LSU vs. Alabama Film Study: Nick Saban's Fake Punt Was Gutsy and Genius

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LSU vs. Alabama Film Study: Nick Saban's Fake Punt Was Gutsy and Genius
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor
Alabama's Jarrick Williams runs for a first down on a fake punt against LSU.

Nick Saban put his reputation on the line. 

Saban has won four national championships. He has built two SEC superpowers. He is the nation's most powerful coach. 

Nothing will take that away.

But Saban has also been a perfectionist. And any mistake he has made, he wants to make up for it. Even if it knocks his public perception if he fails to fix it. 

With the score tied in the second half against LSU in Tuscaloosa, Saban attacked his inner demons with a successful trick play after a timeout. When he used trickeration two years ago after a stoppage in play, it backfired, and his team lost the game.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Nick Saban and Les Miles exchange pleasantries before Saturday night's game.

Saban was rightfully blasted for his decision in 2011 to run a reverse receiver pass that was intercepted by Eric Reid. It cost him possible points as Richardson began to ground down LSU on simple runs. It also cost Richardson a better chance for the a Heisman Trophy.    

The biggest challenge Saban has faced has been LSU. He loved his time in Baton Rouge. The game means so much to him. It was clear in his uncharacteristic joyous emotions after the game

Saban's tireless work ethic is well-documented. He is always dialed in to the game that has given him so much. The 2011 loss probably still sticks with him, especially playing LSU in Tuscaloosa for the first time since that defeat.

Alabama out-executed LSU on the game's most critical play. Here is how it unfolded. 

After a spectacular 3rd-and-short tackle by Craig Loston on T.J. Yeldon, Alabama had the football in its own territory on fourth down. The Crimson Tide lined up for a punt but only had 10 players on the field.

Here is how Alabama's fake punt was drawn up.

Alabama's Landon Collins raced onto the field late in the play clock. Collins told Andrew Gribble of AL.com he was discussing the play call with the coaches. 

As the play clock ticked down, Saban burned a critical timeout early in the second half. This is a massive mistake coaches make too often.

But this time, Saban's timeout led to the play of the game.

Saban said he wanted to run this play against a punt-safe formation, which is unusual. Most coaches do want the defense to line up in a regular punt-return formation to run a fake, but the design of Alabama's fake is to fool a punt-safe formation. 

Before the timeout, LSU was lined up in their regular punt-return setup. But after the timeout, LSU lined up in a more traditional defense as a punt-safe formation. Notice C.J. Mosley calling the play at the line of scrimmage. 

LSU fell for Saban's trap. 

Alabama came out of the timeout in the same formation, but this time LSU adjusted to more traditional defensive alignment to form a punt-safe formation.

LSU probably noticed two keys. The first was the coaches speaking to Collins. The second was Saban burning a critical second-half timeout. 

According to Gribble, upback C.J. Mosley saw the change in the LSU defense and called for the fake. Mosley made the right decision, and the fake was ran to perfection. 

LSU brought back their defensive personnel in the game. They lined up in a 5-3 set to better prepare themselves for a fake. But surprisingly, LSU has no players on the defensive line in a three-point stance. 

LSU believed its defense was better suited for the play. The harsh reality is that the adjustment was the worst possible play to defend what was about to come. 

The ball is directly snapped to Mosley, and he begins to run to his left. But to the surprise of the LSU defense, he is going to hand the ball to Jarrick Williams who is running to the right. 

But it is important to follow the blocking. The left guard, Tana Patrick, the same player who stripped J.C. Copeland in the 1st quarter to prevent the touchdown, of the Alabama line begins to pull to the right. 

On the right side of the Alabama line, the right guard and tackle pulverize LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. Notice in the middle of the LSU defensive line how high their bodies are. This is partially due to them not being in three-point stances before the snap. 

This angle explains why Saban would rather run this play against a punt-safe formation instead of regular punt coverage. The best way to defend against misdirection is with penetration from the defensive line. 

In regular punt coverage, more defensive players are at the line of scrimmage preparing to rush the punter. This creates penetration, thus clogging up Mosley, Patrick and Williams. But because there is no penetration, the trio has acres to operate in the backfield. 

