The 2012 game pitting the Alabama Crimson Tide against the LSU Tigers was billed as a sequel to the “game of the century” from the 2011 regular season and the previous BCS National Championship game in New Orleans.
It was largely a tale of two halves. Alabama owned the first half, jumping out to a 14-3 halftime lead in Death Valley. LSU scratched and clawed back in the second half, scoring two unanswered touchdowns to go up 17-14 with 8:46 left in the ball game. That is where LSU was faced with a crucial fourth-and-one while they were driving into the Alabama red zone.
This fourth-and-one comes at the Alabama 24-yard line. The Tide trail LSU by three points. and LSU had been successfully moving the ball against Bama all night long, seemingly running and throwing at will. The result of this play will likely change the outcome of this game.
It’s still relatively early in the fourth quarter and Alabama had done next to nothing offensively in the second half of the game. A field goal at this point doesn’t change much; it would have still been a one-possession game even with an extra three points. LSU was going for the jugular here. There’s no doubt this was the right call for LSU to go for it here.
Both teams have gone with jumbo personnel packages in this short-yardage situation. LSU is using running back Spencer Ware at quarterback in this formation, with Michael Ford lined up behind him about 3-4 yards and a step to the right. Notably absent from the LSU backfield is freshman battering ram running back Jeremy Hill, who had been having a great night running against the Alabama defense. The LSU offensive line is, from left to right, No. 68 Josh Dworaczyk, No. 70 La’el Collins, center No. 64 P.J. Lonergan, No. 56 Trai Turner, and No. 78 Vadal Alexander. The tight end to the left is No. 88 Chase Clement, while the tight end to the right is No. 84 Nic Jacobs. The two players that are filling the large gaps in the offensive line for LSU are, from left to right, No. 55 Elliot Porter – who is normally an offensive lineman – and starting fullback No. 44 J.C. Copeland.
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Alabama is in a typical goal line defense with nose guards Brandon Ivory and Jesse Williams manning the middle, and lined up in each large gap are Damion Square and D.J. Pettway. Outside of those two are Ed Stinson to the far left and Adrian Hubbard on the right.
The second level of the Alabama defense is, from left to right, Dee Milliner, Nico Johnson, Trey DePriest, Tana Patrick and Robert Lester. The biggest surprise among the second level of the Tide defense is Tana Patrick; not only that he’s on the field in such a crucial situation after seeing little playing time throughout his career, but also his alignment. For some reason he is the deepest player by at least two yards, lined up about five yards off of the football.
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Needing only one single yard, Les Miles elects to go with the ultimate ‘tough guy’ call.
The LSU formation resembles a rugby scrum. The splits of the center and guards are very tight, while there are two wide gaps on the outside of each guard. The gaps appear to be approximately three to four feet wide, or about the width of a missing lineman. This is an intriguing formation to an offensive coach like me; what will the defense do? It has been my experience that when shown this formation without warning, a defense will typically line up normally and take advantage of the gap that’s essentially been given to them. The defensive lineman that is in the abnormal gap will shoot the gap and blow up anything in his path.
While a defense may love the formation for what’s given to them, it also presents many opportunities for the offense. I’ve actually used a formation almost identical to this one in short yardage situations. It depends on how the defense lines up of course, but I believe that a successful play can be executed regardless of how the defense chooses to line up. If the defense lines up in the gap like Bama has, this creates some great angles for the offense to take advantage of. If the defense leaves the gap and chooses to line up over the offensive lineman that they normally would, then the offense already has a hole to run through and a lead blocker ready to clear whoever shows up in the gap.
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At the snap of the ball, LSU center, P.J. Lonergan and right guard, Trai Turner both drive into Jesse Williams, doubling him and taking him out of the play but also occupying two of LSU’s offensive lineman. Spencer Ware takes the snap and seems to hesitate a little bit, quickly glancing down to secure the ball. He takes a lateral step to his right to position himself behind Copeland who is leading up through the gap in the formation.
