both because of those pressures and also because trying to attack them outside means you’re working against their trio of corners playing aggressive man coverage and then veteran safety John Battle working over the top.

The aggressive man coverage makes quick shots difficult so you’re left figuring out how to beat LSU’s corners down the field while consistently picking up their pressures. It’s tough sledding and Florida wasn’t really up for it, Feleipe Franks was 12-27 passing on the day for 161 yards at 5.9 ypa with one TD pass and one INT.

Mullen’s strategy

If you glance at the diagram above and stare long enough you can start to see where an alternative vulnerable spot might be in the LSU structure. The Tigers’ love of matching up in man coverage typically means that their DBs will load up to the wide side of the field while they trust their OLB/DE (J on the diagram) to force the run on the short side of the field.

Many of Mullen’s plays to run the ball consequently focused on attacking the boundary overhang for LSU, knowing that if they could beat that man the Tigers’ would be left without much cover.

Their main approach would be to use 3x1 formations that would typically see the Tigers spin down their strong safety and ask their OLB to force the ball on the boundary, much like in the diagram above. Sometimes that would involve the TE flexed to the field, other times he’d line up to the boundary while all three receivers went to the field. When they were in a flex set they tried some dart plays but couldn’t block the Tiger front effectively.

Their 3x1, especially the nub trips set, also tended to draw a 46 front from the Tigers with the OLB on one edge and then one of the ILBs on the opposite edge. They caught the Gators trying to run a dart-read on that front, Franks pulled the ball only to be chased down by the OLB on the edge after a three yard gain.

What they found success on though was running the option at that sole OLB on the boundary, particularly against the 46 front which left the Tigers without a second level to their defense.

Those two gains were both crucial in Florida TD drives that secured the game. It’s a counter option play, that looks initially like zone before turning into a traditional pitch option against the flow of the blocking on the backside of the defense.

The Gators’ other go-to run scheme was an ode to the departed Jim McElwain, a tight zone/duo play from under center that would overload the perimeter and invite the DBs down before running downhill at them.

This play didn’t generate any huge gains but they were able to cover up everyone for LSU up front and their RBs were able to find running lanes and manipulate the ILBs to pick up some steady yardage.

Mullen’s extra gear

The Gators had one other ploy they used to pick up a few chunks of yardage, the QB run game. You can always outnumber defense, even one in man coverage, by including the QB in the run game and really start to blow open holes if he’s the featured runner rather than an option man.

Besides a Franks scramble that picked up eight yards and the keeper on the dart play above that netted three, the Gators called five direct snap QB runs that produced 30 yards. Two of those runs involved back-up Emory Jones, an athletic RS freshman who’s the future of Mullen’s Florida offense. But then another three featured Franks and one of those was a QB power run that picked up a third and seven on the drive that put the Gators on top.

This play combined the full weight of the Gator run game with the weakest point of the LSU defense. Florida had three receivers bunched wide to hold defenders in man coverage and then led into the outnumbered boundary side with the RB and LG both leading over there behind the TE. LSU was hopelessly outnumbered at that point and Franks lumbered for a relatively easy 12 yard gain. A TD would soon follow and Florida was up for good.

Ultimately Mullen was able to win this battle with Aranda by hammering a weak spot in his defensive scheme and for turning LSU’s pressure against them. The Tigers’ ultra-aggressive defensive scheme has fewer failsafes than a structure designed to close on the ball. Their alignment assumes you won’t break free through the initial wall and if you do, there’s a price to be paid.

Mullen also didn’t take the bait trying to beat LSU’s NFL cornerbacks with a middling passing attack while trying to block Aranda’s pressures. That’s the chokepoint that LSU channels opponents into, the obvious counter that they are built to withstand. Where LSU wasn’t able to hold up was against misdirection option schemes that took aggressive defenders out of position and QB run game concepts that gave the Gators the numbers to punch a hole in the wall against the Tiger front.

The Tigers will get the Gators in Baton Rouge next season and we’ll see whether Aranda can shore up that weak spot in round three.