This shows the mesh point between Mosley and Williams. Because Mosley is running to his left, defensive end Danielle Hunter cannot chase Williams in case Mosley does not hand it off. 

Williams begins his run to the right in hopes the hole will open. Johnson continues to get smashed by a double-team as the hole in the C-Gap continues to open.

Jermauria Rasco begins to attack blocker T.J. Yeldon, which is a mismatch especially seeing Yeldon's horrible blocking technique, but a pulling Patrick comes to help. Rasco has contain, but he should have done a better job of smashing into Yeldon to squeeze the hole.

Because Patrick goes to help Yeldon on Rasco, it leaves athletic Kwon Alexander unblocked. The only hope for LSU on this play is if Alexander attacks the play downhill. He seems to be reading the play but remains flat-footed.

The hole becomes wider as Johnson continues to get blasted, and Rasco gets wider. Alexander continues to diagnose the play as Williams approaches the gap. But Alexander is three yards behind the first-down marker.  

Saban chooses not to block Alexander for multiple reasons. He would rather have a pulling Patrick help Yeldon block Rasco. Also, Saban feels the misdirection would leave Alexander flat-footed long enough to allow Williams to gain two yards. 

The gap is now massive as Williams has a clear lane to run through. Alexander strangely takes a step to the right as Williams runs to his left. When it seemed Alexander was reading the play well, he actually gets confused. 

It is all too late as Williams has enough for a first down, which is all the Crimson Tide needed to flip the momentum of the game. 

Alexander does a great job of tracking down Williams and limiting the play to only six yards.

 

Conclusion    

Alexander is LSU's most versatile linebacker. One of his best assets is attacking plays downfield especially when unblocked, which he did brilliantly against UAB

LSU had a tough time reading the play, which is understandable. The play was intricate for a punt fake. But once Alexander saw Johnson double-teamed and Yeldon blocking Rasco, he could have attacked C-Gap to blow Williams up at the line of scrimmage. There was no reason for him to worry about Mosley running in the opposite direction.

Anthony Johnson should have chosen his words more wisely, as his play did not back them up on Saturday.

Alexander and the rest of the defense needs to understand personnel and situation. The LSU defense was soft off the snap, possibly somewhat shocked Alabama ran a fake out of the timeout. All the Crimson Tide need is two yards. 

Also, the LSU linebackers should have come to the pre-snap conclusion Mosley was not going to throw the football. He was the only player the snap could have gone to other than the punter. A linebacker completing a pass for a first down is exponentially small.

Putting all those factors together, LSU should have been a tad bit more aggressive in defending the play.

The defensive call was not the best either from LSU. Coaches need to understand that if a defensive lineman does not have his hand in the ground, he is prone to getting whipped. Alabama blocks most of their plays flawlessly, thus getting two yards is not too difficult no matter the personnel. Johnson also probably should have been a little wider pre-snap as well.

Who do you blame the most for Alabama's conversion on the fake punt?

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Alabama had plenty of luck on the play. Saban called a timeout when the Crimson Tide did not have enough players on the field. LSU lined up in formation for the punt to work after the timeout and took full advantage of it.

Also, to leave a linebacker like Alexander unblocked is a massive risk. Maybe a pulling Patrick blocks Alexander instead, but that probably would not have been enough to prevent him from making a massive stop of Williams at the line of scrimmage.  

The play design by Saban and his coaching staff was magnificent. The call itself was not. 

It worked, and the momentum was flipped. But if Alabama does not convert, it gives the ball to a hot LSU offense in good field position. It would also be the second time in three years Saban resorted to tricks to beat the Tigers. 

The message it sends to his team would be mixed if the play fell short. Why would the No. 1 team in the country resort to bells and whistles against a two-loss team? 

Saban put his reputation on the line and should be given credit for his ambition.

If the play failed and LSU went on to win the game, the media narrative from Saturday would be completely different. People would ask why a traditional coach has to resort to trickery. Is he trying to "out-Les" Les Miles?

Nevertheless, it worked. It sparked Alabama and should give Mosley more Heisman consideration. The Crimson Tide would go on to score a touchdown on the drive, plus two more unanswered after that, to win emphatically.  

And the Saban mythology grew in the process.  

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