With Jesse Williams being doubled and the play clearly coming through the gap being manned by D.J. Pettway, it is left up to him to make a play. LSU right tackle, Vadal Alexander lunges for Pettway but at the snap Pettway quickly shoots inside of Copeland, pinching down on the large gap that LSU’s formation gave him. Copeland is an absolutely devastating blocker at fullback and should find a nice niche on an NFL team next season, but he isn’t used to lining up right across from a man and going toe-to-toe with him.
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Pettway does a great job of slicing inside of Copeland, shown in the image above. No. 78 Vadal Alexander, has completely whiffed on Pettway and only ends up cutting off the progress of Adrian Hubbard.
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A split second later, Pettway has squared himself up to the line of scrimmage again after defeating the block of J.C. Copeland. Vadal Alexander is on his way to the ground as Adrian Hubbard is in the process of defeating the block of tight end Nic Jacobs. Alabama linebackers, Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson are shuffling toward the play, still a couple yards away from the action.
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This image is just before Pettway makes initial contact with Ware. You can see Copeland desperately trying to make up for his error, holding on to Pettway trying to pull him back away from the play but it is too late.
Bama linebackers Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson are unable to get into the action due to the wreckage in front of them.
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Surprisingly, there is a bit of a second effort from Ware, thanks to the help from Michael Ford pushing from behind. Luckily, Tana Patrick and Robert Lester are there for Alabama to put the nail in the coffin for the conversion attempt.
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Above you can see that even after Patrick and Lester delivered their blows to knock Ware backward, Pettway is still holding on for dear life and never lets go. I can’t say enough about the individual play made by Pettway here. He was very quick off the ball and demonstrated perfect technique slicing inside of Copeland and disrupting this play behind the line of scrimmage.
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A part of me loves the play call, play design and formation for LSU, and a part of me hates it. As I described above, the formation can be successful in short yardage situations if executed properly and I think the overall play design here would have been successful if LSU put their players in a positions that they were used to and confident in.
Two of the key components of this play are the ball carrier and the lead blocker, and both of them are playing positions they are unfamiliar with. Even though Ware is a former high school quarterback and Copeland is a former lineman, I’d imagine that they aren’t getting many reps at those positions in practice. Both of these players playing out of position cost LSU this fourth down conversion attempt and possibly the game.
Ware, playing quarterback, seems to bobble the snap, which may have cost LSU a precious half-second in executing the play. Meanwhile, J.C. Copeland is beaten badly by D.J. Pettway. Pettway’s quickness and great technique just embarrasses Copeland on this play.
When watching this play in real time, you can compare the steps taken by No. 55 Elliot Porter an offensive lineman, and No. 44 J.C. Copeland a fullback. An offensive lineman is drilled daily to take short, choppy steps in order to stay in a powerful, athletic and balanced stance to take on defenders.
Porter’s steps are choppy and explosive and he actually does a nice job against Bama defensive lineman Damion Square. Meanwhile, Copeland doesn’t seem to change his steps much from those that he would normally take coming out of his stance at fullback, where he needs to quickly gain ground to meet defenders in a hole at the line of scrimmage. Copeland overextends when coming out of his stance to block D.J. Pettway and it costs him.
Like I mentioned above, LSU running back Jeremy Hill is not in the game on this crucial play. Hill had been very successful running the ball against Alabama all night, usually with Copeland lead blocking for him. Hill had amassed almost 100 yards at this point in the game on the ground.
Why did Les Miles not just line up in the ‘I’ formation and run the ball down the throat of the Bama defense the way you had seemingly done at will all night? Once again, Les Miles overthinks himself and gets cute instead of going with what had worked all night long.
Regardless of the LSU variables, I have a feeling that this was simply another example of this Alabama team displaying their “we will not be denied” attitude on the way to their third BCS National Championship in four years.
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